Sonnet 1 from Sir Philip Sidney's 'Aristophil and Stella'

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) was so many things to his contemporaries. To history he is one of the first major poets of the Tudor ‘Renaissance’. Aristophil and Stella is one of the first sonnet sequences in English, and may well be the best of them.

Despite Sidney’s claims in his Defence that poetry was moral and lead to virtue, Aristophil and Stella is the story of an (?unrequited?) adulterous passion. After Sidney’s early death, Penelope Rich was happy to admit that she was ‘Stella’.

This is the first sonnet of the sequence, with its famous final line.

from Laȝamon's 'Brut', The conception of King Arthur

Laȝamon’s Brut contains the oldest surviving English version of the story of King Arthur. In this extract, Uther, disguised by Merlin, visits Ygaerne in the castle of Tintagel. Laȝamon goes out his way to exonerate Ygaerne, emphasising her belief that she is sharing her bed with Gorlois, her husband, not Uther.

Although he emphasises the various betrayals involved, for once, the rattle and crash of Laȝamon’s verse stills and softens, and something close to gentleness is allowed into the poem.

Dylan Thomas' 'Lament'.

Does anyone still read Dylan Thomas? Other than ‘Do not go gentle into that good night?’ He was a significant literary figure when I was growing up. His collected poems was the first book of poems I bought, in 1976. Perhaps he was an antidote to the spare understated poetry that was so ubiquitous. And then like a lot of things that were important in adolescence he was left behind.

Today the alliterating, three adjectives to every noun and no verb without an adverb tub thumbing pulpit pounding style can seem overloaded, tortuous, and teter on the edge of meaninglessness, but, often as in this poem, his style is still a pleasure to read aloud.

Old English, From 'The Battle of Maldon' Byrhtnoth's reply to the Viking Messenger.

This is a short extract in Old English taken from ‘The Battle Of Maldon’ an Old English poem written sometime after the battle, which occurred in August 991.

The modern statue of Byrhtnoth, looking down towards the site of the battle

The modern statue of Byrhtnoth, looking down towards the site of the battle

 An English force, lead by Ealdorman Byrhtnoth, trapped a Viking army on an Island in the river Pant, now the Blackwater in Essex. The island was, and still is, separated from the mainland by a causeway covered by the tide. 

Prior to this extract, the Vikings have sent a messenger to Byrthnoth.  If he agrees to pay them off they will sail away. This is his reply.

I’ve attempted the reading in Old English because the poem loses so much even in the best of translations: Byrhtnoth’s bitter joke about Heriot is not the only part that needs footnotes, so this is a very simple gloss.

Byrhtnoth spoke, raised his shield, brandished the slender ash spear, angry and resolute, gave back his answer: ‘Do you hear seaman, what this folk say? They will give you bitter point and trusted sword for tribute, a heriot that will be of little use to you in battle. Go back and tell a more unpleasant tale. Here stands an Earl, undisgraced, with his troop, who will defend this land, my lord Aethelred’s land, folk and fold. Heathens will fall in battle! I think it too shameful that you should go to your ships with our treasure without a fight; to have come so far into our country unopposed. You shall not so easily gain treasure; first point and edge, grim battle play, will decide between us before we will give you any tribute’. 

A.D.Hope's 'The End of a Journey'

Homer's story of Ulysses has attracted numerous poets over the years. In a previous episode, I read Tennyson’s, perhaps the most well known, in which the aging hero sets out again, admirable, undaunted and defiant. But the return of Ulysses to Ithaca can be read in other ways. Even within Homer's version, his actions are troubling. The wholesale slaughter of the suitors and the execution of the maids seem excessive rather than heroic.

And more prosaically, after all those adventures what would the morning after his triumph feel like. A.D Hope’s version is less heroic, less hopeful, perhaps more realistic.

A.D.Hope (1907-2000) was an Australian poet, an austere formalist, a writer of satires, considered by some to be one of the best Australian poets of the century, but often overlooked except for the much anthologised ‘Australia’. ‘The End of A Journey’ is taken from his 'Collected Poems 1930-1970'.

Zbigniew Herbert's 'The Envoy of Mr. Cogito'.

It’s hard to assess poems by a poet who writes in a language that isn’t your own. It’s easy to miss the poetry and be seduced by the content or the attitude. But Herbert is arguably one of the great poets of the twentieth century and by the time he died he was revered in his own country.

 This is taken from The Collected Poems, 1956-1998, translated by Alissa Valles and published by Atlantic books. It is probably essential reading for anyone interested in twentieth century European poetry.

 I’m apologetic about the way I pronounce his first name, but more of his poems will inevitably appear in later podcasts. Meeting Mr. Cogito is good for you.    

'Ulysses' by Alfred Lord Tennyson

This is one of the great dramatic monolgues in English. It’s easy to be carried along by the speaker’s undimmed enthusiasm for exploration (mental or physical) and his reluctance to give into old age. The last two lines are justly famous. But in this poem, as in the best of Browning’s, what is being said is undercut by how it is said. If you pay attention, the poem is having its cake and eating it; admiring the exuberant old explorer, while allowing you to see his arrogance and selfishness.

Louis MacNeice 'Cradle song for Eleanor'

This is one of the first poems I memorised, a very long time ago. Louise MacNeice is often overlooked or undervalued in histories of English poetry where he is overshadowed by his friend W. H. Auden. But he was one of the great lyric poets writing in English in the twentieth century. To mark the centenary of his birth in 2007 Peter McDonald edited a beautiful collected for Faber. McDonald also contributed an excellent discussion of Cradle song to 'Incorrigibly Plural: Louis MacNeice and his legacy' essays edited by Fran Brearton and Edna Longley (Carcanet 2012). (An essay is excellent when it makes you revist a poem you’ve known for forty years and see things you hadn’t previously noticed…)

Robert Service's 'The Shooting of Dan McGrew'.

This is from ‘Songs of a Sourdough’. Robert Service made his name writing poems about the Yukon Goldrush in the 1890s. ‘The shooting of Dan McGrew’ is best heard around a campfiire, or in a mini bus stuck in a snow storm. Best recited from memory.

Service was once very popular, especially with people who ‘didn’t like poetry’: these days he may be almost forgotten.

Evan Boland's 'Quarantine'

This poem is from the title sequence of Boland’s 2001 collection ‘Against Love Poetry’. Her book makes a case for a poetry that deals with human relationships as they are, rather than the kind of ‘love’ that poetry so often seems concerned with. ‘Quarantine’ flatly relates an incident. But it’s one that’s difficult to forget.

T.S.Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Although this is one of the great poems of the Twentieth century it’s interesting to note how much trouble Eliot had getting it published. Extracts from Pound’s correspondence on his behalf can be read here It seems that Harriet Munroe wanted Eliot to revise the poem and give it a more uplifting ending.

Eliot’s control of his line is enviable and perhaps not noticeable until the poem is read aloud. It swings, ebbs and flows. It’s too easy to chant the whole thing in a sing song, which I’ve tried to avoid. .