About this Recording
NA791512 - WHITFIELD, P.: History of English Poetry (The) (Unabridged)

Peter Whitfield
The History of English Poetry


What is poetry? A simple but apparently impossible question to answer. A poem is immediately recognisable, be it a ballad from the late middle ages, an Elizabethan sonnet, an epic by Milton or Tennyson, or the free-verse lyric of today. But what is it that links these works? What were writers as different as Donne, Pope, Shelley, Whitman and Eliot doing that makes it possible for us to see their work as belonging to the great artistic structure we call poetry? Does something happen in a poem that does not happen in a novel, an essay or a play, and if so what is it?

In this survey of the course of English poetry over more than six centuries we have tried to answer these questions by examining what poetry has been. Here, the great ages of poetry—Elizabethan, Augustan, Romantic, Victorian and Modernist—are evoked in turn, while the novelty and impact of American poetry is also considered.

What emerges is a series of love affairs with language. Poetry is distinguished by language itself in the foreground—language is made to live and flow in what can only be called the music of ideas. The line of verse and the stanza, isolated on the page, draw the eye and the mind to each word and phrase, which should be individually striking, but which must harmonise into a satisfying whole. Prose is subtler—more flexible, more diffuse and more forgiving. Two or three imperfect words can diminish or even ruin a poem; a thousand will not ruin a novel. In prose we are looking through the language at the ideas; in poetry we are looking at, and perhaps even living within, the language itself. That is the difference. The music of ideas is not wholly rational, and as we encounter it in poetry it gives a depth of pleasure that prose rarely can. It embodies an imaginative response to the world, an alchemy of words in which experience is recreated in new forms; this is, after all, exactly what we mean by the very word ‘poetic’.

What have poets used this music for—what have they had to say? In many cases, of course, the answer is: little that was original. They have often been content to repeat and polish themes and styles which they have learned from others: the tradition of poetry is built up as one voice releases other voices. But this is a characteristic of any art and it does not mean that this kind of work is worthless. The sonnet-writers of Elizabethan England, or the satirical poets of the Augustan age, wanted to show their mastery of certain models, often classical or foreign models. Originality and individuality were not part of their conception of poetry. A lyric such as Carew’s—

Ask me no more where Jove bestows,
When June is past, the fading rose…

—might have been written by any one of a score of poets at any time between 1600 and 1700, but its charm and balance are as enduring as the melody of a song. There have always been poets who did value individuality above all things, who wanted to explore new realms of thought and feeling. Donne, Herbert and the other metaphysical poets rejected stock poeticisms in their attempts to bring real experience, emotional and spiritual, into their poems.

The story of English poetry could be seen in terms of a tension between formal mastery and individual expression, a tension in which the Romantic Movement was crucial in focusing attention on the personal vision of the poet. Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson and Whitman were exploring their own selfhood and their response to the world; they were no longer interested in perfecting existing models, or in being part of any school. Others, such as Hopkins and Emily Dickinson, were so radical in their approach that they remained unpublishable in their lifetimes. In the modern era we have come to be interested in poets only when they differ from others, only at the point where they acquire a unique voice. Perhaps it is no accident that this has happened at a time when the conventional poetic forms have dissolved and all but vanished: we now find ourselves in a rich but bewildering modern landscape of poetic freedom, for which we have few maps.

Poetry was for centuries a mainstream art, and writers such as Spenser, Milton, Donne, Blake, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Browning created a world of beauty, of images and forms, as enduring as the painting of the Renaissance or the music of the classical age. Their work became part of the English consciousness. Poetry may no longer enjoy this position of centrality in our culture, but the music of ideas that these poets developed is still among the most precious legacies that we have received from the past. This history explores that legacy and shows how vital and challenging modern poetry can still be. Lucidly presented and richly illustrated with passages from scores of great poets, it offers an expert guide to the whole world of English and American poetry that is distinctive, thought-provoking, and above all, enjoyable.

