Can Poetry Be Bad for You?

George Dunlop Leslie, "Woman Reading"

In my Theories of the Reader course, we are preparing to read Wayne Booth, who makes an interesting point about literature’s influence.  Many of us argue that literature is good for us, but Booth says this claim is meaningful only if we allow the possibility that some literature can also be bad for us. Otherwise we are like bad scientists, choosing to look at only that evidence that confirms what we already believe.

Booth notes that liberals don’t like to talk about literature having a bad impact because they fear sounding like elitist snobs (“it can harm those who, unlike us, fail to see the dangers”) or even prudes in favor of censorship (“we need to keep the book out of the hands of those who can’t handle it”).  Of course, in this day and age censors almost sound quaint in thinking that literature can make a difference. Censorship is unnecessary if no one is reading anyway.

But going back to an a time when people did a lot of reading, it’s interesting to look at a Jane Austen passage that grapples with this issue.  In Persuasion, Anne Elliott sees the poetry of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott as having a potentially deleterious effect on weak minds. Captain Benwick has turned to their poetry to console himself over the death of his fiancé, and Anne is worried that, rather than doing him good, poetry is just encouraging him to wallow in self pity.  She recommends to him, almost as a bracing tonic, moralistic essays. She may well have in mind, among others, the Rambler and Idler essays of Samuel Johnson.  Here’s the passage:

[I]t fell to Anne’s lot to be placed rather apart with Captain Benwick; and a very good impulse of her nature obliged her to begin an acquaintance with him. He was shy, and disposed to abstraction; but the engaging mildness of her countenance, and gentleness of her manners, soon had their effect; and Anne was well repaid the first trouble of exertion. He was evidently a young man of considerable taste in reading, though principally in poetry; and besides the persuasion of having given him at least an evening’s indulgence in the discussion of subjects, which his usual companions had probably no concern in, she had the hope of being of real use to him in some suggestions as to the duty and benefit of struggling against affliction, which had naturally grown out of their conversation. For, though shy, he did not seem reserved: it had rather the appearance of feelings glad to burst their usual restraints; and having talked of poetry, the richness of the present age, and gone through a brief comparison of opinion as to the first-rate poets, trying to ascertain whether Marmion [Scott] or The Lady of the Lake [Scott] were to be preferred, and how ranked the Giaour [Byron] and The Bride of Abydos [Byron], and moreover, how the Giaour was to be pronounced, he shewed himself so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated with such tremulous feeling the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.

His looks showing him not pained, but pleased with this allusion to his situation, she was emboldened to go on; and feeling in herself the right of seniority of mind, she ventured to recommend a larger allowance of prose in his daily study; and on being requested to particularize, mentioned such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering, as occurred to her at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances.

Scott and Byron have one salutary effect: they manage to seduce a suddenly weak-minded Louisa Musgrove, who falls in love with Benwick as they read them together, thereby freeing up Wentworth to marry Anne. But that doesn’t mean that Austen thinks it is healthy for Louisa.

Here’s my favorite poem from Scott’s Lady of the Lake, which I read in a poetry contest (winning second place) when I was a high school freshman. I found it terribly romantic then. I’ve moved on since, which may confirm Anne’s point that Benwick needs to be an adult:

Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking:
Dream of battled fields no more,
Days of danger, nights of waking.
In our isle’s enchanted hall,
Hands unseen thy couch are strewing,
Fairy strains of music fall,
Every sense in slumber dewing.
Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking,
Morn of toil, nor night of waking.

No rude sound shall reach thine ear,
Armour’s clang, or war-steed champing,
Trump nor pibroch summon here
Mustering clan, or squadron tramping.
Yet the lark’s shrill fife may come
At the day-break from the fallow,
And the bittern sound his drum,
Booming from the sedgy shallow.
Ruder sounds shall none be near,
Guards nor warders challenge here,
Here’s no war-steed’s neigh and champing,
Shouting clans or squadrons stamping.

Huntsman, rest! thy chase is done,
While our slumbrous spells assail ye,
Dream not, with the rising sun,
Bugles here shall sound reveillé.
Sleep! the deer is in his den;
Sleep! thy hounds are by thee lying;
Sleep! nor dream in yonder glen,
How thy gallant steed lay dying.
Huntsman, rest; thy chase is done,
Think not of the rising sun,
For at dawning to assail ye,
Here no bugles sound reveillé.

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  • Literature can certainly be dangerous. There was a man who accosted me in a Spanish hostel because he saw me reading some articles on Old English poetry (it was the closest anyone’s ever come to saying “Help! Is there an English major in the house?!”). He wanted to know my thoughts on his beliefs that literature should be strictly censored, especially for children. Apparently this fellow got his hands on a copy of Crime and Punishment when he was eighteen and was consumed with nihilism and the concept of the Superman. So he and his buddy built a pipe bomb and were going to commit some random violence. Luckily, someone found the bomb and derailed their plans. He felt very guilty about this and explained that it was all because of that book.

