Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview
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Over the centuries, the British Isles has contributed a remarkable catalog of inventions and discoveries to human progress, but perhaps its most highly valued and enduring gift has been seven centuries of poetry. As the years roll on and the legacy of poems grows, how can we hope to find our way through such a vast wealth of verse, much of it as fresh, relevant, and compelling as it was when it was first composed? The purpose of this book is to offer a guide to students, teachers, librarians, and general readers who are interested in reading and studying poetry from the point of view of its subject matter, the essential question of what it is “about.”

Collections of poetry are often referred to as “treasuries,” “garlands,” or “gardens,” attesting to the intrinsic value of a literary form that illuminates human activity in surprising and often unforgettable ways. When we speak of a poem having a “theme,” we are referring to a poem that brings a particular human perspective to the subject matter. A poet can write an objective description of an event such as a wedding, or a natural creature such as a nightingale, but unless the poem expresses— overtly or subtly—the poet's attitude to the subject, the poem does not have a theme. Compare, for example, John Clare's poem “Mouse's Nest” (1835) with Robert Burns's poem “To a Mouse” (1785). Although both poems are included in this survey in the Nature section, only Burns's poem has a “theme” that can be readily identified. Both poets describe the overturning of a mouse's nest and the small creature's discomfort. But while Clare's poem is simply descriptive of the nest and its owner (he finds the mother mouse “grotesque” and alien from him, thus hinting at the theme of man's relationship to nature), Burns goes further in pondering this relationship. His exposing of the nest with his plow is an example of “man's dominion,” trampling thoughtlessly over the neat,


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Thematic Guide to British Poetry


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