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World Literature Paper: Poetry as Philosophy for the Common Man

Poetic works are an accessible way to express philosophical ideas to humanity; to explore and present both the questions and the conundrums that arrest and aggravate us. In many ways, poetic works may be called philosophy for the common man; even as most of the literary canons of the world contains works by people far above “common” by any classification. Perhaps it is more accurately defined as the expressions intended to engage others in consideration of the common experience; a timeless effort to ascertain the purpose and meaning of life.

Poetic works deal with questions ranging from “Is there a god?”  to “Why does this happen?” to “Why am I here?” and all manner of topics dealing with both every-day annoyances and the competing struggles of culture or society; they also postulate and press a universe of perspectives, often poignant and sometimes painful; the many voices of poetry combine to present a tapestry of experience that is as colorful, unexpected, and varied as the experiences of life itself. Common themes in poetry include the effort to reconcile the notion of a supreme being against the experience of a life wherein decidedly ill and uncharitable things happen. The seeming contradiction of a benevolent deity and the awful, sometimes horrific experience of life is one that challenges human perspective for reconciliation. The question, “Is there a god?” is a timeless one that continues to nettle; poetry allows for symbolic expression of this age-old question in ways that avoid outright derision and rejection. Doubt that is else-wise cause for disdain and rejection by society may be challenged and contemplated with relative impunity when given in the artistic form of a poem.

The poem by William Blake, “The Tyger”, is a classic example of poetry as expression of un-reconciled doubt rendered by simile and analogy into the form of the tiger; the various questions of faith and contradiction as perceived by Blake are rendered and attributed to the various aspects of the tiger and the question, hidden in plain sight, is delivered in symbol without sacrilege. Blake ponders both the obvious and opaque when he asks, “What immoral hand or eye / Could frame they fearful symmetry?” (Blake, p.132) The underlying question of contradiction between the traditional view of a benevolent and protective god is herein contrasted against the reality of the fearsome carnivore that preys upon the world without regard. Blake further refines the question to make it all the more pointed; an indirect challenge to deity itself by asking, “Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” (Blake, p.132) The poem does not present an answer, nor does it attempt to find or deliver any hint toward it. In this regard, it is a work of intentional challenge to contemplate the matter, and as such, a challenge directly to the existence of a deity as well as to all the human systems that posit such existence. Yet, delivered in verse as art, the challenge and the questions have lived to this day as an example of literary excellence, and the message of challenge and contemplation as a necessary part of human experience is both held and preserved in the human mind as worthy. In this way, poetry permits and supports accessibility by the common people to the overall human discourse, and provides the avenue by which any reader may engage for themselves both the pursuit of knowledge and, more importantly, understanding.

Likewise, the examination of concepts such as regret, remorse, and consideration of choices made are often difficult and sometimes painful; poetic expression allows for empathy and shared commiseration. In this guise, the poetic work presents the opportunity for examination via the experience of another, safely removing the personal denial or fear of examination by presenting “someone else” enduring the same circumstance; the goal may be said to be the same as in Blake’s work: The opportunity to challenge and reconcile a universal element of human experience, but by use of empathy and similarity as delivered in a poetic work.

The poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”, introduces one of the most common groups of feelings in the human experience: doubt, fear, regret, and remorse. Using a first person narrative that incorporates the symbol of the crossroads – a place where choices are made and the path of a life is directed – he first presents the experiential emotion of cognitive regret that he, as a single human, can only traverse one of the paths standing before him, “And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler, long I stood…” (Washington State University, n.d.). From this point, the doubt that follows every significant choice as well as the fear that the choice, now made, both cannot be unmade and may well result in remorse, Frost continues, “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence:” (Washington State University, n.d.).

As with Blake’s poem, Frost communicates an implicit understanding of the issues surrounding decision and choice as well as heavily implies the need for consideration of them as a means of minimizing the experience of doubt, fear, regret, and remorse. But, in contrast to Blake, Frost’s poem not only conveys the need for consideration and challenges the reader to this end, but delivers a hopeful postulation that is as much a statement of how future events render past doubt impotent as it is an advisory to the reader to remember how choices of the past are the foundation upon which positive present moments are made, “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” (Washington State University, n.d.). Here, the clear difference between Blake and Frost in their perspective and intent toward the reader: While Blake challenges the reader to consider and derive their own conclusion, Frost challenges the reader to identify with the common experience and emotions and then, keep to the hopeful belief that doubt, fear, regret, and remorse will be undone by the positive outcomes which could not be found or known had those choices been otherwise.

