|About this Recording
NA201612 - Collection: Popular Poetry / Popular Verse, Vol. 1
The English attitude to poetry has been ambivalent.
Lord Macaulay once suggested (in ‘The Edinburgh Review’) that ‘perhaps no person can be a poet, or enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind’.
On the other hand, poetry can crystallize and summon up for us certain responses to life and events that are important to us. It can lift our spirits, open up our hearts, broaden our sympathies and lead us, if only for a moment, into a different way of seeing — even of being. Above all, it can be memorable.
Poetry does not, in its essential nature, belong to literature. It comes before literature, when the place of books was occupied by voice and memory; It is meant not so much to be read as to be heard. And the artifice — the rhyme, the rhythm, and the language working to the limits of its capacity — is what makes poetry stick in the mind like music. At the same time, a skilled interpreter can make a well-worn poem as fresh as if it had never been read before.
In this collection, we have chosen to make a distinction between ‘popular poetry’ and ‘popular verse’. It is in some way an artificial distinction, as ‘poetry‘ and ‘verse’ are largely interchangeable terms. But if we consider that prose can sometimes be characterized as poetry (as in a ‘prose poem’) but never as verse, then we can begin to pick out the implications of the distinction.
Molière’s ‘Bourgeois Gentilhomme’ is told: ‘All that is not prose is verse, and all that is not verse is prose’. As literary theory this is not all that profound, but it makes the point that verse is the straight antithesis of prose.
So verse basically amounts to the arrangement of words in lines, usually governed by meter. It might even be possible to translate the full meaning of a piece of verse into prose: all that would be lacking would be the delight communicated by the form. In this sense, verse conforms to the
neo-classical model of poetry as ‘ornamented thought’. We may even say that the eighteenth century, the great age of prose, produced the poetry that it did rather despite its own better judgment.
Poetry is really a more complicated category. Its creation is a mysterious process, even a religious one, born out of the poet’s relationship with a power beyond himself — what is traditionally termed his ‘Muse’. And the result is something, which puts the listener in touch with that which is beyond words, with that which cannot be spoken of. Content and form are more closely involved, and an unusually sensitive handling of language and images communicates an unusually complex or profound meaning.
So poetry is verse that fulfils a more ambitious project than simply the decoration of an idea.
Perhaps the usual distinction is between ‘serious verse’ and ‘light verse’. However, this leaves out of the reckoning some well-loved serious verse that is very much stranded on the lower slopes of Parnassus — commonly late Victorian, and in intent sentimental or stirring. Such a piece is Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. It was, apparently, produced in a matter of minutes, and we have only to compare it with his labored attempt to honor an altogether worthier feat from the same battle, The Charge of the Heavy Brigade, to realize what truly inspired versifying went into it.
We may go so far as to say that every item in this collection, whether great poetry or popular verse, is in some way a masterpiece. All have survived the comings and goings of literary fortune by lodging themselves in the minds of a whole people, as the brightest and most enduring fragments of a national culture.
Notes by Duncan Steen
About the Readers
Anton Lesser is one of Britain’s leading classical actors.
He has played many of the principal Shakespearean roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company including Petruchio, Romeo and Richard III. His career has also encompassed contemporary drama, notably The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter. Appearances in major TV drama productions include The Oresteia, The Cherry Orchard, Troilus and Cressida and The Mill on the Floss.
In his first five years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Simon Russell Beale has played many leading Shakespeare roles ranging widely from Richard III to Ariel in The Tempest, though his dramatic range extends to Samuel Beckett. Beale's performance of Ariel earned him an Olivier Award nomination. Other credits include Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi and Mosca in Volpone at the Royal National Theatre. He also frequently appears on TV and Radio.
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