Recently I bumped into an article where "The Poetry Foundation’s president, John Barr, takes a look at what separates “serious” poetry from the rest". Poetry being an art form, obviously no such definition will ever satisfy everyone, nor should it, but I still found the distinction made in the article interesting and worthy of consideration.

Yes, there is plenty of poorly written verse out there, but there is also plenty of poorly written poetry—and sometimes the verse is the better crafted.

Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” with no help from the critical establishment, is still going strong after a century, while most early Yeats is read today only because it was written by Yeats. To use verse as a pejorative term, then, is to lose the use of it as a true distinction.

George Orwell gives us another way to think about this when he describes Kipling as “a good bad poet.”

”A good bad poem is a graceful monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form—for verse is a mnemonic device, among other things—some emotion which very nearly every human being can share.”

Into this same pot Orwell puts “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the work of Bret Harte—and presumably that of Robert Service. “There is a great deal of good bad poetry in English,” says Orwell; by implication, there is even more bad bad poetry.

What other well-known examples of such "good bad poetry" are there? Are there other concepts or names for this kind of thing, that might make the search easier?


4 Answers 4


TL;DR: Orwell’s ‘good bad’ poetry is ‘bad’ because it is superficial (lacking in aesthetic, intellectual, psychological or moral depth), but ‘good’ because it is skilfully written and enjoyable to read.

Orwell’s examples

Orwell gave eight examples of ‘good bad’ poems, in addition to the works of Rudyard Kipling. I’ll give four lines from each, but follow the links for the full poems.

The Bridge of Sighs’ (1844) by Thomas Hood, about a young woman drowned in the Thames:

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

‘When all the world is young, lad’ from The Water Babies (1863) by Charles Kingsley, on the theme of tempus fugit:

When all the world is young, lad,
  And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
  And every lass a queen;

The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, about a disastrous maneouvre at the battle of Balaclava:

“Charge,” was the captain’s cry;
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s but to do and die,

Dickens in Camp’ by Bret Harte, which imagines a California pioneer reading aloud a novel by Charles Dickens:

And then, while round them shadows gathered faster,
  And as the firelight fell,
He read aloud the book wherein the Master
  Had writ of “Little Nell.”

The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna’ (1816) by Charles Wolfe, about the burial of General Moore after his death at A Coruña in 1809:

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
  From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
  But we left him alone with his glory.

Jenny Kissed Me’ (1838) by Leigh Hunt, also on the theme of tempus fugit:

Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
  Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
  Jenny kiss’d me.

The Ballad of Keith of Ravelston’ by Sydney Dobell, about a wicked lord and a dead cowherd:

The murmur of the mourning ghost
  That keeps the shadowy kine,
‘O Keith of Ravelston,
  The sorrows of thy line!’

Casabianca’ (1826) by Felicia Hemans, about the death of Giocante de Casabianca at the battle of the Nile:

The boy stood on the burning deck
  Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
  Shone round him o’er the dead

The great tradition

In order to appreciate the context in which Orwell was making his literary judgments, we have to think our way back into the mindset of the educated classes of England in the first half of the 20th century. The literary education of the upper classes was based on a ‘Great Tradition’ (in the words of F. R. Leavis) that ran from Homer through the classical Greek and Latin writers, through Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton down to Eliot and James. The tradition is characterized by aesthetic complexity, intellectual depth, psychological observation, and moral seriousness; or at least it can be interpreted as respecting those goals.

To this stratum of society (to which Orwell belonged, however precariously: he was educated at Eton), ‘good’ literature consisted of the works of the great tradition and its followers, and ‘bad’ literature was everything else: comic and sentimental verse, folk songs, detective stories, ‘penny dreadfuls’, ‘three-decker’ melodramas, music hall, Western fiction, science fiction, and so on.

The late 20th century exploded the idea of the Western literary canon so successfully that this attitude seems quite blinkered to us now. Nonetheless, G. K. Chesterton apparently felt it necessary to write an essay pointing out that

many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good devil. […] There is, however, between a good detective story and a bad detective story as much, or, rather more, difference than there is between a good epic and a bad one.

(‘A defence of detective stories’, 1900.)

Rudyard Kipling

Orwell introduced his idea of the ‘good bad’ poem in the essay ‘Rudyard Kipling’ (1942), in which he reviewed the collection A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, edited by T. S. Eliot.

At his worst, and also his most vital, in poems like ‘Gunga Din’ or ‘Danny Deever’, Kipling is almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life. But even with his best passages one has the same sense of being seduced by something spurious, and yet unquestionably seduced. Unless one is merely a snob and a liar it is impossible to say that no one who cares for poetry could get any pleasure out of such lines as:

For the wind is in the palm trees, and the temple bells they say,
‘Come you back, you British soldier, come you back to Mandalay!’

and yet those lines are not poetry in the same sense as ‘Felix Randal’ or ‘When icicles hang by the wall’ are poetry. One can, perhaps, place Kipling more satisfactorily […] if one describes him simply as a good bad poet.

