Adnax Publications

A selection of English Poetry from Blake to Keats

Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Clare, Keats


William Blake (1757-1827)

Most of Blake's poetry came in the form of huge histories in which he developed ideas tied to mythological characters who appear only in his writings. It has to be said that at least one of the functions of a mythology is to express a collective imaginative world which operates at least in part to tie a society together with a common cultural heritage. Developing a personal mythology is therefore something of a nonsense, and is possibly part of the reason why he was considered mad in his lifetime. Later generations found much to admire, particularly in the twentieth century when personal mythologies (in the form of rampant individualism) became all the rage in the rush to be misunderstood, but that doesn't help us to understand Blake's poetry.

Fortunately, there are other elements in Blake's poetry which are much more immediately accessible, and which demonstrate an inspired level of imagination probably without parallel in English literature. Some of the poetry produced by this inspired imagination is reproduced here.

London

The Tyger

Song

The Garden of Love

The Clod and the Pebble

Spring

The School-Boy

To Autumn


Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Burns was the original peasant poet who astounded Scottish society in the late eighteenth century with the power of his poetry. Universally recognised now as then as the greatest Scottish poet, he is also a difficult figure to fit into the mould of national hero, with rather too many illegitimate offspring, extra-marital affairs and bouts of drunken riot for the taste of polite society. But his infidelities don't seem to have done his poetry any harm, and his acceptance of a job working for the Excise doesn't seem to have dulled his perception of the rights of man too much. His radical poem A Man's a Man for a' that, composed while he was working for the Excise, was sung at the opening of the newly formed Scottish Parliament in 1999 just before they got down to the serious business of distributing tassles and ribbons to each other. His* poem Auld Lang Syne is still sung on the first of January each year, even in England.

John Barleycorn

To a Kiss

A Man's a Man for a' that

Auld Lang Syne

Tam o' Shanter

* The poem is actually a re-working of an already existing Scottish song.


William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Attempting to summarise Wordsworth's contribution to poetry is a bit like trying to shape water. Critics from succeeding generations have been violently opposed about who he is and what he represents, and about the value of what he produced. And this despite the fact that he set out quite succinctly in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads of 1800 what his intentions were in writing poetry. Taking our cue from this piece of prose (the Preface), we can say without any shadow of a doubt that Wordsworth was thoroughly opposed to the idea of a poetic diction distinct from ordinary speech, and we can see that he actually does go a long way towards achieving this goal of eliminating poetic diction from his poetry. This was, in itself, a huge change, and a change that has continued through most of the intervening centuries between Wordsworth and the present day. But this does not mean that he abandons poetic form. Rather the contrary. His verses generally conform very strictly to metrical measures, and it is partly this combination of metrical regularity and ordinary speech that acts to hypnotise us to the point where we are going to be susceptible to the sleight of hand that he frequently attempts in his poetry, a sleight of hand that leads us into the absurd or surreal world of animated nature, rocks, mountains that talk and feel, get up and walk away, stars that wheel and glide, brief moments of hyper-vision which compensate for... well for whatever it was that Wordsworth felt that he lacked: love, human friendship, affection, closeness. The hard, barren landscape of the Lakes is, of course, William Wordsworth's own soul, and there are enough people who identify with that feeling to make his poetry appealing to succeeding generations.

Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew Tree

Upon Westminster Bridge

Is it a Beauteous Evening Calm and Free

A Night Piece

The Poet's Work

The Green Linnet

On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic

Composed in the valley near Dover, on he Day of Landing

Joanna's Rock


Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

Coleridge exchanged ideas on poetry and philosophy with William Wordsworth during the course of their close friendship which lasted for some fifteen years between 1795 and 1810. They collaborated on the book of Lyrical Ballads published in 1798, with Coleridge supplying four of the twenty-three poems, including the Ryme of the Ancyent Marinere. His reputation as a poet rests on this latter poem, together with Kubla Khan, Christabel and Frost at Midnight, all of which demonstrate an extraordinary imaginative power rarely equalled elsewhere, and which he never again equalled himself. During the latter part of his life, he devoted himself to writing his Literaria Biographica, a work which mixes autobiography, literary criticism and metaphysics, and to lecturing on literary criticism.

Frost at Midnight

Kubla Khan

Song

The Pains of Sleep

The Ryme of the Ancyent Marinere


George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Lord Byron on his deathbed by Joseph Oldevaere

'Mad, bad and dangerous to know' was Lady Caroline Lamb's celebrated assessment of Byron on first meeting him. She might also have added that he had an extraordinary facility for rhyming which sometimes approached real poetry.

After the publication in 1812 of the first two parts of his long poem Childe Harold, which recounts the travels in Europe of a disillusioned and world-weary young man, he writes 'I awoke one morning and found myself famous'. Fame turned to notoriety as his affairs with both adolescent boys and women, his incestuous relationship with his half-sister, and his indelicate treatment of his wife Annabella Millbanke became known. He left England in 1816, never to return.

He died fighting for Greek independence from the Turks, possibly indicating that somewhere beneath that unpleasant exterior there lived a noble soul.

It is the hour

I Would to Heaven that I were so much Clay

To a Beautiful Quaker

Maid of Athens

Love's Last Adieu

My Soul is Dark

To Time


Bysshe Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

With Chatterton and Keats, Shelley rates as one of the quintessentially romantic poets: a political radical if not a revolutionary, who died young, who believed in and went some way towards practising free love, and who was provocatively anti-religious, though he did not appear to suffer from poetic melancholy, did not express world-weariness, and did not committ suicide. He was second only to Coleridge in producing long, partly comprehensible, philosophical discourses on the nature of poetry and society, demonstrating an uncomfortable knack of stating obscure propositions as though they were self evident truths. For instance:

'Reason is to the imagination as the instrument is to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.' An instrument is used by an agent, the spirit inhabits the body, a shadow is cast by a substance by the effect of a light to one side. So, reason is a shadow cast by the imagination. What is the light? We do not know. The imagination inhabits reason. What does this mean? Reason is used by the imagination. In all this, is our understanding of the nature of reason and the imagination furthered, or deepened? No. In short, this is neither philosophy nor poetry.

But he also rivalled Wordsworth and Shakespeare in the accuracy of his observation of nature, and produced some wonderful verse centred on his appreciation of nature (eg Ode to the West Wind, Mont Blanc) and some memorable and lasting poetry on spiritual themes (eg Ozymandias).

To Night

The Question

When the Lamp is Shattered

Ode to the West Wind

Song, Rarely, Rarely Comest Thou

To a Skylark

Autumn: a Dirge

Time


John Clare (1793-1864)


John Linnell

England's answer to Robert Burns, John Clare, the peasant poet, caused a sensation with his first book of poetry, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life (1820, 27). His poetry reflects an intimate familiarity with rural life and nature which he describes accurately and with great poetic sensibility, but his poetic sensibility developed into a certain melancholy self-awareness which seems to have become in time clinical depression, causing him eventually to be incarcerated in the Northampton Lunatic Asylum, where he nevertheless continued to produce poetry.

I am

An Invite to Eternity

The Nightingale


John Keats (1795-1821) 

For pure lyrical beauty, Keats is hard to beat. His best poetry demonstrates a flow of language that is irresistible, with a perceptive wisdom and freshness of perspective that is only found among those who die young. His language is as luxurious as that of Coleridge, without becoming metaphysical, and without the ever present angst which accompanies that poet's visions, and his poetry is as appreciative of the beauties and majesty of nature as the poetry of Shelley. His perspective was close to that of an ordinary man, not having been subjected to a university education. What he found out, he found out for himself. What he might have achieved had he lived longer!

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