Notes by Peter Whitfield


Extracts recorded specially for this title are read by Sean Barrett, Bertie Carvel and Anne-Marie Piazza.

Other Extracts Are Taken From the Following Titles:

The Great Poets: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti
Read by Rachel Bavidge and Georgina Sutton
ISBN: 9789626349205

The Poets: William Blake
Read by Robert Glenister, Michael Maloney and Stephen Critchlow
ISBN: 9789626344729

The Great Poets: Robert Burns
Read by Forbes Masson,
ISBN: 9789626349687

The General Prologue and the Physician’s Tale (Chaucer)
Read by Richard Bebb, Philip Madoc and Michael Maloney
ISBN: 9789626344002

The Great Poets: Emily Dickinson
Read by Teresa Gallagher
ISBN: 9789626348567

Winter Words (Hardy)
Read by Bruce Alexander and Janet Maw
ISBN: 9789626343739

The Great Poets: John Keats
Read by Samuel West and Michael Sheen
ISBN: 9789626344897

The Great Poets: Rudyard Kipling
Read by Robert Glenister and Michael Maloney
ISBN: 9789626344743

The Song of Hiawatha (Longfellow)
Read by William Hootkins
ISBN: 9789626343401

The Great Poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins
Read by Jeremy Northam
ISBN: 9789626349007

The Essential John Milton
Read by Anton Lesser, Samantha Bond and Derek Jacobi
ISBN: 9789626348857

Paradise Lost (Milton)
Read by Anton Lesser
ISBN: 9789626343500

The Essential Edgar Allan Poe
Read by Kerry Shale, John Chancer and William Roberts
ISBN: 9789626349212

From Shakespeare—with Love
Read by David Tennant, Juliet Stevenson, Anton Lesser and others
ISBN: 9789626349564

Venus and Adonis & The Rape of Lucrece (Shakespeare)
Read by David Burke, Clare Corbett, Benjamin Soames, Eve Best and Oliver Le Sueur
ISBN: 9789626344293

The Faerie Queene (Spenser)
Read by John Moffat,
ISBN: 9789626343777


Classic American Poetry
Read by Garrick Hagon, Liza Ross, William Hootkins, Kate Harper, James Goode, Alibe Parsons
ISBN: 9789626341988

Classic Erotic Verse
Read by Benjamin Soames, Stella Gonet and others
ISBN: 9789626349380

Great Narrative Poems of the Romantic age (available for download only)*
Read by John Moffatt, Samuel West, Sarah Woodward
ISBN: 9789626340929

Great Poets of the Romantic
Read by Michael Sheen
ISBN: 9789626340219

A Lover’s Gift From Him to Her
Read by Michael Sheen
ISBN: 9789626343890

Poets of the Great War
Read by Michael Maloney, Jasper Britton, Michael Sheen, Sarah Woodward
ISBN: 9789626341094

Popular Poetry – Popular Verse (available for download only)*
Read by Anton Lesser and Simon Russell Beale
ISBN: 9626340169

Popular Poetry – Popular Verse Vol. 2 (available for download only)*
Read by Tony Britton, Jasper Britton and Emma Fielding
ISBN: 962634072X

* www.naxosaudiobooks.com


The music on this recording was taken from the Naxos catalogue

Piano Music for Children

Idil Biret, piano

DOWLAND Lute Music Vol 1

Nigel North, lute

BACH, J.S. Viola da Gamba Sonatas

Mikko Perkola, viola da gamba; Aapo Häkinnen, harpsichord

BEETHOVEN Bagatelles and Dances Vol 1

Jenő Jandó, piano

SCHUMANN, R. Arabeske

Bernd Glemser, piano

BRAHMS Clarinet Quintet Op 115

Boris Rener, clarinet; Ludwig Quartet

DVOŘÁK String Quartet No 12, “American”

Moyzes Quartet

JANÁČEK Violin Sonata

Jana Vlachová, violin; František Malý, piano

Music programming by Sarah Butcher

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