Throughout its history, the glory of the English artistic spirit has always found its clearest expression in words, and while prose writing began to gain ascendency with the evolution of the novel in the 18th century, the roots of poetry extend much further back. Indeed, so far back do they go that the earliest poems are lost in the mists of time. What follows, then, is a very brief summary of some 1,500 years of literary history.
Old English (prehistory to 11th century) Old English is so different from the various dialects of modern English that it might as well be a whole other language, and it is in Old English that the earliest fragments of English poetry are found. The first complete poems to have survived to the current date are a hymn to creation attributed to Saint Caedmon, who lived between approximately 658 and 680 A.D., and the epic saga ‘Beowulf’, which dates to some time between 600 and 1000 A.D. Religious and epic poetry dominate the period, along with proverbs, riddles, and charms, and are characterised by alliteration rather than rhyme.
Middle English (11th to 16th centuries) Following the Norman conquest of 1066, Norman French became the language of the upper classes and the courts, and exerted a huge influence on the English tongue. The result was Middle English. Poetry at this time in dominated by brief, emotive lyric poems and fantastical chivalric romances. Rhythm and rhyme replace alliteration as the distinguishing characteristic, and the most famous poet of the period is undoubtedly Geoffrey Chaucer, whose ‘Canterbury Tales’ took the chivalric romance and brought it into the everyday with stories of millers, merchants, reeves, and goodwives.
The Renaissance (16th to 17th centuries) The Renaissance period was a time of immense change in Britain, with the introduction of moveable type, the Reformation (and, to a lesser extent, the counter-Reformation), the translation of the Bible into English, the growth of Humanism, and the birth of what would become the British Empire. This was the age of Queen Elizabeth I, the sonnet, the pastoral poem, and the theatre. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Edmund Spenser (1552-1599, most famous for ‘The Faerie Queen’) dominate the Elizabethan period, and John Milton’s (1608-1674) ‘Paradise Lost’ marks a return to the religious concerns which also found their way into the work of the Metaphysical Poets, including John Donne (1573-1631) and Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), although the Metaphysical poets were rather more raunchy.
The Eighteenth Century Satire was all the rage in 18th century English poetry, and the wit of the likes of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) could be biting. The term ‘Augustan’ is often used to describe the other great poetic passion of the time: translations of the great Classical Greek and Roman writers and poets such as Homer, Horace, and Juvenal.
The Romantics (18th to 19th centuries) Many of the best-known, best-loved, and most widely read English poets and poems date from the Romantic period. Preoccupied with nature and authentic emotion, and, particularly towards the end of the period, mortality, these poets began to move slightly away from the strictest poetic rules of metre and rhyme, although it can be difficult for a modern reader, accustomed to Modernist poetry, to spot the transition. The great names of the period are William Blake (1757-1827), William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), Lord Byron (1788-1824), and John Keats (1795-1821).
The Victorians (19th and early 20th centuries) Romanticism and Symbolism blend together in the works of many of the most famous poets of the Victorian era, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), Robert Browning (1812-1889) and his wife Elizabeth Barret Browning (1806-1861), the first woman to gain significant prominence in English poetry, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889 but unpublished until after his death). Two more poets of note in this period are the siblings Gabriel (1828-1882) and Christina (1830-1894) Rossetti, who were part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which is better known for its paintings and who expressed a similar blend of realism and medieval mythologizing in their writing. Comic verse was also immensely popular in the Victorian period, appearing in magazines such as Punch, although little has survived to the present in the popular consciousness. This was the height of the Empire and the age of Industrialisation, and towards the end of the period a child of the far-flung Empire, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), rose to prominence with poems which endeavoured to capture the essence of the spirit of the quintessential Victorian English Gentleman, most famously in the poem ‘If’, which retains its popularity today. Two more famous poets of the Late Victorian period are William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), whose poetry spans the pre- and post-WWI period and who described himself as the last of the great Romantics, and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), whose poetry often expresses his preoccupation with the social ills which emerged as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
World War One (1914-1918) It is not, to my mind, an exaggeration to say that World War One changed everything in Europe. The social fabric was rent asunder. The dreamy optimism of the Romantics and the Pastoralists was blown apart as surely as the landscapes which they had once described. The poets who emerged during this period were men (and, more rarely and less prominently), women who had been broken in spirit and, sometimes, body. The two greatest are undoubtedly Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who did not survive the War, and Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), who did, but there are many others who are worthy of note, including Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), Robert Graves (1895-1985), A. E. Housman (1859-1936), and John McRae (1872-1918), whose ‘Flanders Fields’ has been committed to memory by generations of schoolchildren since.
Modernism (20th century) Although Modernism is arguably the poetic style which continues to dominate in English today, I’ll finish by touching only on its very beginnings. Modernism was the child of the post-WWI period, the new growth which sprung up from the ashes of what had been. Among the early Modernists were many of the surviving War Poets, but there were others as well, most notably T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), and Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who were both American by birth but spent significant periods of their lives in England. Modernist poetry is often heavy on symbolism and allusion, and light on rhythm and rhyme. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is perhaps the most famous example from this time.
The art of English poetry writing is far from dead. Indeed, one of the more positive legacies of the days of Empire is the exportation of the English poetic tradition to the former British colonies, and that is without even mentioning the rich poetic traditions of other cultures, increasingly translated into the English language. It took me a long time to learn to read poetry, and I still struggle with modern poetry in particular, but I’ve found that the best way to build my understanding and appreciation was simply to make time to read it, and in particular to explore anthologies which offer a taster of the works of many different poets, rather than overwhelming myself with the complete works of a single individual.
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