I am often asked who my favourite poets are. In practise it is a moveable feast, varying with time, mood and caprice.Yet some I do keep on coming back to, the following is offered not in order, their position is random.
1. THOMAS WYATT (1503-1542)
Thomas Wyatt was born into an aristocratic family and after studying at Cambridge entered Henry VIII’s diplomatic service. It was Wyatt who introduced the sonnet into English and during his short life (he died of a fever aged 39) his poems circulated in manuscript (it was considered vulgar to publish them).
He is rumoured, on little evidence, to have been a lover of Anne Boleyn, and it’s certain that, imprisoned briefly in the Tower of London, he witnessed the executions of five of her alleged lovers and the execution of Anne.
In one sonnet, which it is suggested is about his relationship with Anne, he characterises her as a hind whose neck has an inscribed collar: ‘Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,/And wild for to hold, for I seem tame. The Latin means ‘Do not touch me’, and the reference to Caesar is obvious code for Henry VIII.
2. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (1564-1616)
Shakespeare’s sonnets are often tormented, anguished, ironic and vulnerable. They date probably from the mid-1590s, but were not published until 1609, and were mysteriously dedicated to ‘Mr WH’. This figure is generally identified as William Herbert, the third Earl of Southampton, who was a patron of Shakespeare’s and was famously reluctant to marry, though he eventually did so.
About four-fifths of the sonnets are addressed to Herbert, and roughly a fifth are addressed to the Dark Lady, who has not been convincingly identified. The young man is portrayed as handsome and self-conscious, a rather narcissistic figure. He is adjured to marry and not let his image die with him. The only defence against time is to breed, Shakespeare insists.
In one of the most beautiful of the early sonnets, Shakespeare begins by asking ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, and then says he is ‘more lovely and more temperate.’ He is clearly entranced by the object of his desire.
We catch glimpses of Shakespeare’s self-doubt and his self-loathing, as he looks into a mirror and sees ‘time’s furrows’ in his face, which is ‘beated and chopped with tanned antiquity.’
3. ROBERT BROWNING (1812-1899)
Robert Browning must be counted a major Victorian poet. He was born in 1812, and while his father was a clerk in the Bank of England and a Liberal, his mother was a devout Nonconformist, and this allegiance meant Browning had to attend University College, London, which was open to Nonconformists and Jews. He met Elizabeth Barrett in 1845 and fled with her to Italy in 1846. All of his poems are dramatic monologues, and his longest poem, The Ring And The Book, which is over 20,000 lines long, was published in 1869. It is about a murder case in Rome in the 1690s and was a great success. (I have read it twice and can report that though there are fine passages in it, it is usually tedious). He returned to London after Elizabeth’s death. He never remarried, though he was linked romantically with Lady Ashburton who, when he proposed to her, said, ‘We entertain our artists, Mr Browning, but we do not marry them.’
His most famous poem is My Last Duchess, in which a sinister Renaissance Italian duke tells of his marriage to the duchess, and hints that out of jealousy he had her murdered, though she is clearly innocent. Unlike most of Browning’s monologues, this poem is written, very deftly, in rhyming couplets that are concealed by the sinuous movement of the lines.
The poem fascinated Henry James, who knew Browning socially, and was amazed at how bluff, bourgeois and ordinary he appeared socially, when he was such a seer in his imaginative life. James based a short story, The Private Life, on Browning’s paradoxical nature, which also fascinated Thomas Hardy, who said his public personality was that of a smug, dissenting grocer
4. JOHN CLARE (1793-1864)
Although he worked as a field labourer, having been born in the village of Helpstone, Northamptonshire, in 1793, John Clare was always fascinated by poetry. His first book, Poems Descriptive Of Rural Life And Scenery, was published by Keats’s publisher in 1820 and the book was an instant success. In a preface he was described as a peasant poet, whereas in fact he was very well read and left a library of more than 400 books on his death in 1864.
Clare was seen as an English Burns, but he lacked Burns’s toughness, and he was eventually put in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he died, unvisited by his family.
In his poems, careful observation of nature shows rain drops as ‘they dimpt the brook’, and he often incorporates Northamptonshire dialect. He is fascinated by rural sounds and describes the ‘crumping’ of feet walking on fresh snow. He never used punctuation and his poems are published in the oral manner in which he wrote them.
Some 20 years ago, a plaque to him was unveiled in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
5. THOMAS HARDY (1840-1928)
Curiosity about the world was a feature of Hardy’s life from the start. As a boy, living in his parents’ cottage in Lower Bockhampton, a few miles from Dorchester, he remembered a man was to be hanged from the walls of Dorchester jail at eight o’clock that morning. Hardy ran out onto the heath, put his father’s telescope to his eye and saw the ‘white figure drop downwards, as the town-clock struck eight’. He went home terrified.
Hardy trained as an architect and worked in London, where he began to write poetry and novels. In 1840, he went to Cornwall to restore a church and there he fell in love with Emma Lavinia Gifford; they married in 1874. Hardy became a full-time novelist, but his marriage deteriorated into unhappiness. His novels were successful – particularly Tess Of The D’Urbervilles and Jude The Obscure.