    I don’t think we can consciously choose to allow only the good books to affect us. We should just hope that in the worst of times we don’t happen to read the wrong book. There’s also an argument in there about why we need English teachers — to help us with the potentially dangerous works.

  • Phoebe Bates

    How about this excerpt from “Pride and Prejudice?”
    Mrs. Bennet:” When she (Jane) was only fifteen, there was a gentleman at my brother Gardiner’s in town so much in love with her that my sister-in-law was sure he would make her an offer before we came away. But, however, he did not. Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were.”
    “And so ended his affection,” said Elizabeth impatiently. “There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!”
    “I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,’ said Darcy.
    “Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”

  • Robin Bates

    Hello, mother. I can’t believe that I’ve been teaching Jane Austen for years, including entire courses on the reading that occurs in them, and have never thought to focus on this passage. It’s perfect. And very funny.

    My sense is that Austen heroines are seldom great readers. At least their reading isn’t talked about a great deal (Catherine Morland being a notable exception). Then again, Elizabeth does choose a book over cards when she is visiting the Bingleys.

  • Robin Bates

    What a story, Sam. It’s hard to imagine Dostoevsky’s novel inspiring someone to build a bomb–after all, as I recall (not having read C&P since high school) Raskolnikov ends up rejecting the Nietzschean superman stance and accepting Sonia’s spirituality–but I suppose one can take almost anything away from a book. Maybe the answer is yours, that young people need good teachers. I’ve been looking at your very interesting website ( and see that you are a teacher yourself and so know first hand just how impressionable young people can be.

    By the way, I love your website’s subtitle: What if literature is a matter of life and death?

  • Phoebe Bates

    Hi, Robin! Just a footnote on your Dostoevsky exchange: Don’t forget our Senior English major who burned down our theater and language building after reading him. It was either Crime and Punishment or The Brothers K. He was briefly at a mental facility, and then became a prof of English Lit. Love, Papa

  • Robin,

    You’re right about the ending — that’s exactly what I told him! If only he had had someone to explain the meaning of the ending. I also told the guy something about catharsis and how art can purge us.

    Thanks for the kind words about my site! I enjoy BLTB very much.

  • Carl Rosin

    I enjoyed this column (and all the comments!) very much, all the moreso because C&P and P&P are two of my favorites. (I loved the coda to Mr. Bates, Sr.’s comment about how the disturbed vandal later became a professor.) I had discussions along the lines of the one Sam brings up when I taught C&P with gifted HS sophomores for many years. Too young? Well, not with appropriate mediation, which is why he and I have jobs.

    But C&P inspires a crackpot theory (still working on it…): literary danger — not in plot, but in idea — correlates with potential value. The power of a Crime & Punishment, the ideas about humility, religion, morality, etc., is made possible by the way the concept grabs us readers. Lolita strikes me as another powerful case study. Of course, anything that can grab so acutely may injure as well. On the other hand, I think of books like American Psycho, where the controversy itself may be the whole of the engagement. Is the spire of irony visible over the roofline of conflict?

    What do you think?

  • Andrew Burkhart

    I’m going to open a can of worms with this observation (be it ever so true!) but of all my friends, and of all the humans I’ve met in my brief sojourn here on Earth of 26 years, the ones the most spiritual are always those who are (to use a certain phrase) fictionally obsessed.

    How fiction reading affects the social centers of the brain is very interesting – a study in Scientific American mind called fiction a type of ‘social battle field’, where your brain is forced to plow through the mud of intercoarse and go through its nuances (“What did she mean by x.. what was his reaction, how was his face, what did her glare have to do with it, am I certain Im interpreting her statement correctly? What happens next? Wait, maybe she meant this? Well let’s see! Etc”- in short, reading fiction is a game of social interaction.

    There are predispositions that come with this – people are well read in fiction tend to be more adventurous, impulsive, eager to jump ship and try something or someplace new.

    Per the grand scheme of things and how fiction relates to thjis, I recall a quote by E.O. Wilson, which was actually the first thing on my Introduction to the Bible Syllabus my professor chose to great his new students:

    ‘To wit, people must belong to a tribute; they yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here.”

    The theme of the Scientific American article and the studies focusing on fiction reading in the brain is just that fiction readers tend to have hyper sensitive social centers and tend to be the most spiritual – I do not know if the reverse is true, nor wish to ask whether this is good or bad. Some of the best fiction writers were not good people, others are good people who write nothing: I just think reading narratives sensitizes the empathetic instincts, which is good.

  • Mr. Bates,

    Poetry is like walking through a city, of all neighborhoods and cultures. There needs to be intuition, and the notion when to walk and not run, for survival, also say like near a strange dog (getting to know the dog). A balance is needed, when learning to write as growth. This is a very good subject, that takes a great long while to think about and discuss… Love this post and comments… Thanks

    Good Day-

  • Mr. Bates,

    I found this video on youtube about Kathy Acker..

  • This is great Mr. Bates perfect for this discussion
    Georges Bataille : Literature And Evil

  • Pingback: Prescribing Lit for What Ails Us()


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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