In both works, the poetic devices of simile, metaphor, and symbolism permit a manner of examination and expression that is at once direct without being pointed and insistent without being intrusive. Additionally, the poetic conventions of rhyme, meter, alliteration and assonance allow for an emotional induction to communicate feeling as well as deliver intellectual meaning. These works, taken together, share the expression of philosophical ideals and thoughts; in both positive and negative aspects, they communicate the need to consider, the benefits of challenge to the “common knowledge”, and they each support the need for the reader to employ the intellectual process as a means of experiencing a fuller, richer life. Contrasting them against one another, while both pieces deal with philosophical challenge, Blake’s poem introduces by implication the conundrum of contradiction between belief and experiential reality, while Frost relies upon the reconciliation of philosophical unknowns by way of the overall positive nature of the human experience; for there are few humans who, looking back at all, cannot say that where they are today is dramatically less positive than where they were when a specific choice was decided.

In every presentation of poetic works to date, from the ancient efforts of the first poets to the most recent releases by today’s poetic artists, the continuous thread of commonality in poetry as a philosophical expression of the human experience may be found. While the perspectives will vary and the conclusions, when presented, are sometimes declarative, poetry, for the most part, maintains a fascinating balance between prescription and presumption; an open area of thoughtfulness in which any nourishment by the reader will engender within them the growth of new things. It is an easy path one walks to reach the conclusion that poetic works, more than most forms of literature in the world, are specifically honed to express open-ended ideals and present the unanswered questions and quandaries of humanity; regardless cultural or societal mores and often in the face of insistent refusal to acknowledge or accept challenge of the reified “certainties” that the human commons require to effect collaborative progress as a species.

Poetry lends the evocative and often effusive voice of pleasant-yet-persistent disobedience of social and culture norms to the human discourse; it does do by smoothing the sharp edges of long-drawn differences into rhyme, meter, and form and then, serves them up with such passionate insistence that only the mind and heart bereft of engagement in the world could refuse them. While it may be said that any effort of comparative nature focusing upon poetry can find startlingly contradictory conclusions, this is more a statement of the diversity and totality of expressions within the form than any condemnation or recusal of the concept that it is ultimately philosophy rendered as art. Indeed, it has been said that, “Poetry claims to convey meaning in a distinctly ‘non-rational’ way that challenges philosophers to think a bit harder” (Poetry, 2006.).

At core, poetry is the creative expression of a much drier and intellectual science, philosophy. As stated within the Dictionary of World Philosophy, “In creating literary works, one can philosophically address individual, social, or other problems and ways of dealing with them” (Philosophy of Literature, 2001). Clothed in threads woven by common hands, poetry combines the perspectives of historical and current experience and both emphasizes the parallels as well as the extremes of the continuum.

Poetry, in any instance of encounter, is a directly accessible path by which any reader may walk the gardens of intellectual contemplation and do so in the assurance that any lack of formality or ignorance of approved and esteemed academics will not impede. In this fashion, poetry accomplishes for humanity that which all the universities and all the vaunted tomes of higher education cannot; it offers upon humble pages an invitation that is otherwise reserved, and it does so with an earthy and eloquent sincerity that is, itself, as irresistible as the concepts of which it speaks, “Come, come and know me. Come and find within me yourself. Come and together let us speak of the things we must know, be it in mantras, in whispers, in tears, or in screams.” Or, as more succinctly framed by Wittgenstein, “Philosophy should really only be poeticized’ [Philosophie du¨rfte man eigentlich nur dichten] . . . As for poetry, one could say . . . that poetry should really only be philosophized” (Monroe, 2009.).

The presence of poetic works in the world is both an accidental gift as well as a purposeful one. From time immemorial, the human need to express itself as a path by which to understand itself has persisted; poetry is very likely the most fundamental evidence of this ongoing exploration within the annals of literature.


Blake, W. (2000). The Tyger. (p. 132). Southern Review.
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Monroe, J. (2009). Philosophy, Poetry, Parataxis. European Legacy, 14(5), 599.
Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database.

Philosophy of literature. (2001). In Dictionary of World Philosophy.
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Poetry. (2006). In The Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics.
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Washington State University. (n.d.). Frost: The Road Not Taken.
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