Shelley thought all didactic poetry an 'abhorrence,' and most of the Romantics agreed with this judgment. Critics in this century have been less dismissive of the genre, but seem puzzled by it. There has been a tendency to treat a didactic poem as though it were a kind of lyric, in which the focus of interest lies in the emotions and feelings of the writer. But didactic poetry has a purpose, history, and character of its own. This original and important book asks the question, 'What can the practising critic usefully say about a didactic poem?'
This is not primarily a book about theory, but a guide to practical criticism combined with a fresh reading of the chosen texts. Through a close analysis of three of the major didactic poems in the classical canon, the De rerum natura of Lucretius, the Georgics of Virgil, and the Ars amatoria of Ovid, Dalzell's aim is to consider these poems as a genre and to ascertain what tools are available to the critic for their understanding. He raises questions about the limits of genre criticism, the relationship of poetry and knowledge, reader-response, and historical reception. Can there be a poetry of statement? Is all genuine poetry necessarily fictive in some sense? To what extent is a serious didactic intent compatible with poetry?
The Criticism of Didactic Poetry is primarily of interest to classicists. It will also be of great value to scholars of other literatures who are interested in the history of the genre or in the theoretical debate about whether poetry can encompass knowledge. This book is a significant original contribution to the field, with the potential to influence future scholarly thinking on didactic poetry.
About the author
Alexander Dalzell is professor emeritus in the Department of Classics at Trinity College, University of Toronto.
'Dalzell's treatment presupposes a reader already familiar with the poems who does not require proof or illustrations of their poetic qualities. For such readers these thoughtful essays will provide in good measure the quintessentially didactic combination of instruction and enjoyment.'
'Anyone interested in generic studies, in didactic poetry in particular, or in poetry in general will find this volume rewarding; and it is as dulce as it is utile.'