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About this book

This engaging introduction to poetry covers the entire tradition of poetry in English, providing close readings of interesting and varied texts. In this updated second edition, coverage has been expanded to cover medieval poetry and to give more weight to literary theory and women poets, while a new chapter focuses on key contemporary poets.

Table of Contents

Reading poetry

Frontmatter

1. Reading aloud

Abstract
The essential point about these first readings, both silent and aloud, is that as any good poem is inexhaustible, we should treat our initial meeting with it as an introduction. If we can absorb something of the poem’s meaning and tone, that is a sufficient beginning. A poem that revealed all of itself on the first reading would be a very shallow work. Reading aloud recognises that poets want their works to be heard. A slower process than reading silently, it encourages us to savour the words - their sounds as much as their sense. These qualities, in fact, are usually intimately related. Poetry began as an oral art where rhythm and rhyme assisted memory in the preservation of poets’ works. Today, we most often encounter poetry in printed form, yet even contemporary poets who know that their poems will be presented in that medium, write with their ears attuned to the sounds of their speech and the voice of their poetry. This is evident if we look closely at their use of language. The aural appeal of words is not cultivated by poets for its own sake. The characteristics of the sounds of language reveal its meanings, just as groupings of words, phrases and stanzas contribute to the subtleties of thought and emotion that even an apparently straightforward lyric may convey.
Barry Spurr

2. Describing a poem

Abstract
In using the term ‘theme’ for the subject matter of a poem, we are reminded of a musical piece and particularly that a complex composition, in music (such as the classical sonata) as in poetry, may have sub-themes that complement, and even contradict, the principal subject. In our first encounter with a poem, we should endeavour to identify its principal theme. The best introduction to the theme of a poem is its title. Some poems have no title (such as Emily Dickinson’s short lyric pieces) or may have been given a title by a later editor of the work. Sometimes the title is merely the opening word or phrase of the poem, as in George Herbert’s poem ‘Death’ (beginning: ‘Death, thou wast once an uncouth, hideous thing...’) or his third poem on the subject of love, entitled ‘Love’ and beginning: ‘Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back’. Nonetheless, those simple titles are the key to the subjects of the poems that follow.
Barry Spurr

3. Varieties of poetic style

Abstract
In considering the style of poetry in English, we find, as we read widely in the different ‘schools’ of literary composition (which are treated in detail in Part 2), that various characteristics of style are apparent at different times in its history and in the works of individual poets. Most striking is the contrast between conventions of poetic language in the past and the comparative plainness of much contemporary writing. Analogies may be drawn with the visual arts and music: with the richly detailed paintings and the musical polyphony of the High Renaissance, for example, in comparison with the spare qualities of modern art and contemporary ‘serious’ music. It is important not to exaggerate what sometimes appears to be a rejection of artifice in modern writing. However, where stylistic features have been pared down in a minimalist utterance, it is difficult to argue that the style is as important as the subject and to identify that component for discussion.
Barry Spurr

4. Evaluation of poetry

Abstract
The most difficult exercise in the study of poetry is the process of evaluating a poem. We can describe its theme and note how stylistic techniques are vital to the communication of the ideas and emotions which it embodies. But is it a great poem, good, bad, or indifferent? We may be asked whether or not we enjoy a particular poem and we can find it very difficult to justify our response. One reason for the difficulty in evaluating poetry is that, through the centuries, contradictory expectations of poets and their art have been formulated, often with absolutist certainty. In practice, this has meant that while the works of writers of a particular age have been highly regarded, another age - usually the immediately succeeding one - rejects them, both for their subject matter and their style.
Barry Spurr

