I picked up a 1947 book of criticism from a Charity Shop called The Well Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks the other day. I enjoyed his essay on Robert Herrick’s (1591–1674) poem, Corinna’s Going a-Maying, in which Brooks asks ‘What does poetry communicate?’
Many people complain that modern poetry doesn’t communicate in the same way as older poems did. Herrick’s poem, they claim, says that we should “enjoy youth before youth fades.” There’s a clear message being communicated by the poem, as opposed to the fuzzy ambiguities of much modern work. Brooks simply examines Herrick’s poem and exposes its subtleties. He shows how wrong it is to reduce such a poem to a neat summary as there’s so much else going on – the shifts between Christianity and Paganism, the double-edged emergence of the pagan ethic within a predominantly Christian system, the way Corinna (and other humans) seem subject to the claims of nature, the metaphors of dew and rain and what they communicate about humanity, the questions asked by the invitation to Corinna to accept the joys of the May season which are then described (dismissed?) as “the harmless follie of the time,” the poem's tone which seems at times to be playful and other times deadly serious etc. The more you look at the poem, the more strands you find, and the less you can conveniently summarise what it communicates.
“What does this poem communicate? If we are content with the answer that the poem says that we should enjoy youth before youth fades, and if we are willing to write off everything else in the poem as ‘decoration,’ then we can properly censure [modern poets such as] Eliot or Auden or Tate for not making poems so easily tagged. But in that case we are not interested in poetry; we are interested in tags.”