General Survey Of Periods Authors And Works

As in most discussions of literature, this one acknowledges the critical penchant for dividing and labeling certain periods into which literature may be loosely categorized. It is to the credit of those responsible for such matters that the divisions are not strictly applied. In this volume, entries cover and/or reference those eras labeled the Renaissance, the Restoration, the Augustan age or age of reason, the romantic period, and more. Each term loosely indicates what common sense tells one, that while academics and specialists find that terminology like age and period provide a handy means of discussion, literature joyfully spills from one era into another with few specific demarcations occurring in any particular year. Thus, Milton represents the Renaissance even while writing during the Restoration, and Dryden's Restoration poetry looks forward to the Augustan age. Poetry begins to slip from confining chains of logic and dictated format years before the age of reason officially concludes. Romantics, a referenced group, though they are not covered in this Companion, did not know they were such. That label only appeared years later in recognition of their pendulum swing into the glorification of imagination and the innocence of a natural state of things that rebelled against age of reason control. The pendulum would follow its natural corrective course, swinging back later when Darwin and others arrived on the scene, forcing their culture to recognize the negative aspects of nature. Once again, the British culture would long for control over a changing industrializing society that caused humans to enter an evolution of social classes, power structures, and nationalism accompanied by conflict and self-doubt.

Much poetry contains political, religious, and cultural themes, and poets of all periods surveyed in this volume provide excellent examples of this fact. For instance, the seemingly light-hearted love poetry of the Renaissance reflects the tension felt by the Cavalier poets, such as Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Robert Lovelace, who depended upon the courts pleasure for their livelihood. It also reflects in John Donne's case his struggle to overcome fleshly pleasures of his youth as he moves into a more spiritually reflective stylistic maturity. His rebellion against control appears clearly in his adoption of metaphysical references later embraced and celebrated, but viewed with great skepticism during his own time. George Herbert expressed his deep religious devotion in part through the shape poems in which form echoes sentiment, like "The Altar" and "Easter Wings," works many readers encounter during early schooldays. During the Restoration John Dryden's works, such as Absalom and Achitophel, reflected the political unrest and religious conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism that would continue to haunt England and its neighbors for centuries. Dryden also became a poetic chronicler in Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders, 1666, his first major nondramatic poem. It characterized the horror of London's great fire and the glory of England's naval victories over Holland. These early works and their ideas would later be used as the basis for much poetic response, as in the early 18th-century poem "The Repulse to Alcander" by Sarah Fyge Egerton. Egerton adopts a female voice to counter the traditional seduction poem, made popular by the Renaissance Cavaliers.

In the 18th century Alexander Pope's Catholicism placed him within a group ostracized for its faith, a fact his poetry often confronts. In addition, growing contrasts between newly strengthened political parties motivated Pope and others to transfer political loyalties, their preferences made clear in their poetry. Pope's contemporary and friend Jonathan Swift, perhaps best known to readers as the essayist who produced the brilliant satiric political essay "A Modest Proposal," also produced poetry with satire's bite. That style is clearly reflected in his "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," in which he imagines the not-always-complimentary commentary that will follow his death. Robert Burns wrote in the vernacular of his native Scottish dialect, reflecting nationalistic pride and his belief that Scotland should remain separate from England at a time when a movement to unite the two countries proved strong. Burns also used his popularity to gain well-deserved attention for his predecessor Robert Ferguson when he discovered Ferguson was buried in an unmarked grave, thus drawing attention to another Scottish patriot poet. Songs from various musical productions often reflect political intent, as seen in John Gay's ever-popular A Beggar's Opera. Those songs live on as poems, some featured in this Companion.

However some of the uses of poetry change over time, this genre consistently offers a not-always-com fortable consideration of the human condition. Life and death, those still most mysterious states of being that continue in our advanced century to escape scientific explanation, remain enduring topics for poetry, regardless of the era. Examples in this Companion include Mary Barbers light celebration "Written For My Son, And Spoken by Him at His First Putting on Breeches"; as well as Ben Jonson's laments "On My First Son" and "On My First Daughter"; and Elizabeth Boyd's sober contemplation "On The Death of an Infant of Five Days Old, Being a Beautiful but Abortive Birth." Poetry also allows expression of the pure wonder and joy in simple pleasures that too seldom grace us, as seen in Thomas Trahernes "On Leaping over the Moon" and Katherine Philip's "Friendship's Mysteries, to My Dearest Lucasia."

