A Brief History of English Poetry

 

Rupert Brook The Soldier 1915
Rupert Brooke, ‘The Soldier’, 1915

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.

 

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey, once the home of St. Caedmon

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.

Chaucer from Ellesmere manuscript 15thC
Chaucer from the Ellesmere Manuscript (15thC)

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.

Paradise Lost 2nd ed

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).

Romantic poets

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.

Industrial Revolution
‘Dark, satanic mills’: the Industrial Revolution forever changed the face of Britain.

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.

T S Eliot cover of Time Mar 6 1950
T. S. Eliot on the cover of Time magazine, 6 March 1950.

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.

Do you have a favourite poet, poem, or poetic era? Share your thoughts below.

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15 thoughts on “A Brief History of English Poetry

  1. Robert Frost’s saying re “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down!” It inspired me to compose this poem. Jill Schaefer

    Now as for tennis, I so love the game.
    And without a net wouldn’t be the same.
    No way to skim balls across the top
    With a fast forehand or backhand shot.

    A tennis court with no dividing net
    Is no place at all for a six game set
    Where to win you must lead by two
    And best of three sets sees you through.

    The crosscourt slice, lob high and smash
    Add to your game some skill and dash
    Of grip, strokes, ace serves and aim
    But without a net, there’s just no game

    So, dear Robert Frost, I agree with you
    Your words to me ring so very true.
    Yet tennis without a net is far worse
    Than poetry written in free verse.

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    1. Ah, Robert Frost! A book of his poems was one of my earliest, and still most enjoyable, forays into adult poetry, way back when I was a pre-teen. At some point I must read up on the evolution of American poetry.

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      1. Not thus far. Although I have to approve all comments I’ve never yet failed to approve one. But I don’t have that many readers – half my followers are my Facebook friends who don’t get a choice, as every post links to my page.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m having a wonderful time trolling through the weeds of poetry in English over the past year and performing it with music at my frankhudson.org blog. Because I have not had the time to deal with rights issues, I’m mostly limited in what I perform to things published before 1925, which has lead me to look more closely at the early 20th century modernists., and since that is a period I find interesting historically too, I feature a lot them along with Emily Dickinson (who reads like a 20th Century modernist even though she wrote in the 1860s). If you’re looking at an American poet to pick up on, Dickinson is worth considering.

    Things I’m discovering:

    I sort of liked Carl Sandburg as a kid, but reading him decades later I find even more there.

    I don’t know if anyone ever wrote better lyric poetry in English than Robert Frost. Well maybe William Butler Yeats.

    Emily Dickinson isn’t that simple nursery-rhyme like poet with a cloistered life that I was taught she was.

    How come I didn’t know about Edward Thomas and Adelstrop before I was way-stopped in Kingham for a couple hours last summer?

    I like Christina Rossetti more than the rest of the Pre-Raphaelite poets.

    Bob Dylan was the THIRD singer-songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. And there’s a link between his famous video of Subterranean Homesick Blues and William Blake.

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