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.



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