Poetry through the centuries

Frontmatter

5. Medieval poetry

The Genesis of English Verse
Abstract
Yet sixteenth-century literature (as, indeed, sixteenth-century life) grew out of the medieval milieu. A poet of that century, Edmund Spenser, held Chaucer in veneration and modelled his Shepheardes Calender on Chaucer’s style.Another, Sir Thomas Wyatt, in his didactic verse-letter to ‘Mine Owne John Poins’, cites Chaucer as an authority, while some Chaucerian verse-forms survive in Shakespeare’s poetry. And even if we interpret the sixteenth- and seventeenthcentury Renaissance as being a reaction against medievalism, it cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of its genesis in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, certain traditions of poetic subject matter and style that have remained powerful presences in English poetry, through the centuries, have their origins in medieval poetry.
Barry Spurr

6. The Renaissance

A Time Of Tension
Abstract
The Renaissance (from the French word meaning ‘to be born again’) refers to the rebirth of art and learning in Europe in the sixteenth century, under the influence of models from the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome. Francis Bacon writes in The Advancement of Learning (1605) that ‘the ancient authors both in divinity and humanity, which had long slept in libraries began generally to be read ... and thereof grew again a delight in their manner of style and phrase’. The poetic forms of the time drew their inspiration directly from classical examples. John Donne’s elegies, for instance, written in the 1590s, derive from the Amores of the Roman poet Ovid, while Ben Jonson, immersed in the comedies of Terence and Plautus, used details from their plays in his own. Legends from classical literature, with all their details, were taken over into English poetry - such as that of Orpheus and Eurydice, used by John Milton in no less than four of his poems.
Barry Spurr

7. The early seventeenth century

The Pilgrim Age To ‘The King Domofman’
Abstract
The end of the Elizabethan age occurred on the peaceful accession, in 1603, of the Stuart king, James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England. The new Jacobean era, the subsequent Caroline age - under James’s son, Charles I - and the Commonwealth and Protectorate, which were the result of the Civil War in the 1640s and 1650s under Oliver Cromwell, present complex political, theological, social and artistic responses to and reactions against the Renaissance and Reformation of the sixteenth century. But the continuing influence of those great historical and cultural movements is also remarkable. The poetry of Milton, who did not die until 1674, may be seen as the last word of Renaissance civilisation and literary culture, while his eccentric Puritanism had its origins in the individuality of Reformation theology more than a century before. The story of the oscillating persistence and rejection of the poetic school of Petrarchanism, well into the seventeenth century, is a reflection of the debt to the cultural past and liberation from it. As early as Volpone (1606), Ben Jonson has the leading character express his torment of amorous suffering in tired Petrarchan terms. Jonson uses that affected language as a means of satirising the disreputable Volpone in his dated and debauched passion
Barry Spurr

8. The Restoration and Augustanism

The Attainment Of Limited Clarity
Abstract
Richard Cromwell (Oliver’s son) abdicated in 1659, after twenty years of civil strife, bringing an end to the Commonwealth. There was, inevitably, a strong national desire for the resumption of stable government in England.The restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, in 1660, was generally greeted with approval. The Church was also restored, with the re-establishment of Anglicanism in the place of the Puritans’ Presbyterianism. In 1662, the Book of Common Prayer was reimposed as the national liturgy. Dissenting Protestants and Roman Catholics were effectively suppressed, both ecclesiastically and socially. Although there was a terrible plague in 1665 and the great fire in London in the following year - both interpreted as divine retribution for the debauchery of Charles II’s court - the fortunes of England began to advance in this period to the extent that, within a century, she had become a world power. While religious matters had been decisively settled, the political situation after the Restoration proved to be more volatile.
Barry Spurr

9. Romanticism

In Praise of Imagination
Abstract
The Romantic Movement of the nineteenth century was a reaction against the eighteenth-century Age of Reason. The so-called Enlightenment was roundly repudiated, as we find in the scornful lines below of 1796 by William Blake, the first English Romantic poet. Voltaire, Rousseau and Newton, champions of reason and science, are sneeringly dismissed in the praise of the mysterious divinity of creation: Mock on, Mock on,Voltaire, Rousseau; Mock on, Mock on, tis all in vain. You throw the sand against the wind, And the wind blows it back again
Barry Spurr