At this point Orwell gave the eight examples, and then commented:

All of these reek of sentimentality, and yet—not these particular poems, perhaps, but poems of this kind, are capable of giving true pleasure to people who can see clearly what is wrong with them. One could fill a fair-sized anthology with good bad poems, if it were not for the significant fact that good bad poetry is usually too well known to be worth reprinting.

So what Orwell seems to have had in mind is that the ‘good bad poem’ panders to popular taste, but nonetheless it is a good example of its type: it is constructed with skill and enjoyable to read.

A quick note on ‘sentimentality’. The Oxford English Dictionary says

sentimental, adj. 1.a. […] Addicted to indulgence in superficial emotion; apt to be swayed by sentiment

It’s the superficiality that Orwell is complaining about, not the emotion. For example, consider the first of Orwell's examples, Thomas Hood's ‘The Bridge of Sighs’. This eloquently expresses the poet’s sadness, but doesn’t go any further than that. The young woman in the poem has drowned herself because she was homeless, probably due to a pregnancy, but the main matter of the poem is how beautiful her corpse looks and how her sins are forgiven now she is dead. If there is a moral, it is only “Alas! for the rarity / Of Christian charity”. This is liable to strike the modern reader as a superficial response: surely some thought ought to be given to the sexual double standard and the cruelty of the patriarchal society that shunned her?

Good bad books

Orwell elaborated his thoughts on ‘good bad’ literature in the essay ‘Good bad books’ (1945):

A type of book which we hardly seem to produce in these days, but which flowered with great richness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is what Chesterton called the “good bad book”: that is, the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished. Obviously outstanding books in this line are Raffles and the Sherlock Holmes stories, which have kept their place when innumerable “problem novels”, “human documents” and “terrible indictments” of this or that have fallen into deserved oblivion. […]

The existence of good bad literature—the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously—is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration. I imagine that by any test that could be devised, Carlyle would be found to be a more intelligent man than Trollope. Yet Trollope has remained readable and Carlyle has not: with all his cleverness he had not even the wit to write in plain straightforward English.

  • Best answer on the page.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 11:39
  • Thank you. I believe all the answers here have been good, but this one is simply the most exhaustive, and I hope writing it was as rewarding as reading it (and following the myriad paths revealed) has been.
    – Ilmari
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 21:42
  • 1
    In the light of John Barr's complaint, your last Orwell quote is rather ironic: "[Trollope had] the wit to write in plain straightforward English." It's possible to write for both the elite and the the masses. Shakespeare contains bilingual puns and fart jokes. Emily Dickinson's poetry rhymes, is popular, and contains depths that demand close reading. Paul Verlaine wrote some truly enigmatic (French) poems, but they are so beautiful that artists set them to music, and people listen to them. So why doesn't Barr listen to Orwell and write for both the masses and the elite? Orwell himself did.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 2:49

I believe "good bad poem" is a description specific to Orwell. The more common term for critically disdained poetry is doggerel. This can either mean a poem in verse that is structurally flawed (irregular rhythm, off rhymes, etc.), particularly when done deliberately and for comic effect, or conversely --and a closer match to what Orwell and Barr describe --a poem of no particular "literary merit," which is too regular, to monotonous effect.

The idea here is that there exist poems without any of the attributes we associate with "good good" poetry --complex structure, evocative metaphors, spiritual depth, and so forth --and yet which have their own merits that may be overlooked by the critics. These poems, perhaps comic, perhaps melodramatic, tell a story or express an emotion in a memorable and indelible way, and thus may outlast the more abstruse critics' darlings.

At one time, ordinary people more commonly wrote poetry, and so if you go back enough years, you'll find an endless supply of "bad" and potentially "good bad" doggerel to be found in the notebooks of amateurs. You'll also find a veritable wellspring in popular anthologies of best-loved poems, such as the one by Martin Gardner, which includes the critically scorned but much beloved verses Orwell and Barr mention by Service and Harte, along with numerous others that would probably make their lists, such as by Thayer, Longfellow and Kipling. If, however, you're looking for something more up to date, the closest contemporary analog is probably rap music, which (until quite recently) received no critical recognition or respect, despite clearly being the most dominant and influential verse form of modern times. Having been dismissed for so many years as a "bad bad" art form by the critics, it is now a fertile field for a critical reevaluation that might potentially find some of it to be "good bad" or even "good good."

