The meaning of a poem is enhanced by the reader’s own experience; great poems give beautiful expression to feelings we all have (the theme of The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry). But the meaning of a poem is also enhanced by knowing something of its context, and that is the organizing idea behind this collection. Even the briefest description of the poet’s life and times can often set the words singing in a new way.
For example, “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats is disturbing enough even if you know little about Yeats or his world. Its vision of impending chaos can be as terribly true about yesterday’s social failure as about tomorrow’s economics. But in 1919 when he wrote it, Yeats was worried about the rising tide of anarchy in Russia, in Germany and in Ireland. His mystical belief that the human race was getting a warning from a common subconscious—a spiritus mundi—gives the verse an even greater strangeness. He thought the horror of World War I was a prelude to the coming of an anti-Christ, “slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”
Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, extraordinary by itself, becomes more haunting against the background of Frost’s difficult life, having by then buried his mother and two of his children and committed his sister to an asylum. There are people behind these poems, and even the briefest account of their fascinating lives adds another dimension to their verse.
The scope of this collection extends from the eighth century to 1941; a second volume of modern masters is planned to cover the period from 1941 to the present. The focus has been on the poets consistently admired for the last fifty years, drawing deeply from their best work. About two hundred of the poems included here appear also in The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry, and in the Norton Anthology of Poetry. They are the classics. But the cost of printing such books has made it difficult for any anthology to select more deeply from these authors. Now with ebooks we can, including more from Shakespeare (27), Dickinson (21), Millay (16), Whitman (15), Sandburg (14), and Frost (13). It also allows us to add the full text of such long works as “The Waste Land,” ”Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Evangeline,” and “The Raven,” as well as generous excerpts from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, and Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”—547 poems in all, over a thousand pages for students and poetry lovers old and new.
A special effort has been made to include popular poetry so often neglected by the big anthologies, including “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Casey at the Bat,” “The Cremation of Sam Magee,” “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and “High Flight”. Though not the “high poetry” getting critical attention today, they are widely loved. For better or worse, these are often the poems people memorize and recite on rafting trips, in the cockpit on long commercial flights, around campfires and on stage at school.
This is not intended to be a museum of poems in which authors, styles, and ages are somehow equitably represented, a specimen for every type. There are other, better books for that. This is a collection to be read for pleasure. Archaic spelling and punctuation have been lightly corrected to modern usage in order to remove the obstacles to understanding they sometimes present.
How do poets happen?
Looking back over these lives it is notable that so many wrote so wisely at an early age: “God’s World” was published by Edna St. Vincent Millay at the age of 21. When he published “To Helen,” Poe was only 22. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Ode to a Nightingale” were published when their authors were 23. “Ulysses” was published when Tennyson was 24, “Kubla Kahn” when Coleridge was 26, and “The Highwayman” when Noyes was 26. But they kept going. Half the poets in this collection lived at least to 65, and many of them wrote throughout their lives. Thomas Hardy did his best work when he was seventy.
They were lawyers and doctors and farmers and bank clerks, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, married, single and in love with the wrong person. And they had two great skills in common. First, they knew the joy of language and had the skill to use it well. De la Mare, in “Silver,” describes how “Slowly, silently, now the moon, Walks the night in her silver shoon.” And second, they had the capacity for insight—the ability to see in the world around them a surprising truth the rest of us had missed. Read Shakespeare’s “Let’s talk of graves.” Robert Frost spoke often of these two skills, reminding us that a good poem says well what it means to say, but a great poem says something worth saying.
There is a third characteristic great poets appear to share, and it should give us pause. Recent studies in child development have suggested that some people, gifted children in particular, respond to events around them more emotionally than others. They are often enthusiastic, deeply absorbed in their pursuits, endowed with vivid imagination, and emotionally vulnerable. They are verbally precocious; they have imaginary friends; and they can work alone for hours in an abstract world of their own creation*. One study describes a four-year-old boy who just watched the movie Charlotte’s Web, and it helps us think about Emily Dickinson in a new way:
“[Michael] left the theater sobbing uncontrollably because the spider had died, leaving her children alone in the world. He cried for hours that day and continued speaking about death and sadness for months afterwards. His parents were concerned as he withdrew into himself. His teacher said that he wouldn’t mix with other children and didn’t want to play with his friends.” **
Some poets are like that. An increased capacity for emotional response may allow people greater enjoyment of love, beauty and the world around them, but it also makes them vulnerable to greater disappointment, depression and despair. Of the 121 poets in this collection, four died of alcoholism and eight took their own lives—a rate of suicide one hundred times greater than the norm.
Great poets also bloom in bunches. The Elizabethan theater certainly provoked a new wave of verse, and when Cromwell shut the playhouses down in 1642, many of those playwrights turned to poetry. In the next twenty years ten of the great poets included here were alive, drinking together, preaching, fighting and writing poetry in London. A hundred and fifty years later, in the two revolutionary decades beginning in 1800, another eight of the great poets—the Romantics—created a similar surge. And they were all friends. In the years leading up to the American Civil War, poetry exploded after a long colonial silence. Eight of the great poets included here were writing at the same time within fifty miles of each other. Together with New England novelists Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, they constituted the most extraordinary literary crescendo in history. The Harlem Renaissance, the early Imagists, the Georgians, and the Modernists were close friends and rivals, reading and reviewing each others’ work. Magazines certainly played an important part in shaping and sustaining all of these movements, but beyond that we can only wonder how it is that art—the most individual of enterprises—seems to flourish so in groups.
Traveling to poetry
Ancient Persians believed that between Heaven and Earth there is a third layer where every element of our experience exists in its ideal form, where art and music live, where we go in our songs, in our paintings and in our dreams to meet in their more perfect embodiment those long gone from the world below. Of course it is just a metaphor; all cosmologies are. But it gives us a way to think about poems as timeless models of experience to which we travel for solace, pleasure, and inspiration. Poems, too, are meeting places. I think of an anthology as a grand old hotel along the New England coast (or a run-down country house in England) where all the dead poets live, walking in the garden with their poet friends. A few of the old masters, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Whitman, Longfellow, slouch side by side on a sunny bench, wearing their big hats. Kipling restlessly taps his tennis racket against his leg, staring out to sea. Others stand at the window in their room, speaking softly again and ever again their immortal words. Waiting for us.
*Dabrowski, K., & Piechowski, M. M., Theory of Levels of Emotional Development, Dabor Science Publications,1977.
**Leslie Sword, "Gifted Children: Emotionally Immature or Emotionally Intense?", Gifted and Creative Services, Australia