The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Robert Frost

The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Robert Frost

by Harold Bloom
     
 

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This comprehensive anthology attempts to give the common reader possession of six centuries of great British and American poetry. The book features a large introductory essay by Harold Bloom called "The Art of Reading Poetry," which presents his critical reflections of more than half a century devoted to the reading, teaching, and writing about

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Overview

This comprehensive anthology attempts to give the common reader possession of six centuries of great British and American poetry. The book features a large introductory essay by Harold Bloom called "The Art of Reading Poetry," which presents his critical reflections of more than half a century devoted to the reading, teaching, and writing about the literary achievement he loves most. In the case of all major poets in the language, this volume offers either the entire range of what is most valuable in their work, or vital selections that illuminate each figure's contribution. There are also headnotes by Harold Bloom to every poet in the volume as well as to the most important individual poems. Much more than any other anthology ever gathered, this book provides readers who desire the pleasures of a sublime art with very nearly everything they need in a single volume. It also is regarded as his final meditation upon all those who have formed his mind.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060540425
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
08/07/2007
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
1008
Sales rank:
252,657
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.80(d)

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The Best Poems of the English Language
From Chaucer Through Robert Frost

Chapter One

The Art of Reading Poetry

Poetry essentially is figurative language, concentrated so that its form is both expressive and evocative. Figuration is a departure from the literal, and the form of a great poem itself can be a trope ("turning") or figure. A common dictionary equivalent for "figurative language" is "metaphorical," but a metaphor actually is a highly specific figure, or turning from the literal. Kenneth Burke, a profound student of rhetoric, or the language of figures, distinguished four fundamental tropes: irony, synecdoche, metonymy, and metaphor. As Burke tells us, irony commits those who employ it to issues of presence and absence, since they are saying one thing while meaning something so different that it can be the precise opposite. We learn to wince when Hamlet says: "I humbly thank you" or its equivalent, since the prince generally is neither humble nor grateful.

We now commonly call synecdoche "symbol," since the figurative substitution of a part for a whole also suggests that incompletion in which something within the poem stands for something outside it. Poets frequently identify more with one trope than with the others. Among major American poets, Robert Frost (despite his mass reputation) favors irony, while Walt Whitman is the great master of synecdoche.

In metonymy, contiguity replaces resemblance, since the name or prime aspect of anything is sufficient to indicate it, provided it is near in space to what serves as substitute. Childe Roland, in Browning's remarkable monologue, is represented at the very end by the "slug-horn" ortrumpet upon which he dauntlessly blows: "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came."

Metaphor proper transfers the ordinary associations of one word to another, as when Hart Crane beautifully writes "peonies with pony manes," enhancing his metaphor by the pun between "peonies" and "pony." Or again Crane, most intensely metaphorical of poets, refers to the Brooklyn Bridge's curve as its "leap," and then goes on to call the bridge both harp and altar.

Figurations or tropes create meaning, which could not exist without them, and this making of meaning is largest in authentic poetry, where an excess or overflow emanates from figurative language, and brings about a condition of newness. Owen Barfield's Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning is one of the best guides to this process, when he traces part of the poetic history of the English word "ruin."

The Latin verb ruo, meaning "rush" or "collapse," led to the substantive ruina for what had fallen. Chaucer, equally at home in French and English, helped to domesticate "ruin" as "a falling":

Min is the ruine of the highe halles,
The falling of the towers and of the walles.

One feels the chill of that, the voice being Saturn's or time's in "The Knight's Tale." Chaucer's disciple Edmund Spenser, has the haunting line:

The old ruines of a broken tower

My last selection in this book is Hart Crane's magnificent death ode, "The Broken Tower," in which Spenser's line reverberates. Barfield emphasizes Shakespeare's magnificence in the employment of "ruin," citing "Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang" from Sonnet 73, and the description of Cleopatra's effect upon her lover: "The noble ruin of her magic, Antony." I myself find even stronger the blind Gloucester's piercing outcry when he confronts the mad King Lear (IV, VI, 134–135):

O ruin'd piece of nature! This great world
Shall so wear out to nought.

Once Barfield sets one searching, the figurative power of "ruined" seems endless. Worthy of Shakespeare himself is John Donne, in his "A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day," where love resurrects the poet to his ruin:

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness
He ruined me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.

Barfield invokes what he rightly calls Milton's "terrific phrase": "Hell saw / Heaven ruining from Heaven," and then traces Wordsworth's allusive return to Milton. Rather than add further instances, I note Barfield's insight, that the figurative power of "ruin" depends upon restoring its original sense of movement, of rushing toward a collapse. One of the secrets of poetic rhetoric in English is to romance the etonym (as it were), to renew what Walter Pater called the "finer edges" of words.

The Best Poems of the English Language
From Chaucer Through Robert Frost
. Copyright © by Harold Bloom. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Harold Bloom is a Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University and a former Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard. His more than thirty books include The Best Poems of the English Language, The Art of Reading Poetry, and The Book of J. He is a MacArthur Prize Fellow, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, including the Academy’s Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism, the International Prize of Catalonia, and the Alfonso Reyes Prize of Mexico.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
New York, New York and New Haven, Connecticut
Date of Birth:
July 11, 1930
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
Education:
B.A., Cornell University, 1951; Ph.D., Yale University, 1955

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