Uses of “poetry” and “prose” as literary categories have shifted dramatically over the last two or three centuries: a dichotomy emerged between these two that had not existed before, at least not in quite the same way. Attention to this shift has focused primarily on the rise of prose fiction, especially the novel, leading many to overemphasize the role prose genres played in this paradigm shift. In fact, an emergent poetry‐prose dichotomy enabled and was enabled by a wide range of discourses about art, culture, politics, and ethics as well as sciences. Exploring a range of such discourses, this essay argues that the modern poetry‐prose dichotomy facilitated several key debates focused less on prose and more on poetry's cultural value, ultimately enabling some of poetry's defenders to project their anxieties about Western cultural decline on the perceived deteriorating status of what's classed as “poetry.”

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