English Poetry In A Nutshell
A quick and easy-to-read history of English poetry from Chaucer to the present day. Other art forms such as art and music are mentioned too, to help you understand major aesthetic trends.
Okay, relax. It's not nearly so mind-boggling as it seems: I'm going to try to be brief and take you through a thousand or so years of (British) poetry in a couple of pages. Because there's so much to say, and not enough space, I have left out a lot, and there are huge gaps in this article, but I hope to mention at least the major highlights.
I'm going to start with Chaucer. That means that I'm leaving out poems like "Beowulf", but I think this is fair enough as Anglo-Saxon bears few similarities to Modern English.
Think of monks wandering around in robes singing Gregorian chant. Then think of one of the monks farting, and hopefully you have something of the spirit of Chaucer. We're dating back now to the 14'th Century.
Geoffrey Chaucer, to some the "father" of the English language, wrote in what we now call "Middle English". This language reflects the Norman Conquests, which introduced many new words into English.
Chaucer is best known for THE CANTERBURY TALES, an epic work which tells of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, and who each tell a story en route. (In fact, he never completed the work.)
Chaucerian poetry is colourful, subtle, sensitive and sometimes very bawdy. Read THE MILLER'S TALE, (preferably in translation if you are new to Chaucer), and prepare yourself for a funny and quite vulgar story.
Chaucer's characters are fun. Indeed, it seems that they're not principally on the Pilgrimage for religious reasons; they seem to be going just as much because it's Spring and the weather is pleasant; and they enjoy the each other's company.
Here's just the beginning of THE CANTERBURY TALES so you can get a bit of the flavour. This is in the original language, so some of it may not be comprehensible to the uninitiated.
"Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour..."
THE ELIZABETHAN PERIOD
One of the richest periods of English literature, this era has been recently popularized in the films ELIZABETH and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, which both make interesting background viewing for the student.
Think of the pretty melodies of Mozart; controlled, cultivated gardens and the exquisite art of Raphael, Michaelangelo and da Vinci; and you'll have something of a feel for the grace, control and symmetry of a Renaissance masterpiece.
In literature, the Elizabethan period extends until approximately the year 1620.
What can one say in a nutshell about the genius of SHAKESPEARE, except that the more you explore his work, the more you'll find?
MACBETH is a gripping mystery, TWELFTH NIGHT a clever bit of froth and HAMLET a philosophical masterpiece. ROMEO AND JULIET still touches heartstrings, and the sonnets are crisply elegant.
Other important Elizabethan writers are Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.
THE METAPHYSICAL POETS
The three poets from the "metaphysical school" are John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and George Herbert.
Central to their technique was the use of a "conceit": an elaborate, extended metaphor comparing some aspect of the poet's love life to something quite unexpected and unusual. Donne, for example, compares his love to a pair of compasses.
Andrew Marvell is responsible for the memorable "carpe diem" poem: "To His Coy Mistress", with its haunting lines:
"But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity"
Dominating seventeenth century English poetry was JOHN MILTON, best known for his epic history of angels, Adam, Eve and Satan: PARADISE LOST.
THE ROMANTIC POETS
Think now of the power of Beethoven, the haunting beauty of Chopin, the dramatic paintings of Turner, the sheer volume of Wagnerian opera, the image of Madame Butterfly stabbing herself or anything else dark and brooding, and I hope you can almost taste the agony, (the "angst"), and the almost painful nostalgia of Romanticism.
The Eighteenth Century saw the beginning of the so-called Romantic movement.(The word "Romantic, with a capital "R" has nothing to do with romance in the sense of love stories).
The six great Romantic poets are WILLIAM BLAKE, JOHN KEATS, ALFRED LORD BYRON, WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE and PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY. Although there are considerable differences between them, one major common concern was the loss of our true connection with nature. (Indeed, if we had listened to the Romantic poets, our planet might not have been in the ecologically precarious position it is in today.)
WILLIAM BLAKE was almost like a religious prophet, rejecting conventional religious wisdom and creatively producing his own set of Gods. Perhaps he is best known for the line: "Tyger Tyger burning bright" from his collection "Songs of Innocence and Experience".
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH praised nature's beauty in some rather lengthy pieces, but is most famous for his short poem "The Daffodils". He often writes about being "educated" by Nature.
COLERIDGE is best known for "Kubla Khan" and the controversy surrounding his reported drug use while writing it, and also for his superb "Ryme of the Ancient Mariner".
JOHN KEATS is famous for his Odes. His poetry is sensual and rich. "Ode to a Nightingale" begins with these unforgettable words:
"My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk."
LORD BYRON was perhaps the wittiest Romantic,an aristocrat who rebelled against the values of his class, and SHELLEY is probably best known for his poem "Ozymandias" with its vivid image: a time-weathered statue of a defunct tyrant.
ALEXANDER POPE left us "The Rape of the Lock", an amusing, satirical piece that is well worth reading.
With the Industrial Revolution came the poets Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
TENNYSON's poem "The Lady of Shallott" is almost Romantic in spirit. MATTHEW ARNOLD's "Dover Beach" is a haunting plea for faith and certainty. GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS, published only post-humously, was a wordsmith of consummate skill. His poem "God's Grandeur" ends with this beautiful image:
"Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Perhaps it is WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS who forms an effective bridge between the Victoriand and the twentieth century. Like Blake, he had his mystical moments, and "The Second Coming" is a terrifying Apocalyptic vision. For me, the opening of "The Wild Swans at Coole" is exquisite:
"The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky."
After the invention of photography, the visual arts were freed to give us images of abstraction. Composers such as John Cage "deconstructed" music into strange atonal fragments, and poetry, too, was liberated from being an upper-class entertainment and (some of it) moved into a more popular realm.
T.S. ELIOT combined foreign phrases, religious translations and peculiarly onomatopoeiac lines in his vision of being a poet firmly aware of his context in world literature.
The two World Wars gave us a number of memorable poets, notably WILFRED OWEN.
e e cummings freed poets from the strict confines of punctuation, and TED HUGHES and SYLVIA PLATH gave us some memorable lines.
The previous Poet Laureate of Britain, PHILIP LARKIN produced some superb imagery:
"Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break."
ROGER MCGOUGH created some amusing anti-establishment pieces, and WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS turned a poem into an enlightening Zen experience:
"So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Poetry has come a long and enlightening journey.
Perhaps as it evolves into the twenty-first century, it will have accumulated so much wisdom in its journey that it will become even more a bright beacon of wisdom. After all, why is it that we chase money? Surely just so that we may have the time and resources to find the poetry in our lives.