"For truly, the bard is sacred to the gods and is their priest."
In Milton's "Elegy VI," which isn't really an elegy but a letter in Latin verse to his "BFF" Charles Diodati, Milton makes an important distinction between a "poet" and a "bard." For those of us who don't get into every kind of poetry, this distinction might be helpful. Most of us in class hadn't thought about it this way before.
The back-story of "Elegy VI": Charles had been feeling down after partying all winter break, and had asked a 21-year-old John to send him a letter to cheer him up. Charles felt his poetry (the two had been exchanging verses) was suffering from all the wine and women. John, having no truck with wine or women at the time, could not offer any real advice for his friend except to assure Chuck that his poetry must be even more beautiful because of his Yuletide reveling, and that the combination of lively spirits within young Charles had a "potency" that "brought forth sweet songs." After painting a lovely picture of Charles getting smashed and writing poems with Comedy, Bacchus and the bunch, Milton puts on his serious voice and begins a sermon of sorts. That is, after describing (and almost vicariously living) Diodati's poet's life, Milton has to contrast that by writing about himself -- the austere, chaste, spare-eating bard.
What, according to Milton, makes for bardliness? The bard cleanses himself of earthly contaminants, shuts himself off from earthly distractions, and makes ready to receive a message that must be told. His preparation is like that of the priest in training. His words give form to what was already being said, draw on themes from all of spiritual history, and have a way of stopping time. Not the way the poet stops time -- the poet might stop time to show us the particular, to let us contemplate it. The bard pulls a nunc stanza. That is, all time converges to a single point, enabling Milton to deliver his gift of verse back through time to the infant Christ on the wings of the Holy Spirit, and enabling the reader to take in the beginning and the end and all time, all at once. (The poem delivered to Christ is Milton's On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, which he was in the middle of writing when he sent Diodati this elegy on poets and bards.) It's funny that Milton loves to write "occasional" poems, that is, on the consideration of some occasion or other, i.e. the death of a friend. This seems very topical and particular. But, in Milton's words the occasion becomes an everlasting, ever-recurring event. So to put it simply and perhaps incompletely, a bard is a poet of epic proportions -- one who writes our epics.
But aren't epics a little out of style? Surely we have Romantic and twentieth century poets (I skip the Victorians because while their verses are beautiful I haven't read any that seem bardly) that live up to Milton's definition of bardliness. Perhaps we need to update that definition, or update how we think about the poet and the bard in contrast to one another. While Milton may have been a bard poet and only a bard poet, Il Penseroso with seldom a hint of L'Allegro coming through, later and modern poets probably led decidedly more complex psychological lives. Not that Milton's brain wouldn't have made an interesting case study, but back in the day (the seventeenth century that is) men kept their alternate personalities and secret desires a little better under wraps than a Wordsworth, a Whitman, or a Yeats would have had to. To write textbook epic poetry today, would be to deny one's self of expressing those earthy, visceral sentiments and tensions we know writhe under the surface of every poet, no matter how baroquely his words flow. So in an era when strict self-monitoring for the purpose of remaining pure enough to receive the lyrics of one's poems from on high might have been something to strive for, we don't do that today. If we did, we would be diagnosed.
Perhaps it is not just the modern poet's complex psychology (with which he is comfortable) but the modern poet's secular philosophies that make him seem less "epic," like less of a bard. I can see how many poets since Milton would fit nicely into his "just a poet" category, and make it hard to argue that they are indeed bardly at all. William Carlos Williams -- okay, so much depends upon a wheelbarrow. Lovely, but epic? Not really. Robert Frost, who's frosty verses I find wonderfully soothing, may paint an idyllic winter scene, but bardly he is not. Emily Dickinson? Hmm. It's not a hard and fast distinction for many poets, but it does provide a fun way to try to classify them when you are learning a new poet or trying to get a handle on the kinds of themes a poet uses. In no way is denying the title of "bard" a slight to a poet -- in "Elegy VI" Milton was pretty much telling Diodati that Diodati is not a bard. But he loved and praised Diodati like no other. In fact, Milton sometimes seemed to pine for the kind of experience to be had by writers of "sweet" poetry (he uses "sweet" a lot, to describe the words and temperaments of the non-bards). In L'Allegro he does not run short of lively characters and sweet poets to call on. While Il Penseroso is also filled with names, the only "bard" he mentions outright is Plato. Hardly a maker of sweet songs! Perhaps Milton felt he traveled a lonely, bardly road.
A simple test for bardliness would be to look for the traits of the epic poem, toned down or humanized as they may be in post-seventeenth century poetry. Some epic traits are allusions to myth, saints, proverbs, invocations of deities to help tell the tale, catalogs of characters (since the tale can span all time), and a narrative distance that is at once far above the event and right in the moment. But we can't reduce our search for epics and bards to mythological allusions and angelic hosts. The bard's "secret depths of his soul, and very lips alike breathe forth Jove." And again, we aren't as likely to find angelic hosts hanging around in poems these days.
I would say Wordsworth is an example of a later bard (Ode is the best known example), and some of his Romantic contemporaries might be candidates for bardliness as well. As for 20th century poets, maybe even Yeats is a bard. Yeats is much more in the moment than Milton, of course, but his occasional poems give a similar "all-encompassing time" feeling to Milton's occasionals, even though Yeats's are on much more localized and personal events ("Easter 1916," "Among School Children"). (That's not to say that Milton didn't write on personal events, i.e. the death of his newborn niece, but he would take care to universalize them.)
Forgive me for not listing any obscure poets or more minor poems here. When one is looking for bardliness (as scholars have certainly continued to do since Milton's time), it's bound to be already bound in a thick tome of major works. You'll also notice I didn't mention The Bard. I don't know if Shakespeare would have fit Milton's definition, or even an updated version. Milton wrote of him in L'Allegro, calling him "sweetest Shakespear fancies childe/Warbl[ing] his native woodnootes wilde," (l. 133-4) which suggests Shakespeare does not fit the bardly mold like the speaker of Il Penseroso, the writer of the Elegy, Milton, would. Shakespeare is something completely different -- a cerebral, humanity-enthused kind of genius.
Who is your bard?