THE MONDAY BOOK: English Poets Laid Bare by a Mechanic of Verse ; the Story of Poetry: English Poets from Skelton to Dryden Michael Schmidt Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Pounds 25
Glover, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
THIS IS the second volume in a series. The first charted the history of English poetry from its beginnings to the 15th century; the second takes us from the 16th century to the end of the 17th. Each book is both a critical introduction to English verse and the editor's anthology of some of the best of it.
Michael Schmidt himself is well qualified to undertake such a task: he professes poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University; he edits the well- regarded PN Review; and he is an editor of poetry as well as an accomplished poet in his own right.
The first book was marred by the dullness of some of its verse: how to do some justice to the interminable Lydgate, for example. Poetry in English was getting on its feet; but its knee joints cracked from time to time.
This is not the case with this glorious period. In fact, the middle of it - say, 1550 to 1650 - is perhaps the greatest and most intimidating moment in English poetry. Intimidating, that is, to those who continue to wrestle with the Muse.
We are faced with an embarrassment of riches this time around: Spenser, Raleigh, Donne, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Milton, etc. English literature is both coherent at last and dauntingly accomplished.
The first great poet represented is the anarchic and ribald John Skelton, a great coiner of new words and a man who gave voice to a common spoken language. Among the last is the dazzling, emotionally limited John Dryden, professional poet par excellence. At this point, poetry collides with the terrible wall of Decorum, which doesn't get dismantled for about a hundred years. …