The HyperTexts

Sentimental Poetry: Is it Invariably Bad and to be Avoided at All Costs? Is it Wrong to Like It?

Is there something intrinsically bad about sentimental poetry? Is it wrong to like it? If we like sentimental songs like "Auld Lang Syne" and "Candle in the Wind," should we be deeply ashamed to also like sentimental poems like "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and "Tears, Idle Tears"?

by Michael R. Burch

Sentimental poetry has become the red-headed stepchild of the literary world. This is how the Wikipedia page on sentimental poetry describes the genre:
"Sentimental poetry is a melodramatic poetic form. It is aimed primarily at stimulating the emotions rather than at communicating experience truthfully. Bereavement is a common theme of sentimental poetry."
Thus sentimental poetry is overwrought and untruthful, and bereavement is probably best avoided by "serious" poets. But are we hearing the whole story? Ironically, the first source cited by the Wikipedia page is Friedrich Schiller's On Naive and Sentimental Poetry. Presumably this text is being offered to reinforce the idea that sentimental poetry is literary trash. But Schiller opined that all poetry is either naive (involving direct descriptions and/or narratives of nature) or sentimental (involving abstract self-reflections on the part of the poet). And it seems obvious that Schiller considered himself to be a sentimental poet because he did more than just "tell it like he saw it." Also, because William Shakespeare was often deeply self-reflective, by Schiller's definition he was a sentimental poet. And there would be many other outstanding sentimental poets, including William Blake, Louise Bogan, Robert Burns, e. e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Langston Hughes, A. E. Housman, John Keats, Sylvia Plath, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Sir Thomas Wyatt and William Butler Yeats, just to name a few.

Much depends on how we define the term "sentimental." The primary definition of "sentimental" relates to "feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia." There is nothing intrinsically bad or wrong about tenderness, sadness or nostalgia. Human beings are, by nature, sentimental creatures. We weep easily, and not always over matters of great import. If I buy my wife a sentimental gift, that could be a very good thing in her eyes, which might water as a result. "Danny Boy," "Shenandoah" and "Greensleeves" are ultra-sentimental songs, but they have withstood the test of time and are still being sung today. The poems Ben Jonson wrote for the son and daughter he lost are sentimental poems about bereavement. They are not "melodramatic," nor do they "stimulate emotions" at the expense of truthfulness. Rather, they are both truthful and moving.

I think we must differentiate between sentiment (tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia) and sentimentality (forced or excessive attempts at stirring feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia). When we see poets trying to force or manipulate readers into unwarranted feelings, that is sentimentalism at work.

I disagree with the Wikipedia page because there are good sentimental poems and bad sentimental poems, just as there are good and bad poems about nature, love, etc. When we read a bad nature poem, we don't condemn the whole genre. When we read a bad poem in which the poet engages in sentimentalism and doesn't convince us to feel anything but annoyance, we shouldn't condemn all sentimental poetry.

But somehow an irrational prejudice against sentimental poetry has developed in modern literary circles. And it's not the only irrational prejudice: there are others against abstractions, personifications, praise, meter, rhyme, even adjectives and adverbs. But in each case there are both good and bad examples. For instance, Donne's "Busy old fool, unruly sun" is personification that works so well few readers will blink an eye. We don't want to remove all or most adjectives and adverbs from Shakespeare's poems, plays and songs because he used them so well. Rather than being prejudiced against potentially good things, it seems better to evaluate each poem on its own merits. Great poets can get away with things lesser poets can't, just as Michael Jordan was able to throw down amazing dunks while most of us couldn't get a shot off in the NBA.

I believe all a contrarian has to do, in order to prove literary theories incorrect, is provide examples that succeed while violating the theorists' assertions. Toward that end, I have provided examples of what I believe to be wonderfully successful sentimental poems, at the bottom of this page.

I was prompted to write this protest after I was informed about advice given by Susan McLean on the poetry forum Eratosphere to Vera Ignatowitsch, the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Better Than Starbucks. McLean suggested that BTS should reconsider using the term "sentimental poetry" for a section of the journal with that title. This is what McLean said:
 I think "sentimental" these days has taken on such negative associations that it is not going to attract many readers, but readers do often enjoy poems that evoke emotion.
McLean does not seem to be whipping the red-headed stepchild unmercifully herself, but only to be cautioning against the use of the term "sentimental poetry." However, I disagree with her about the use of the term, because I think there are many good sentimental poems in the English poetry canon, some of which I have provided below. My arguments here are not directed against McLean, but against what I believe has become an almost universal disdain for the term "sentimental" among contemporary poetry critics, editors and many (if not most) poets. The rest of the world apparently thinks "sentimental" can be good. Why have so many literary types drawn a very different conclusion?

