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‘A Poison Tree’ is the greatest poem in the English canon – Michael Dalvean

What is the best poem in the English canon? We tend to avoid terms such as best and greatest when discussing the arts because we like to think that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There has been a plethora of neurocognitive research in the last two decades which has shown that this is not the case and that there are some very stable features of aesthetic judgement that transcend culture, time and place.

Given this basis we should be able to isolate the features that lead to a poem surviving through the ages to be anthologised many years after it first appears.

Before getting too far into this discussion I should point out one caveat: quality does not equal popularity, although they are linked. To put this into context, consider to average pop concert-goer’s reaction to their favourite pop star. They will claim that the star instantiates all that is good, noble, talented etc. The fact is that most pop music will disappear because it lacks basic aesthetic quality. Do those people who loved going to David Cassidy concerts in the 1970s really think he would be lauded for his musical contributions in 2020? Each decade throws up another set of performers for public consumption and eventual dismissal. Consider Bobby Goldsboro in the 1960s, Johnny Ray in the 1950s, the Mills Brothers in the 1930s and 1940s and Al Jolson in the late 1920s and 1930s. Certainly these individuals were highly successful and had hoards of admirers at the time they were famous. But if we compare them to Billie Holiday or Edith Piaf we know that there was a sensibility that Billie and Edith had which the others did not. The problem is that it takes time for this sifting process to occur because we are too emotionally attached to the performers that we and our peers hear as we are growing up. I hesitate to name a great pop singer from the contemporary period because there is a danger that any singer I nominate is appealing to me because of contextual factors, such as marketing, peer pressure etc. The same cannot be said of performers that were around before I was around. Thus, I am more willing to state that such performers were either great or not great. The effluxion of time means that the aesthetic qualities come to the fore while the contextual qualities recede. If a piece lacks aesthetic quality then its influence will wane with time.

Having said this I should point out that it is the realisation of the influence of contextual factors that leads me to usually avoid discussions of what is good/bad in contemporary pop music. Lou Reed and Justin Bieber, for example, seem to me to lack serious musical talent and, in my opinion, were successful due to very effective (mainly visual) marketing designed to target particular segments of the music consuming demographic. But I can’t be sure of this; I may have to wait another 50 years or so so really judge effectively.

In short, any hedonic product has an extrinsic popular appeal and an intrinsic aesthetic appeal. Very few musicians would disagree with the proposition that Billie Holiday was a great musician. She was also popular. Thus, she had aesthetic appeal and popular appeal. However, very few musicians would entertain the idea that the Mills Brothers were great (rather than competent) musicians yet they had great popular appeal. The problem is that, if we were musing on the same performers in the 1930s or 1940s, we might be carried along by the hysteria and proclaim that the Mills Brothers were great.

The point I am trying to make here is that a pure aesthetic judgement is difficult because we need to tease apart the two different sources of perceptions of greatness the extrinsic and the intrinsic.

Let us now apply this to poetry. One of the most popular poets in terms of success as we know it was George Gordon, Lord Byron. In the early 1800s he lived like a modern celebrity. Very few English poets have had the kind of success and admiration that Byron had. However, a large part of this was due to his popular appeal at the time. The bad boy image was used very well to create a persona beyond the man (how little things have changed!!) and much of his appeal was due to such factors. But when a modern critic is asked about Byron they may point out that Byron was certainly highly talented but that his work as a whole was probably not as good as that of Keats and was certainly not as well-crafted as Wordsworth’s. Yet neither Keats nor Wordsworth had anywhere near the following Byron had.

The question is, how do we disentangle the popular appeal from the literary appeal? That is, how to we determine what is extrinsically good about a poem (what appeals to the contemporary audience) and what is intrinsically good (what could appeal to any given audience)?

To answer this question we need a corpus of canonical English poems. The idea of basing this analysis on canonical poems is that poems that are part of the canon are regarded as having some mix of both popular (extrinsic) and literary (intrinsic) appeal. Thankfully, Richard Forsyth has provided such a corpus.

Forsyth (2000) made a count of poems in poetry anthologies to find the most anthologised poems. He looked at twenty poetry anthologies published between 1966 and 1997 and included in his corpus those poems that were included in at least 5 anthologies. He came up with a selection of 85. The 85 poems that are highly anthologised are listed here in alphabetical order of author:

