In the early 1900s, a revival occurred in which writers turned, again, to create poetic dramas. These are seen worldwide, including in the works of W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, and later, in the works of T.S. Eliot.
Explore Poetic Drama
Poetic dramas include colloquial dialogue, as seen in most prose plays, and poetic elements that feel elevated and serious. The best-known examples are experimental in nature and include elements of classical poetry and prose as well as contemporary literary devices and themes.
The inclusion of poetic elements in drama can make the most important scenes in a play, such as the main character’s death in a tragedy, feel moving. Often, poetic dramatists intentionally elevate their language, complicate the syntax, and include language that the average audience member may not immediately understand in order to create some distance between the audience and the scene playing out in front of them.
Characteristics of Poetic Drama
- Characters talk in verse.
- Generally more elevated language.
- Poetic drama can alienate viewers from what they see on stage.
Examples of Poetic Drama
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
When readers think of poetic drama, William Shakespeare’s name and plays likely come to mind. He is best known for his tragedies, comedies, and histories, all of which use elements of poetic drama. Often, within his work, characters speak in verse. This is often structured as blank verse, that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains ten beats. These ten beats, or syllables, can be divided into five sets of two. The first syllable in each set of two is unstressed, and the second is stressed.
Additionally, Shakespeare often utilized verse when writing dialogue for royalty, aristocracy, and for characters who viewed themselves as more important or above those around them. Consider these lines for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s best-known comedy:
Or, if there were a sympathy in choice,
War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentany as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and Earth,
And, ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up.
So quick bright things come to confusion.
Explore Wiliam Shakespeare’s poetry.
Samson Agonistes by John Milton
Samson Agonistes is Milton’s best-known verse drama. It is a tragedy that was published along with Paradise Regained in 1671. It was inspired by the story of Samson from the Old Testament and begins with Samson being captured by the Philistines. His eyes are cut out, and his hair is cut off. He is, as Milton wrote in these lines:
Blind among enemies,
O worse then chains,
Dungeon, or beggery, or decrepit age!
Light the prime work of God to me is extinct
And all her various objects of delight
Annull’d, which might in part my grief have eas’d,
Inferiour to the vilest now become
Of man or worm; the vilest here excel me,
They creep, yet see, I dark in light expos’d
Explore John Milton’s poetry.
The Borderers by William Wordsworth
The Borderers is a five-act tragedy and was one of William Wordsworth’s early important works. It was written in 1796 and 1797. Within it, scholars have noted evidence of Wordsworth’s later style and works. Here are a few lines are spoken by Marmaduke towards the beginning of the play that demonstrates the style Wordsworth used throughout:
I do more,
I honour him. Strong feelings to his heart
Are natural; and from no one can be learnt
More of man’s thoughts and ways than his experience
Has given him power to teach: and then for courage
And enterprise—what perils hath he shunned?
What obstacles hath he failed to overcome?
Answer these questions, from our common knowledge,
And be at rest.
Wiliam Shakespeare’s plays are examples of poetic dramas, as are contemporary works like The Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot. These plays contain poetic elements, like rhyming lines, and more commonly, lines that are written in blank verse. They might also be structured in a way that makes them appear more like stanzas than paragraphs or individual lines of dialogue.
Poetry is written in stanzas, sometimes rhymes, and sometimes follows a metrical pattern. It is shorter than drama and prose. The latter refers to works composed of sentences and paragraphs. These can be fiction or non-fiction. Dramas are literary works performed on stage. They are composed entirely of dialogue and stage directions.
Drama lacks the poetic elements that poetic drama demonstrates. Characters (some or all) speak in verse, and the author uses elevated language that sets the characters’ dialogue apart from that which is seen in normal drama.
Related Literary Terms
- Academic Drama: a theatrical movement popular during the Renaissance in the 16th-century. It was performed in universities.
- Act: a primary division of a dramatic work, like a play, film, opera, or other performance. The act is made up of shorter scenes.
- Drama: a mode of storytelling that uses dialogue and performance. It’s one of several important literary genres that authors engage with.
- Dramatization: is used to describe a play or film that’s adapted from a novel or a real event.
- Epic Theatre: a theatrical movement that began in the early twentieth century and last through the middle of the period. It consisted of new political dramas and was inspired by the social climate of the time.
- Tragedy: refers to a type of drama that explores serious, sometimes dark, and depressing subject matter.
- Read: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Read: Samson Agonistes by John Milton
- Read: The Borderers by William Wordsworth