The Seashell Press
Immortal Poets

Introduction

First Chapter

Poets and Poems

First Chapter
preeliz

English poetry begins with Beowulf, the stark, pounding drama of a great hero and his triumph over monsters. Other civilizations had epic heroes, too. The Sumerians had Gilgamesh; the Chinese had Sun Wukong, the monkey king; the Greeks had Odysseus. And, like Beowulf, these were poems told over and over again around which a national identity was formed. Lesser poetry also existed, but in England it was mostly simple rhyme, rules for forecasting the weather, popular remedies for illness, guides for planting, and other elements of folk wisdom. Rhyme and rhythm were simply aids to memory.

If Saint Paul's Day be fair and clear
Then we shall have a happy year.
But if it chances to snow or rain
Then dear shall be all kinds of grain.
And if the wind be high and strong
Then war shall vex the kingdom long
And if the clouds make dark the sky
Both cattle and fowl that year shall die.
Anonymous, 15th century

Religious poetry also existed, but it was in Latin, confined to the church and, like the doggerel of the day, utilitarian in nature. Beauty was not the goal, nor did it try to capture or convey emotion.

Then Chaucer appeared. At the end of the fourteenth century he traveled throughout Europe as an emissary of Edward III and later Richard II, gathering intelligence and delivering messages. In the course of his travels he became familiar with Boccaccio's Decameron—a collection of profiles, stories and dirty jokes—and saw in it a framework for a collection of his own. In 1380 he began The Canterbury Tales.

In the fifteenth century poems were coming to England of an entirely new kind. The Italian Renaissance, the rise of printing, and the freedom of discourse stimulated by the Reformation all helped to encourage a new wave of classical and contemporary verse. Prominent among the writers circulating anew was Homer, the ancient Greek, telling his proud stories in verse that showed the way for the long striding works of Milton, Tennyson, Longfellow, and others:

Now when with rosy fingers, th' early born
And thrown through all the air, appeared the Morn,
Ulysses' loved son from his bed appeared,
His weeds put on, and did about him gird
His sword that thwart his shoulders hung,and tied
To his fair feet fair shoes, and all parts plied
For speedy readiness; who, when he trod
The open earth, to men showed like a God.
The Odyssey, Book Two
Translated by George Chapman

Catullus arrived, the Roman poet from the first century BC who brought a direct and sometimes erotic voice. He had a jaunty tone with a touch of sarcasm that presented the poet as a wit, well read and eager to persuade. Especially when meeting a potential lover.

You ask how many kissings of you, Lesbia,

As great as the number of the Libyan sands
that lie on silphium-bearing Cyrene,
between the oracle of sultry Jove and
the sacred tomb of old Battus;
or as many as are the stars, when night
is silent, that see the stolen loves of men,
to kiss you with so many kisses, Lesbia,
is enough and more than enough for your
insane Catullus.
"Carta VII" by Catullus
Translated by Francis Warre Cornish

Sappho, the seventh century Greek poet, contributed a third element: a lyric voice, a sensitivity to nature, and a focus on love that became a prominent characteristic of English poetry:

Like the wild hyacinth flower
which on the hills is found
which the passing feet of the shepherds
forever tear and wound
until the purple blossom
is trodden in the ground
One Girl, by Sappho
Translated by Dante Rossetti

And finally came the mournful and introspective Dante, clawing at his own soul:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! How hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
"The Inferno", by Dante Alighieri
Translated by H. W. Longfellow

To these archetypes, Petrarch, the contemporary Italian poet, added the 14-line sonnet, a new structure concise and wittily formed that foreshadowed Shakespeare and centuries of poets to follow.

She ruled in beauty over this heart of mine,
A noble lady in a humble home
And now her time for heavenly bliss has come,
'Tis I am mortal proved, and she divine.
The soul that all its blessings must resign,
And love whose light no more on earth finds room,
Might rend the rocks with pity for their doom,
Yet none their sorrows can in words enshrine;
They weep within my heart; and ears are deaf
Save mine alone, and I am crushed with care,
And naught remains to me save mournful breath.
Assuredly but dust and shade we are,
Assuredly desire is blind and brief,
Assuredly its hope but ends in death.
"Soleasi Nel Mio Cor" by Petrarch
Translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

What luck. The long narrative, the witty argument, the lyric love song, the gloomy introspective . . . these rich models together gave educated young men of sixteenth century England the platform for a new literature, and we find their coloration reaching on for hundreds of years, even to Hawthorne, Frost and Millay. No other country in the world enjoyed such an inheritance, and within a few decades the results became gloriously apparent.