Early women poets featured in this volume generally reflect a focus on either religion or love. They include the well-known Mary Sidney Herbert, countess of Pembroke, who succeeded in promoting her martyred brother's work while featuring her own, and her niece, Lady Mary Wroth, one of the first women to write popular romantic poetry. Women writing decades later are able to take up causes specific to their gender and class, such as the lack of choice suffered by females for whom nondomestic pursuits were considered improper, or scandalous working conditions endured by those women who did find employment. Aphra Behn at the end of the Restoration became a sorely needed model for women, having nerve enough to wield a pen in her position as the first woman to support herself through her writing. Still, she had to work at "marketing" a self-image that reflected the scandal about which she wrote in order to make readers feel comfortable about purchasing and reading creative work by a woman.

Those who followed Behn include courageous figures who challenged the creative status quo for women. Mary Leapor, a contemporary of Pope and Swift, produced work labeled labor-class poetry. Mary Astell used her subservient position to males to suggest in poetry such as "Ambition" that society should accept a natural equality between the sexes. Mary Robinson would take her baby with her to join her profligate husband by an arranged marriage in debtor's prison. She later became a noted actress and poet, mistress to the prince of Wales, and her family's only means of support. Additional women poets include the Renaissance "diva" poet Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, the first female to venture into the male dominion of scientific writing, and Katherine Philips, nicknamed the Matchless Orinda, the first to write same-sex love poetry.

Over time, women received a more positive reception to their work. Upon the verge of the Restoration, the poet Anne Killigrew would be celebrated in elegy by Dryden after her tragic young death, while the age of reasons Anna Hunter Seward received the label "Swan of Lichfield" from her contemporary the poet, essayist, and critic Samuel Johnson. By the end of the 18th century, readers felt much more comfortable with writing women, some so concerned about the melancholic tone of work by Charlotte Turner Smith that they wrote to the journal in which she published, expressing concern for her evident depression. Smith's lyrical writing about the moon and madness supplied later feminist critics and teachers of literature superb examples of the imagery and symbolism important to their method of critical analysis.

The volume also points to the reincarnation of poets' works and lives in new media. One well-known example is the popular 20th-century version of Gay's 18th-century opera, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. It produced the enduring song "Mack the Knife" with which the modern singer Bobby Darin remains identified. As another example, the scandalous 18th-century poetry by John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester, gained renewed interest after a 2004 movie version of Wilmot's life, The Libertine, starring Johnny Depp. In addition Christopher Smarts mad poem "My Cat Jeoffrey" from his Jubilate Agno enjoyed rebirth when the 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten adopted a short excerpt from the poem for use in his festival cantata "Rejoice in the Lamb." Such examples make clear the enduring quality of stirring literature.

Biographical entries may vary from information related to a poet's writing to inform the reader of interesting and surprising facts. An example would be that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced vaccination against smallpox to England after her travels to India, where she observed the benefits of such inoculation. In order to counter resistance of her fellow countrymen to this seemingly exotic procedure, she requested that her own children be inoculated.

Just as this discussion and this volume do not attempt to cover every poet and every work of two centuries, neither does this volume attempt to define poetry. It takes as a defense that some of humankind's most remarkable minds have grappled unsuccessfully with this conundrum. Readers may look to Samuel Johnson's discussion in his seminal Lives of the English Poets about Pope's consideration as an accomplished poet to gain further insight, if not complete satisfaction. Johnson urges readers who unwisely insist upon such a definition to search for it by examining those diverse individuals assigned across the ages the label poet by a discerning readership:

To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer. . . . Let us look round upon the present time, and back upon the past; let us enquire to whom the voice of mankind has decreed the wreath of poetry; let their productions be examined and their claims stated.

And in considering Pope as possessing the genius necessary to a poet, Johnson describes the poet's mind as active, ambitious, and adventurous, always investigating, always aspiring; in its widest searches still longing to go forward, in its highest flights still wishing to be higher; always imagining something greater than it knows, always endeavouring more than it can do.

The four volumes of the Facts On File Companion to British Poetry offer the work of such minds for the reader's consideration. They invite each reader not simply to read about the poets and their work, but to go to the poems themselves for pleasure and enlightenment. Only then might readers develop a private and satisfactory definition of this most magical of the creative genres.

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