10. Victorianism

Faith And Doubt
Abstract
The Victorian Age took its name from the long-reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, who ascended the throne in 1837 and died in 1901. However, this term is misleading for several reasons. First, it suggests that that period of more than sixty years was monochrome in its characteristics, whereas it was a time of extraordinary variety and development in English life and human experience at large. Further, ‘Victorianism’ implies that the personal convictions and temperament of the Queen expressed her subjects’ interpretations of and responses to life. In fact, as Lytton Strachey argues in his biography of Victoria (1921), the monarch was a very imperfect representation of the age that bears her name. Victorianism is the story of unprecedented developments and turbulent complexity in the intellectual, moral and cultural lives of society and of individuals. Yet the Queen preserved the characteristics of her singular personality through more than eighty years of existence, as Strachey observes: the girl, the wife, the aged woman, were the same: vitality, conscientiousness, pride and simplicity were hers to the latest hour.
Barry Spurr

11. Modernism

‘Make It New’
Abstract
Modernism was the dominant aesthetic movement of the earlier twentieth century. It is often considered to be a thorough critique and repudiation of Romanticism in general and Victorianism in particular. Now that Modernism is no longer modern, however, we are able to evaluate the ideas and artistic expression of the Modernists from a distance. We can see that Modernism included modified elements of characteristics which are associated with the Romanticism they professed to find so revolting. First, Modernist poets were as inclined as Wordsworth or Shelley to see themselves in detachment from and criticism of their society.W. B.Yeats, the Irish poet who called himself the ‘last Romantic’ and who we might also describe as the first Modernist, located himself, literally and metaphorically, in a solitary tower (Thoor Ballylee), set apart from ordinary human existence. Similarly, T. S. Eliot, whether in the guise of Prufrock in his ‘Love Song’ or Tiresias in The Waste Land, is a lonely commentator on the mores of his age. The Romantic motifs of solitude and loneliness persist in Modernist poetry in the distinctively twentieth-century condition of alienation.
Barry Spurr

12. After Modernism

Abstract
In the generations since Modernist poetry flourished in the 1920s, there has been a remarkable variety of responses to and rejections of its precepts and practices. Generally speaking, poets of the later twentieth century affirmed their individualistic creativity in a range of styles, from a new formality (usually, however, idiosyncratic) to the most experimental of forms, from a childlike simplicity to an elusive complexity of utterance. Increasingly, the contributions of poets from North America and elsewhere in the English-speaking world further enriched and diversified the tradition. A survey of poetry since Modernism (that is, roughly speaking, since the Second World War) reveals the astonishing fertility of poetic craftsmanship in mid-century and beyond, in spite of increasing apprehensions (in those years of the burgeoning intrusion of television into everyone’s daily life) that the culture of reading was dying or even dead
Barry Spurr

13. Contemporary poetry

Abstract
In reading and evaluating poetry by living writers, we come to the position of being unconfident about which poets and poetry will satisfy one of the accepted tests of artistry - that of time. History shows that poets who have been very popular in their lifetimes can be quickly forgotten, while others, insufficiently appreciated when they were alive, grow in stature with readers in the centuries after their deaths. Robert Bridges believed - no doubt correctly - that the audience for the poetry of his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins, did not exist during Hopkins’ lifetime (1844-89) and delayed its appearance until a generation later, publishing it in 1918.Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), popular in his day and an important influence on many poets, such as Robert Browning and Ezra Pound, would have few readers now. The same can be said of Coventry Patmore (1823-96), the most popular of poets in his lifetime, now the least read of his period.When T. S. Eliot burst controversially upon the literary scene in 1917, with Prufrock and Other Observations, no one could have predicted (indeed, many of the most astute critics would have regarded the idea as ludicrous) that, at century’s end, eighty years hence, he would be universally esteemed as the most influential poet of the twentieth century, probably its most important and, many would say, its greatest
Barry Spurr
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