Bedlam or Parnassus: The Verse Idea


Robinson College

Grange Road

Cambridge CB3 9AN

United Kingdom


This essay considers some problems in philosophical approaches to poetry. Philosophers’ accounts of what poetry is are often ill informed. They tend to select, as essential, features that can also characterize prose works: conspicuous metaphoricity, imagination, fictionality, and so on. This essay considers instead a humbler term: verse. It argues that the constraints on language implied by composing in verse are not only a handicap but can also be an engine for thinking. Even philosophy has sometimes been thought in verse, rather than thought first in prose and versified later. This argument is explored through a brief consideration of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man. The essay concludes by questioning a further way of distinguishing between poetry and philosophy, Peter Lamarque's claim that paraphrasability is essential to philosophy but fatal to poetry.