realism in poetryIntroduction

Realism is an aesthetic attitude stressing the truthful treatment of material, the normal and everyday, life as it truly is. {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6} {7} {8}

Terms overlap, but to repeat a simplification: Classicism, Realism and Romanticism all deal with the outside world, but Realism shows the world as it is, Romanticism as the heart tells us it should be, and Classicism as it would be in some ideal but public incarnation. Contemporary literature, by contrast, is commonly a retreat into the writer's consciousness — to make autonomous creations that incorporate diverse aspects of modern life (Modernism), or free-wheeling creations constructed of a language that largely points to itself (Postmodernism).


In varying degrees, Realism or the realistic (and sometimes Naturalism) has these aims:{1} {5} {8}

1. faithfully represent life as it is:

aims for a pleasing and convincing structure of reality
presents a normal rather than intensified perceptions of reality
emphasizes accurate, even photographic detail
is objective: showing rather than telling
mutes or removes the author's commentary
reinforces the socially responsible view

2. reject idealizing conventions and formulae:

apparently represents direct, unmediated experience
avoids artifice, the visionary and theatrical
returns to simpler, past conventions
employs images in preference to symbols
simplifies or reduces rhetorical devices
avoids epic themes, exercises in the pastoral tradition, etc.

3. take subjects from contemporary life:

emphasizes the experienced commonplace
deals with social/political issues of the day
focuses on the regional or local scene

4. represent middle class attitudes:

focuses on character more than events or plot
avoids the sensational: plausible events
employs a natural, everyday diction
promotes morality without overt moralizing

5. refer to work of a particular period:


late Augustan poetry
socially committed poetry of the Auden generation
'kitchen sink' and contemporary styles
magic realism

Realistic Attitudes

Though Realism would seem the easiest attitude to understand and maintain, it throws into relief many philosophic problems. How can words properly represent reality? {9} {10} Doesn't any representation, with its tacit codes and conventions, distort the true picture, perhaps replace it all together? {11}

Perhaps not entirely. The philosophic journey is a long and tangled one, from Kant's demonstration that reality is fundamentally unknowable, through nineteenth-century attempts at the absolute, to today's fundamental divide between those who work at ad-hoc solutions (theories of meaning) and those who believe the unconscious (Lacan) or language wholly isolates us (Derrida). Poets are not philosophers, but the differing outlooks still divide poetry world into antagonistic and mutually uncomprehending movements. Amateur poetry generally follows a watered-down Romanticism. Poetry in mainstream publications adopts a Modernist approach. Postmodernist poetry plays with with the 'insight' of Derrida and critical theory. And whereas popular and mainstream poetry usually has a large dash of realism, Postmodernist poetry typically does not — or, more exactly, its poetry does not lie in any accurate representation of the world.

Hence the incomprehension, if not downright hostility, with which many readers greet contemporary poetry. They are unimpressed by the clever games with language, and are bored by a haphazard portrayal of plain life. They expect some aspects of Classicism: sense, shaping, beauty. They expect Romanticism's sense of the unfathomable, one that will clear the wellsprings of their emotional lives.

Some believe these expectations expose the shortcomings of Realism. But as a corrective to poetry's tendency to inbreed and create its own conventions, Realism plays a vital part, widening its remit and making it more relevant to its common readers. The attitude alone cannot create poetry, since poetry is an art form governed by aesthetic requirements, and in fact, at least till recently, poetry with the more realistic subject matter has generally felt the need to balance that freedom by increased attention to form.


Realism is strongly marked in these poems (though not necessarily the writers):

Geoffrey Chaucer: The Miller's Tale {12}
William Shakespeare: My Mistress's Eyes {13}
Jonathan Swift: A Description of the Morning {14}
George Crabbe: Peter Grimes {15}
Robert Browning: Porphyria's Lover {16}
John Drinkwater: The Carver in Stone {17}
Thomas Hardy: Friends Beyond {18}
Rudyard Kipling: Danny Deaver {19}

References and Internet Resources

1. Realism. Michael Winkler. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), 1016-7. A European perspective.
2. Realism. Brief Artex entry illustrated with examples of 19th and 20th century painting.
3. Realism. Wikepedia article outlining varied uses of the term.
4. Artists by Movement: Social Realism. Short Art Cyclopedia entry relating to '30s America.
5. Realism in American Literature, 1860-1890. Donna M. Campbell. May 2004. NNA. Useful and detailed article.
6. Late Nineteenth Century: American Realism - A Brief Introduction. Paul P. Reuben. Sep 2003. Extended treatment: part of the Perspectives on American Literature series.
7. Realism and the Realist Novel. C. Keep, T. McLaughlin and R. Parmar. 2000. Realism brought up to date.
8. The History and Theory of Magical Realism. Jeb Barnett. Jan. 2001. Brief essay.
9. Nominalism, Realism, Conceptualism. M. de Wulf. 2004. Readable introduction in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
10. Realism. Alexander Miller. Jul. 2002. Detailed Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
11. Semantic Challenges to Realism. Drew Khlentzos. Jan. 2001. Good overview in this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
12. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Miller's Tale. Full text of The Canterbury Tales online.
13. William Shakespeare. Sonnet 130. Excellent collection online.
14. Jonathan Swift. A Description of the Morning. Jonathan Swift. Poem Hunter.
15. George Crabbe. Peter Grimes. Poem Hunter.
16. Robert Browning. Porphyria's Lover. Short biography, articles and anthologized verse.
17. John Drinkwater. The Carver in Stone. Site is an excellent source for less-fashionable poems.
18. Thomas Hardy. Friends Beyond. Wessex Poems & Other Verses online.
19. (Joseph) Rudyard Kipling. Danny Deaver. Good selection of verse.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.