TEN OF THE GREATEST; British Poets

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), August 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

TEN OF THE GREATEST; British Poets


Byline: by TOM PAULIN Poet, critic, lecturer and broadcaster

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 (pictured left), 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. …

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