Harvard Classics, Volume 40: English Poetry, From Chaucer to Gray

Well I’ve gotten to the most daunting part of the Harvard Classics, a 1400 page collection of English Poetry. I’ll be splitting my commentary between each of the three parts, so as to best remember the content and to avoid trying to cram it all into a single wall of text sometime next year.

This collection starts in the 14th Century with Chaucer and ends in the mid-1700’s. The selections from Canturbury Tales, the Prologue and the Nun’s Priest Tale, are basically what I would have picked myself to be representative of the whole work.

Following Chaucer is a set of traditional ballads, including the original Robin Hood stories. Altogether these early works share a few traits in common. First, the language is rough because it is all in non-standardized middle English. The number of archaic words aren’t too much to bear, but the sheer amount of archaic spellings make understanding difficult. Reading these out loud definitely made it easier, because the pronunciations are close enough to modern English to work through, and the spellings tend to spontaneously grant the reader an old-timey English accent. These poems tended to be stories of various sorts.

As time moves forward, the spelling becomes easier and easier, the actual language becomes more and more complicated, and the themes tend to drift from stories to poems about love and death. There’s still some room for religious and heroic works as well.

Eventually the collection gets to Shakespeare, with about 50 of his poems, mostly from the sonnets. All the famous ones are in there, and they are characteristically head and shoulders above his contemporaries in terms of quality.

The general trends of poems love and death continue until you get to the works of John Dryden in the late 17th century. I suppose the English Civil War has a profound impact on the character of the poetry, because takes a turn towards a fuller range of subjects and a notable increase in both technical and emotional quality.

Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man is included in full and is a great poem full of interesting insights on the human condition. I highly suggest reading it.

Throughout the whole collection, one thing that struck me is that the particularly famous authors: Geoffery Chaucer, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, John Dryden, Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray very much do stand out from their contemporaries and very much earn their positions as great English poets.

Next up is the rest of this collection of poetry. The middle volume covers the mid-1700’s to the 1830’s or so. Recency bias on the part of the editors is certainly coming into play here, but so is the period that produced the most great English poetry. We will see which force wins out next time.



Harvard Classics 39: Prefaces and Prologues

This volume of the Harvard Classics was very reminiscent of the volumes of essays I read not too long ago. There are many works crammed together, so I’ll go over some general thoughts and highlights.

The types of works in these volumes fall into three categories: the “TL;DR” of a work, a commentary by the author or a commentary by a translator.

The volume starts off with prefaces to early translations of classical works into English by William Claxton. These are nice primers on a few classic works, but aren’t particularly memorable.

Calvin’s introduction to the Institutes is interesting to anyone curious about the origins of Reformed theology and the extremely short version of it’s major arguments. The big points are spiritual predestination and the view of sacraments as physical representations of spiritual events.

Copernicus’ introduction to his important work is interesting from a historical perspective, but it is not meant to be a literary work of great insight or to teach you what you don’t already know. The same goes for the preface to Newton’s Principa

Literary prefaces by John Know, Edmund Spenser, Sir Walter Raleigh, Henrie Condell, John Dryden, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Johnson are included, but having delayed writing this post, none of them particularly stood out to me, except that I was really impressed with Edmund Spenser’s writing.

Goethe, Wordsworth, Hugo, Whitman and Taine all have introductions from their own works. Despite the fact I really enjoyed other works by Goethe, this particular introduction didn’t send me. Wordsworth presents, in many fragmented parts, a useful theory of poetry, which is very useful considering my current reading. Hugo’s preface to Cromwell nicely laid out Hugo’s intentions with the book, and provided some insight into 19th century novel-writing.

This review was a short one, but unfortunately, this volume was just a bit too scattered and lackluster for anything to really hold my interest and sink in, aside from Calvin. Hopefully that won’t be the case with the next three volumes, the giant collection of English Poetry.