An Introduction to English Poetry

An Introduction to English Poetry

by James Fenton

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A wise, absorbing, and surprising introduction to poetry written in English, from one of England's leading poets

James Fenton is that rare scholar "not ashamed to admit that he mostly reads for pleasure" (Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books). In this eminently readable guide to his abiding passion, he has distilled the essense of a library's


A wise, absorbing, and surprising introduction to poetry written in English, from one of England's leading poets

James Fenton is that rare scholar "not ashamed to admit that he mostly reads for pleasure" (Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books). In this eminently readable guide to his abiding passion, he has distilled the essense of a library's--and a lifetime's--worth of delight.

The pleasures of his own verse can be found in abundance here: economy, a natural ease, and most of all, surprise. What is English poetry? Fenton argues that it includes any recited words in English that marshall rhythm for their meaning--among them prisoners's work songs, Broadway show tunes, and the cries of street vendors captured in verse. From these beginnings, Fenton describes the rudiments of--and, most important, the inspiration for--the musical verse we find in books, and concludes with an illuminating discussion of operas and songs. Fenton illustrates his comments with verse from all over the English-speaking world.

Catholic in his taste, shrewd in his distinctions, and charmingly frank, Fenton is an ideal guide to everything to do with poetry, from the temperament of poets to their accomplishment, in all its variety. In all his writing, prose or verse, Fenton has always had the virtue of saying, in a way that seems effortless, precisely what lies at the heart of the matter. In this vein, An Introduction to English Poetry is one of his highest accomplishments.

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“[Fenton's] essays educate, enlighten, surprise and thrill, unfailingly.” —Robin Lippincott, The New York Times Book Review

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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First Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.35(d)

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1. The History and Scope
of English Poetry

English poetry begins whenever we decide to say the modern English language begins, and it extends as far as we decide to ay that the English language extends. We cannot expect everyone to agree with us when we make a decision in either case. Some people, for instance, think that English poetry begins with the Anglo-Saxons. I don't, because I can't accept hat there is any continuity between the traditions of Anglo-Saxon poetry and those established in English poetry by the time of, say, Shakespeare. And anyway Anglo-Saxon is a different language, which has to be learnt like any foreign language. Anglo-Saxon poetry may be extremely exciting and interesting, but it excites and interests me (when it does) in much the same way as the Norse sagas excite. It is somebody else's poetry.

What then of poems written in a language that is semi-comprehensible as English, the language for instance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which was written some time round 1375)? Or what about the poems of Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400)? These surely count as English poetry, do they not? My answer is that they do indeed count as English poetry, if you wish. But they fall slightly outside the limits I would propose. The language of the Gawain poem comes and goes, baffling and comprehensible in turns:

Queme quyssewes then that coyntlych closed,
His thik thrawen thyghes with thwonges to tachched;
And sithen the brawden bryné of bryght stel rynges

Umbeweved that wyy, upon wlonk stuffe,
And wel bornyst brace upon his both armes,
With gode cowters and gay, and gloves of plate . . .

(lines 578-83)

A part of the meaning of this can be guessed. But who, without specialist help, could arrive at the conclusion that someone is here putting on his armour, and who could guess the meaning of 'queme quyssewes' (pleasing thigh-pieces) or 'wlonk' (noble, glorious, fine)? Who could guess their pronunciation?

With Chaucer we are much nearer home, both linguistically and in terms of poetic practice.

Owt of thise blake wawes for to saylle -
O wynd, O wynd, the weder gynneth clere -
For in this see the boot hath swych travaylle
Of my conning that unneth I it steere.
This see clepe I the tempestous matere
Of disespeir that Troilus was inne:
But now of hope the kalendes bygynne.

(Troilus and Criseyde, Book 2, Lines 1-7)

Most of this can be guessed, although there is a word-order problem in lines 3-4: 'For in the sea the boat of my ability ("Of my conning") has such difficulty that I can scarcely steer it.' Even when this has been pointed out to us, we find it hard to know whether the strange word order came naturally to Chaucer or was a sign of his incompetence. We need to acquire certain skills in order to read and appreciate such verse.