  • 1
    "Doggerel" is indeed a new term for me, it will certainly help in looking for more examples myself. I'll have to check out the anthology as well, I'm not particular as to the time period at all. And I agree about rap music – it seems a lot of "poetic progress" is made in that field. The freshest (Finnish) verse I have heard/read in recent times has come from (admittedly less mainstream) rappers, rather than poets. In any case, thank you! I will wait a while until choosing an anwer, but yours is definitely a fair candidate.
    – Ilmari
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 18:06
  • 2
    I don't think Orwell would consider doggerels as "good bad poetry", as opposed to "(bad) bad poetry".
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 19:38

Orwell's original essay is primarily about Rudyard Kipling, and I don't believe he ever worked out a full theory of "good bad poetry". He cites other examples:

There is a great deal of good bad poetry in English, all of it, I should say, subsequent to 1790. Examples of good bad poems — I am deliberately choosing diverse ones — are ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, ‘When all the world is young, lad’, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, Bret Harte's ‘Dickens in Camp’, ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore’, ‘Jenny Kissed Me’, ‘Keith of Ravelston’, ‘Casabianca’. All of these reek of sentimentality, and yet — not these particular poems, perhaps, but poems of this kind, are capable of giving true pleasure to people who can see clearly what is wrong with them. One could fill a fair-sized anthology with good bad poems, if it were not for the significant fact that good bad poetry is usually too well known to be worth reprinting.

These are all popular poems; many of them are still familiar. What they have in common is that they have very strong, straightforward meters, applied with significant rigor.

Orwell's problem with them is that they're "sentimental", which is, uh, problematic. It's hard for me to untangle that from "popular". They are conceptually fairly simple, which contributes to their popularity. They're not as rich -- at least in Orwell's estimation -- as "real" poems.

Orwell distinguishes poetry from "verse", by which he seems to mean Hallmark card doggerel. That exemplifies all of these features even more strongly: very straightforward and strong meters; easy, obvious, and repetitive rhymes; simple, strong emotional resonances.

I find it interesting that he excepts poems before 1790. Shakespeare himself wrote some deliberately bad poetry, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

The raging rocks
And shivering shocks
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates;
And Phibbus' car
Shall shine from far
And make and mar
The foolish Fates.

Since so much of the essay is based around TS Eliot, I suspect another example may be Memory, which was added to the play Cats that is otherwise made primarily of Eliot's poems:

Not a sound from the pavement
Has the moon lost her memory
She is smiling alone
In the lamplight
The withered leaves collect at my feet
And the wind begins to moan
All alone in the moonlight
I can smile happy your days (I can dream of the old days)
Life was beautiful then
I remember the time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again

These are song lyrics, which may be exempted, but the text seems to illustrate the style. It's the standout from Cats for exactly the reasons "good bad poetry" is so popular: very strong emotions and straightforward imagery.

  • 2
    And aren't T. S. Eliot's Practical Cats "good bad poetry," just like Memory? Of course they are, and if George Orwell won't admit this, he's a hypocrite.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 21:31
  • Hmm. Would Gilbert & Sullivan provide any good examples? Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 18:02
  • 1
    The line to draw is, of course, vague. At the very least Eliot is known to write serious poetry; The Wasteland surely qualifies. So maybe he'd think of Practical Cats as bad good poetry? Or maybe a good poet's shot at writing verse? Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 18:24
  • G&S wrote comic librettos, which I think would be considered "verse". He gives the impression that "verse" is not necessarily pejorative. The Hallmark card would be an example of bad verse, but he might call at least some G&S lyrics good verse. The most famous examples of G&S are the patter songs, which really are just sophisticated doggerel, though some of the arias might qualify as genuinely great verse. Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 18:28
  • Thank you for this answer! I especially appreciate the quotation of and link to Orwell’s original essay, and bringing Practical Cats to my attention.
    – Ilmari
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 21:46

You might be interested in the critic Dwight MacDonald's essay, "Masscult and Midcult", which I read as a child in a book of essays called "Against the American Grain".

In this essay Mr. MacDonald attempts to develop a classification for things that he thought were "art" (or "good", if you prefer) which he termed High Culture, and things that he thought were pretending to be "art"/"good", which he called Midcult. And the stuff that had no such pretensions was "Masscult". In Orwellian terms, that last would probably be called "prolefeed".

This attempt at classification has some similarities to Orwell's "good bad book/poetry". Though I think MacDonald's more elaborate attempts were much less successful. Much of the time it just comes across as a sort of pretentious literary equivalent of the Salem Witch Trials or some such. However, MacDonald himself clearly took his ideas very seriously, and attempts at this kind of cultural classification are so rare that I think it is worth mentioning. If you can find a copy of this essay, it's worth reading, at least.

Personally, I would have been a bit more interested if he had had the courage to buck conventional literary wisdom. But by his thesis, all the books that he considers to be "good" are miraculously all the books that the literary establishment deems to be good. Indeed a fortunate coincidence!

By the bye, Orwell and MacDonald admired each other, and engaged in an extensive correspondence at the time when MacDonald was editor of the magazine "Partisan Review", to which Orwell was a contributor.

  • 1
    That does sound interesting, thank you! I guess these kinds of attempts at classification are always controversial and even frowned upon nowadays, but I find them interesting, because certainly everyone develops their own method of classification in their own heads anyway. So any educated input on how people develop their systems is helpful!
    – Ilmari
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 8:54
  • @Ilmari Yes, indeed, I think it would be harder to write and publish an essay like this nowadays. It would be considered elitist and offensive and who knows what. Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 8:56

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