I’ve just got back home from a poetry reading by Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon at which I did my best to attend to his own verses as he declaimed them in the spirit of his 2006 book The End of the Poem, a volume which (in one of the meanings of its title) might be seen as belonging in a very particular lineage of literary criticism. I.A. Richards kicked it off many years ago with his witty essay entitled ‘How Does A Poem Know When It Is Finished?’ and Barbara Herrnstein Smith followed up in 1968 with her Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. How – these various works ask - does a poem convince us that it has ended in some substantive and satisfying way, pulling the diverse threads of theme and imagery back together so that (to borrow Coleridge’s image for the organically closed text) the snake ends up with its tail in its mouth.
The genre of poetic elegy traditionally ends with a moment of apotheosis, as when Milton’s Lycidas is converted into the ‘Genius of the shore’ at the conclusion of that poem. Shakespearean sonnets achieve closure by the semantic snapping shut of the final couplet after the three quatrains that precede it. The Romantic ode returns at the close to its opening landscape imagery, but at a higher level, transformed and deepened by the inward meditation that constitutes the middle part of such poems. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold plays many resonant concluding variations on his pervasive river and sea imagery, as with the ‘unplumb’d salt estranging sea’ which so memorably ends ‘To Marguerite’. Modernist poems that finish with an indeterminate Eliotic ‘whimper’ rather than a bang still negatively depend upon the conventional modes of closure which they transgress. Within the literary criticism devoted to Morris’s verse I don’t recall any systematic attention to how his poems end, but as the Richards, Herrnstein Smith and Muldoon studies all suggest, we would certainly benefit from such work.