Just a few weeks ago, I found in my inbox an e-mail from Apple announcing the upcoming release of its iPad. Intrigued by Apple’s description of the product as a “magical and revolutionary device” (I defy anyone to resist those adjectives in combination), I clicked on the embedded link and found myself in the midst of a relatively tasteful and incredibly well-produced promotional video. Engrossing as the video was, I couldn’t keep myself from responding to a prediction made by one of the several executives featured in the video: “[The iPad]’s going to change the way we do the things we do every day.”
In our very forward-looking age, it’s easy to forget that, for the greater part of its written history, poetry has been a backward-looking medium.
While it’s impossible to know exactly what the literary architectures of his forbears were, it’s interesting to note that even Homer, the Western canon’s Adam, focuses squarely on already four hundred year-old events. (This is no less true of Hesiod, whose Theogony reads rather like the Greek equivalent of Genesis, but his is a less palpable influence on later writers.) The Tragedians were awash in Homeric storylines, and their originality generally stems not from outright invention but from sly revisions and magnifications of the dramas contained in received, i.e., Homeric myths. The Greek lyric tradition was less overtly Homeric (and is admittedly more concerned with individual subjectivity), but it is consistently responsive to its literary-mythological inheritance, at least until the Roman Period (ca. 30 BCE). The Romans themselves, of course, imitated their Greek predecessors: Virgil/Homer, Horace/Pindar, Catullus/Sappho, and Ovid, who seems to have been unwilling to choose just one. Despite notable compositions in the ‘vulgar’ tongue, the Medieval poets were predominately Latinists (Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, e.g.), while the Troubadours were adapting (often perhaps unwittingly) the Arabic tradition that was being sung up the continent from Spain.
When we finally arrive at the English tradition, Chaucer is almost equal parts translator and originator. (Translation is by definition a retrospective enterprise, as it deals exclusively with preexisting literature.) Piers Plowman, The Pearl, and Gawain, moreover, all derive stylistically from the alliterative Anglo-Saxon tradition; the two former are clearly modeled on allegorical precedents (Boethius, e.g.), whereas the author of Gawain has his hand very obviously in the pocket of the Arthurian romances (and authors like Chretien De Troyes). Spenser follows “all the antique Poets historicall”; Surrey and Wyatt are translating Petrarch; Shakespeare almost always writes from an identifiable source; Jonson is a Classicist; Milton, a Latinist; Donne and Herbert are born of Petrarch and the Bible; Dryden and Pope are explicitly engaged with antiquity. When we reach the Romantics, who undoubtedly constitute something of a pivot toward both modernity and individual invention (and from whom so much of our orientation toward originality derives), we find that even they are often looking over their shoulders: Blake and Wordsworth (of The Prelude at least) at Milton; Shelley at Hellas; Byron at Dryden and Pope; and Keats at Homer and “the English Poets.”
As usual, I'm afraid, I've taken a long route toward a simple point (and have of course oversimplified along the way): that, until the 19th century or so, poetry's lifeblood was not innovation per se--which isn't to deny that innovation took place--but renovation. It may seem to be merely a semantic difference, but I think it's more than that; specifically, I'd argue that the distance between innovation and renovation is the distance between originality of kind and originality of treatment. Although the fire of genius was often fed by the sparks of an inevitable friction, our greatest poets were generally writing within the constraints they inherited from their literary ancestry. Their objective was not to make way for the future (to "change the way we do the things we do every day"), but to embed the present in the past, and vice versa. Not unlike the motion of terza rima (ABABCBCDC), every movement forward was part and parcel of a movement back.