Some time around the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47), English poetry — some of it — becomes graspable in a newly direct way. We no longer need to look everything up, or worry overmuch about pronunciation (and therefore scansion). It is not that we can dispense with notes, or with the help of our teachers the scholars, altogether. It is just that with sixteenth-century poetry we recognize much more of the language we still speak, and this is encouraging.

The simplest poems in most languages are its songs, and it is in the Elizabethan lyric that we will find many of the earliest English poems we can most easily grasp:

Followe thy faire sunne, unhappy shaddowe:
Though thou be blacke as night,
And she made all of light,
Yet follow thy faire sunne, unhappie shaddowe.

Follow her whose light thy light depriveth:
Though here thou liv'st disgrac't,
And she in heaven is plac't,
Yet follow her whose light the world reviveth.

Follow those pure beames whose beautie burneth,
That so have scorched thee,
As thou still black must bee,
Til her kind beanies thy black to brightnes tumeth.

(A Booke of Ayres, 1601, No. IV)

These verses are from a song by Thomas Campion (1567-1620). The music survives, so we can tell exactly what rhythm was intended, that 'scorched' was pronounced with two syllables, 'beames' with one, and so forth. But we could easily have guessed such things even without music.

This does not mean, of course, that the poem holds no mysteries for us, and no opportunities for misunderstanding. The characteristic Elizabethan contrast between the whiteness of the loved one and the blackness of the lover does not imply a lover of African origin. It implies only an unfortunate lover, a melancholy man whose suit has so far been rejected, but whom the poet encourages to persist. The simple lyrical idea of following the sun was used in the last century by the Beatles in the song 'I'll follow the sun'. The contrast of black and white was used by W. H. Auden (1907-73) in one of his imitations of the Elizabethan poetry for which he had a great fondness:

O lurcher-loving collier, black as night,
Follow your love across the smokeless hill;
Your lamp is out, the cages all are still;
Course for her heart and do not miss,
For Sunday soon is past and, Kate, fly not so fast,
For Monday comes when none may kiss:
Be marble to his soot, and to his black be white.

('Twelve Songs, II')

This was written in 1935, for a documentary film about the coal industry. Like the Campion, it is a song. Both Benjamin Britten and Lennox Berkeley have set it to music, the former giving it to a female chorus. The charm of 'Madrigal', as the poem was once called, comes from the contrast between its centuries-old idiom and its grimy contemporary (1930s) setting. 'Black' is used in Campion's manner, but without his meaning.

Let us say that we have about five centuries of English poetry behind us. This poetry did not emerge out of nowhere, but the fact is that beyond those five centuries ago it becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend, whereas within those centuries people use strikingly similar vocabulary, grammar, poetic forms and metres. It is true that to understand Shakespeare (1564-1616) in detail, we need the help of notes, and it has been true at certain times in the past that readers have found large parts of Shakespeare incomprehensible or barbaric. The current assumption that all the plays are in principle both performable and worth performing is comparatively new.

But the really striking thing about, say, the recent film of Romeo and Juliet is the effectiveness with which the poetry communicates, and does so when delivered at great speed. Leonardo DiCaprio did not slow down in order to get a complex point across. He simply made sure that he understood the point and assumed that his understanding would be enough to carry the audience with him. This is what any actor has to do. When we study Shakespeare on the page, for academic purposes, we may require all kinds of help. Generally, we read him in modern spelling and with modern punctuation. And I like editions, such as the Arden editions, which give detailed notes on the same page. But any poetry that is performed — from song lyric to tragic speech — must make its point, as it were, without reference back. We can't, as an audience, ask the actors to repeat themselves, or slow down, or share their notes with us. We must grasp the meaning — or enough of it — in real time. That Hamlet still works after 400 years is an extraordinary linguistic and poetic fact.

Copyright © 2003 by Salamander Press Ltd.

Meet the Author

James Fenton was Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1994 to 1999. His most recent works on gardening, A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed (FSG, 2002), of criticism, The Strength of Poetry, and of poetry, Out of Danger, are published by FSG.

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