Eratosphere—I have come to think of the forum as Erratic Sphere—has been known to produce loopy literary theories. I was briefly a member there, years ago, when I noticed that some of the senior poets seemed to be ganging up on a younger poet, Jesse Anger, who had posted poems that might be called "sentimental" or "romantic." I thought Anger's poems were promising and displayed talent. But some of the critiques seemed catty, snarky, even cutting. So I decided to test the waters by submitting one of my more romantic poems, "Love Has a Southern Flavor." I was dumbfounded by the irrational advice I received in response. I was told not to use the word "love" in a love poem. I was told to avoid abstractions and the mildest of personifications. I was advised by one of the moderators, W. F. Lantry, not to refer to the South in a poem because he had encountered racism there. I pointed out to Lantry that all the northern states were created via ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, so there was obviously racism above the Mason-Dixon line. I was then instructed, in effect, to shut up. The catty, snarky, irrational theorists could say whatever they pleased, but I had to hold my tongue. So I created a page on my literary journal, The HyperTexts, where I made the ironic observation that Erato was the abstract personification of love poetry. The great thinkers who theorized that poetry should never employ the word "love," abstractions or personifications were posting in the "Deep End" of a forum named after the Muse of everything they despised! The next day I was informed by a robot that I had been banned from Eratosphere for life, without a trial or even a hearing.

So I am not a fan of Erratic Sphere and I think its "Deep End" has been appropriately named. The forum did not impress me as a repository of independent thinking. I believe my experience there suggests that contemporary poets can and do parrot ideas that make absolutely no sense. It was amusing to hear contemporary formalists echoing the worst ideas of their free verse nemeses: "No ideas but in things! Use only concrete images! Fear abstractions!" If abstractions have no place in poetry, what does one do with the soliloquies of Shakespeare and Milton, or the direct statement poems of A. E. Housman? But getting back to the subject at hand ...

To demonstrate how pervasive the prejudice against sentimental poetry has become, let's consider the closest and most sentimental relationship in the lives of most human beings: the one between mother and child. How many of us have not been overwhelmed by overtly sentimental thoughts about our mothers and all they have done for us, if we are lucky enough to have good mothers? And yet how many overtly sentimental poems do we find modern poets writing about their mothers? (In my defense, I have written sentimental poems about my mother. One of them finished first in a big Valentine's Day poetry contest sponsored by Penguin Books UK several years ago. But I'm sure my poem would be rejected on sight by any self-respecting major literary journal.)

Returning to the Wikipedia definition, is it more honest to write what we really feel, or to keep our real feelings hidden in the closet so that we can appear to be "serious" poets to the literary world? I encourage all poets to write highly sentimental poems to their mothers. But will they blush with shame if a "literary personage" happens to read them?

Well, that is my case for sentimental poetry—the good kind. I will now offer what I believe to be stellar examples of sentimental poems by some of the best English language poets. If these poems were submitted to the major literary journals today, I believe most of them would be rejected out of hand. I'm glad there are a few journals that would be delighted to publish them, including Better Than Starbucks and The HyperTexts.

The best sentimental poems, at least in one person's opinion, include the ones listed below. You can read any or all of the poems by clicking this link:

The Best Sentimental Poems in the English Language

Requiescat by Oscar Wilde
When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats
The Wild Swans at Coole by William Butler Yeats
Music When Soft Voices Die (To —) by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Song for the Last Act by Louise Bogan
Cradle Song by William Blake
Come Lord and Lift by Tom Merrill
How Do I Love Thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas
Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas
Song by Christina Rossetti
Piano by D. H. Lawrence
Bread and Music by Conrad Aiken
Full Fathom Five by William Shakespeare
Tears, Idle Tears by Lord Alfred Tennyson
A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns
Do not stand at my grave and weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye

It also bears noting that some of the most popular songs of all time are sentimental:

Danny Boy
When Johnny Comes Marching Home
Ave Maria
Bridge Over Troubled Water
by Simon and Garfunkel
A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke
Blowin' in the Wind by Bob Dylan
All I Could Do Was Cry by Etta James
I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry by Hank Williams Sr.
Crying by Roy Orbison
Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton
Bohemian Rhapsody by Freddie Mercury and Queen
Candle in the Wind by Elton John
Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers
Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley
Hurt by Johnny Cash and Nine Inch Nails
Dust in the Wind by Kansas
Nothing Compares 2 U by Prince and Sinead O'Connor
Go Rest High on That Mountain by Vince Gill
He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones
Everybody Hurts by R.E.M.
Mad World by Gary Jules and Adam Lambert
We Are the World written by Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson, produced by Quincy Jones, and performed by USA for Africa
... and many others!

The HyperTexts