After the publication of Jude in 1895 Hardy retired from writing novels and committed himself to poetry, his first love. His fine volume, Wessex Poems, was published in 1898. Hardy was much influenced by Browning, and like Browning he deals with love relationships
6. SEAMUS HEANEY (1939)
The Irish poet’s first volume, Death of A Naturalist, came out in 1964 to great acclaim. It features poems about rural life, which on the one hand can seem rather idyllic, but then he introduces disturbing factors in language and atmosphere. In the title poem he writes of ‘frogs in scutch-dam’ – flax that has rotted before being processed – and he describes the creatures as ‘mud grenades’. The poem is really about a child’s discovery of the adult world of sex and violence. But it’s also about a one-party state that’s about to break up – as Ulster ultimately did.
He left Belfast in 1972, the worst year of the Troubles. At the time he was teaching at Belfast’s Queen’s University. He moved to Wicklow in Ireland and was soon given a job teaching English at Harvard. While there, he wrote a pamphlet objecting to being included in the Penguin Book Of Contemporary British Writers, but he’s crucial to modern British poetry.
His 1999 translation of Beowulf (pictured above is Hollywood’s take on the epic poem) is a case in point. It came out of the fact that he studied English at Queen’s and has always been a very gifted linguist. I think the language in his Beowulf captures the malevolence of the monster and the bleakness of the Anglo-Saxon landscape.
7. LOUIS MACNEICE (1907-1963)
MacNeice is, with Auden, one of the two greatest Thirties poets: witty, very much clued into contemporary life, poems about Belfast and Birmingham, about the big new department stores, about the traffic moving along the streets and the policemen directing it. Belfast, for example, is a rather malevolent, dark place in his poems, with its shipyards , riots and religious tension. He married while at Oxford but during his time teaching classics at Birmingham University his wife left him and his young son and went off to marry an American football player.
During the war he joined the features department of the BBC where he wrote radio plays. I don’t think the radio was a good influence on his style, sadly. However, he reclaimed it with his final volume of poems, The Burning Perch, published in 1963 shortly after he died of pneumonia, contracted while potholing for a radio programme. The Burning Perch is his best work, a fine volume, and I love the wit of his poems, the way they move, the way they’re constructed. There’s a jazz rhythm to them.
8. ISSAC ROSENBERG (1890-1918)
Alongside Wilfred Owen, Rosenberg is one of the two most important World War I poets. I read him as a student and I was more interested in him than Owen. There was a grainy realism.
What you get in Rosenberg is a very patient, spoken tone of voice. You can see that in Break Of Day In The Trenches. He has this ‘cosmopolitan rat’ moving over no-man’s land. This is meant to represent the Jews – he was Jewish, and subject to anti-semitism in the Army. But although there’s a political angle, it’s his style that makes him great: the concentration, the sense of what it was really like to be a soldier, to see that the war had to be fought, yet not really believing in fighting. He was killed in 1918.
9. CHRISTINA ROSSETTI (1830-1894)
Christina Rossetti influenced Gerard Manley Hopkins, but was overshadowed by the poetry of her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He was critical of some of her best poems but nowadays she’s seen as more important than him.
Her work was neglected for quite a long time: there was feminist interest in woman poets, but being an Anglican she didn’t believe in women’s suffrage, so she was neglected. There’s now a substantial body of work that sees her as a distinctive feminist. You can see it in the poem No Thank You, John, about rejecting a lover. She wrote a lot of religious poetry which is accomplished, but I think rather sterile.
I love Goblin Market, an extraordinary fantasy with these dominating, rather punitive goblin men and the two women they try to seduce
10. ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON (1809-1892)
Tennyson was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, where his alcoholic father was rector. His parents separated when he was a teenager and he grew up fearful of mental illness and worried about money. At Cambridge he met the gifted Arthur Hallam, who died suddenly in Vienna four years after they met as members of the famous Apostles debating society. He was extremely short-sighted and needed a monocle to be able to see to eat. The mixed reception of his 1832 poems hurt him deeply but the success of two volumes published in 1842 changed his fortunes. In 1845 he received a Civil List pension, which enabled him to marry.
With the success of The Princess and In Memoriam he became the most popular poet of the Victorian period. In 1850, he was made poet Laureate. Prince Albert greatly admired his work, and he later dedicated The Idylls Of The King to the memory of Albert. At Queen Victorian’s insistence, he accepted a peerage, which he had previously turned down when it was offered by both Gladstone and Disraeli.
The Charge Of The Light Brigade was written in 1854, only minutes after Tennyson had read a newspaper account of the battle which contained the line ‘Someone had blundered’ – which he then incorporated into what became the most famous poem about war until World War I.
11. Catullus (84BC- 54BC) I was lucky enough to be able to read him in the original Latin. His pithy, explicit andinciteful language is a joy.
12. Samuel Taylor Colleridge (1772-1834) Kubla Khan and Rime of the Ancient Mariner are two of my favourite poems of all time.The psychadelic imagery of the former found new life in the West Coast American bands of the late 60’s and early 70’s. The insistent rhyming, storyteling and simplicity of the latter found a place in the lyrics of 60’s Beatles songs.
13. John Milton (1608 -74 ) For Paradise Lost.