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What are emotional responses to poetry?

Poetry makes much of its appeal to the senses and emotions, bypassing analytical or critical thought, so we must acknowledge their importance.

Poetry makes much of its appeal to the senses and emotions, bypassing analytical or critical thought. Necessarily, we cannot fit such emotional responses into an analytical framework, but we must acknowledge their power and importance – many of our favourite poems probably appeal to us principally through our emotions rather than our intellect.

Analysis is possible

In investigating emotional response, however, it is still possible to be analytical to a degree. One of the first things to establish is whether the emotion resides chiefly in the experience evoked by the writer, or in the personal experience of the reader.

To take an easy example, the poem Beauté formol is likely to have a far more powerful impact on readers who have had experiences related to abortion than those who have not. Similarly, readers who have themselves lost a child may find Hugo’s evocation of loss in Demain, dès l’aube almost unbearably poignant, where others have to try to imagine the feeling.

It is precisely in that space between a writer’s and a reader’s experience that the most genuine response to poetry happens, but as that will be different for every reading, it is impossible to analyse. We can, however, point out how a writer attempts to control the emotional responses of potential readers, perhaps by using shock tactics, unexpected juxtapositions or dissonances, or maybe through rhetorical devices such as direct address to the reader, to another person, to God or to Fate.

Imagery provokes feeling

When we consider imagery, we can also see that certain images cluster together to promote a particular feeling – of peace, of anxiety, of anger, of passion – even if there is no clear logical link between them. The question that the critic must always bear in mind is: “Is this feeling in response to the poem one that is to unique to me, or is it likely to be replicated in other readers – and if the latter, can I show why?”.

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