Poet

Poem

Anon

Sir Patrick Spens

Arnold, M

Dover Beach

Auden, WH

Musee des Beaux Arts

Blake, W

A Poison Tree

Blake, W

London

Blake, W

The Sick Rose

Blake, W

The Tiger

Blake, W

From Milton

Brooke, R

The Soldier

Browning, EB

Sonnet 43

Browning, R

Meeting at Night

Browning, R

Home Thoughts

Browning, R

My Last Duchess

Burns, R

My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose

Byron, GG

So We’ll Go No More A Roving

Byron, GG

She Walks in Beauty

Carroll, L

Jabberwocky

Clare, J

Written in Northhampton County Assylum

Coleridge, ST

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Coleridge, ST

Kubla Khan

Delamere, W

The Listeners

Dickinson, E

Because I could not Stop for Death

Donne, J

Holy Sonnet X

Donne, J

The Goodmorrow

Drayton, M

Since There’s no Help

Eliot, TS

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Frost, R

Stopping by Woods

Gray, T

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Hardy, T

Afterwards

Hardy, T

The Darkling Thrush

Herbert, G

The Collar

Herbert, G

Love III

Herrick, R

To the Virgins

Hood, T

Past and Present

Hopkins, GM

The Windhover

Hopkins, GM

Pied Beauty

Houseman AE

A Shropshire Lad

Hunt, JL

Abou Ben Adhem

Johnson, B

To Celia

Keats, J

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Keats, J

On First Looking

Keats, J

To Autumn

Keats, J

Ode to a Nightingale

Keats, J

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Kipling R

If

Kipling R

The Way Through

Larkin, P

The Whitsun Weddings

Lawrence DH

Snake

Lear, E

The Owl and the Pussycat

Lovelace, R

To Lucasta Going to the Wars

Macneice, L

Snow

Marlowe, C

The Passionate Shepherd to his Love

Marvell, A

To His Coy Mistress

Masefield J

Seafever

Masefield J

Cargoes

Milton, J

On his Blindness

Nashe, T

Song from Summer

Owen, W

Strange Meeting

Owen, W

Anthem for the Doomed

Reed, H

Naming of Parts

Rossetti, CG

Song

Shakespeare, W

XXIX

Shakespeare, W

CXVI

Shakespeare, W

Fear no More

Shakespeare, W

XVIII

Shakespeare, W

A Sea Dirge

Shelley, PB

Ozymandias

Shelley, PB

Ode to the West Wind

Smith, S

Not Waving but Drowning

Suckling, J

Song

Tennyson, A

Ulysses

Thomas, DM

Fern Hill

Thomas, DM

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Thomas, E

Adelstrop

Tichborne, M

Elegy Written with his Own Hand..

Wolfe, C

The Burial of Sir John Moore

Wordsworth, W

The World is Too Much with Us

Wordsworth, W

Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey

Wordsworth, W

Daffodils

Wordsworth, W

The Solitary Reaper

Wordsworth, W

Lines Composed on Westminster Bridge

Wyatt, T

They Flee from Me

Yeats, WB

The Lake Isle of Innesfree

Yeats, WB

Sailing to Byzantium

Yeats, WB

The Second Coming

The problem here is that, although we know that these poems have both popular and literary appeal, we cannot tell whether a given poem is highly anthologised because of it’s popular or its literary appeal. Thus we need a method of distilling the literary appeal from the literary and popular appeal.

To do this we can draw again from Forsyth’s work. As part of his analysis, Forsyth collected a control group of obscure poems to compare with the popular poems. This control group was matched with its popular counterpart by gender of the poet and approximate date of birth.

With this group of popular highly anthologised poems and a control group of obscure poems, we can now call upon machine learning to come up with a ranking of the corpus based on their intrinsic differences.

To do this I used computational linguistics and machine learning to give each popular poem a score on the basis of its linguistic characteristics in comparison to the obscure poems. The full method used to do this is described in an article due to be published this month in Empirical Studies of the Arts under the title ‘Ranking Canonical English Poems’. The method is similar to that used in Dalvean (2015).

Basically, the method first involved breaking down each poem into linguistic variables using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). I then used machine learning to see what the linguistic differences are between the highly anthologised poems and the obscure poems. The linguistic signature of the highly anthologised poems included the following variables and coefficient signs:

Inclusive words (+ve). These are words such as ‘and’, ‘plus’ and ‘we’.

Function Words (+ve). These are words that have no content but serve as the basis for holding language together. Adverbial particles such as ‘to’, ‘in’ and ‘up’ are good examples.

Causation words (+ve). These are words such as ‘because’, ‘solve’ and ‘affect’.

Leisure words (+ve). These are words such as ‘art’, ‘sing’ and ‘fantasy’.

Sadness words (-ve). These are words such as ‘sad’, ‘cry’ and ‘loss’

Positive emotion (-ve). These are words such as ‘joy’, ‘easy’ and ‘true’.

With this signature it is possible to rank the 85 highly anthologised poems according to the extent to which they exemplify these characteristics. Using leave-one-out cross validation (LOOCV) the poems were ranked by their logistic score (between 0 and 1). The LOOCV accuracy was 69%. The scores are presented in the table below. The higher the score the greater the literary appeal and a score below .5 indicates a poem that has more in common with obscure poems than with the canon.

Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’ is the highest scorer while many stalwarts of the canon have more in common with the obscure poems than the canon.

How do we know that this is not merely a measure of popularity? Consider that the most popular poem is Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ with 16 appearances in 20 anthologies but its ranking is only 0.36. Thus, the ranking seems to be distilling something beyond mere popularity. On the basis of the method, we could say that the quality elicited is aesthetic quality.

Contact: admin@michaeldalvean.com

References:

Dalvean, M. (in press). ‘Ranking canonical English poems’. Empirical Studies of the Arts.

Dalvean, M. (2015). ‘Ranking contemporary American poems’. Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 30(1): 6-19.

Forsyth, R. S. (2000). Pops and flops: Some properties of famous English poems. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 18(1): 49-67.

List of Poems by Ranking:

Poet

Poem

Score

Blake, W

A Poison Tree

0.98

Houseman AE

A Shropshire Lad

0.94

Marlowe, C

The Passionate Shepherd to his Love

0.91

Tichborne, M

Elegy Written with his Own Hand..

0.9

Thomas, E

Adelstrop

0.9

Reed, H

Naming of Parts

0.9

Macneice, L

Snow

0.85

Wolfe, C

The Burial of Sir John Moore

0.85

Byron, GG

So We’ll Go No More A Roving

0.85

Kipling R

If

0.83

Masefield J

Seafever

0.83

Donne, J

Holy Sonnet X

0.83

Donne, J

The Goodmorrow

0.77

Johnson, B

To Celia

0.76

Lawrence DH

Snake

0.75

Larkin, P

The Whitsun Weddings

0.74

Drayton, M

Since There’s no Help

0.74

Carroll, L

Jabberwocky

0.74

Eliot, TS

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

0.73

Marvell, A

To His Coy Mistress

0.72

Browning, R

Meeting at Night

0.72

Wordsworth, W

The World is Too Much with Us

0.71

Thomas, DM

Fern Hill

0.71

Dickinson, E

Because I could not Stop for Death

0.71

Yeats, WB

The Lake Isle of Innesfree

0.69

Delamere, W

The Listeners

0.67

Tennyson, A

Ulysses

0.67

Herbert, G

The Collar

0.66

Coleridge, ST

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

0.65

Shakespeare, W

XXIX

0.65

Shakespeare, W

CXVI

0.64

Keats, J

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

0.64

Hood, T

Past and Present

0.64

Clare, J

Written in Northhampton County Assylum

0.63

Keats, J

On First Looking

0.61

Lear, E

The Owl and the Pussycat

0.61

Kipling R

The Way Through

0.61

Herrick, R

To the Virgins

0.6

Keats, J

To Autumn

0.6

Browning, EB

Sonnet 43

0.58

Shakespeare, W

Fear no More

0.58

Owen, W

Strange Meeting

0.57

Wordsworth, W

Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey

0.57

Wyattt, T

They Flee from Me

0.56

Hunt, JL

Abou Ben Adhem

0.56

Wordsworth, W

Daffodils

0.56

Browning, R

Home Thoughts

0.55

Thomas, DM

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

0.55

Yeats, WB

Sailing to Byzantium

0.54

Shelley, PB

Ozymandias

0.52

Rossetti, CG

Song

0.52

Hardy, T

Afterwards

0.52

Browning, R

My Last Duchess

0.51

Smith, S

Not Waving but Drowning

0.5

Shelley, PB

Ode to the West Wind

0.49

Milton, J

On his Blindness

0.49

Keats, J

Ode to a Nightingale

0.48

Wordsworth, W

The Solitary Reaper

0.45

Coleridge, ST

Kubla Khan

0.45

Anon

Sir Patrick Spens

0.45

Frost, R

Stopping by Woods

0.45

Burns, R

My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose

0.45

Lovelace, R

To Lucasta Going to the Wars

0.44

Keats, J

Ode on a Grecian Urn

0.42

Hopkins, GM

The Windhover

0.41

Wordsworth, W

Lines Composed on Westminster Bridge

0.4

Masefield J

Cargoes

0.38

Shakespeare, W

XVIII

0.37

Arnold, M

Dover Beach

0.36

Brooke, R

The Soldier

0.35

Shakespeare, W

A Sea Dirge

0.35

Herbert, G

Love III

0.33

Byron, GG

She Walks in Beauty

0.33

Blake, W

London

0.32

Auden, WH

Musee des Beaux Arts

0.32

Blake, W

The Sick Rose

0.31

Hopkins, GM

Pied Beauty

0.3

Owen, W

Anthem for the Doomed

0.24

Suckling, J

Song

0.22

Blake, W

The Tiger

0.22

Gray, T

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

0.22

Yeats, WB

The Second Coming

0.22

Hardy, T

The Darkling Thrush

0.21

Nashe, T

Song from Summer

0.21

Blake, W

From Milton

0.12

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