The Norton Anthology of Poetry

The Norton Anthology of Poetry is one of the best and most comprehensive collections of English poems from Old English to the present day. I was going through the poems after reading about the death of the literary critic MH Abrams.

Abrams, who died on April 21 at the age of 102 in Ithaca, New York, was the founding editor of the Norton Anthology of Literature, first published in 1962. He was also an adviser to the editors of the Norton Anthology of Poetry. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy acknowledge his contributions in the preface to the book.

Abrams also wrote The Mirror and the Lamp, celebrating the Romantic poets. More about that later.

The Romantics are well represented in the Norton anthology, which runs to more than 1,000 pages with poems from every era. Two of the poems posted here three days ago, e.e. cummings’ somewhere i have never travelled and Sylvia Plath’s Morning Song, are from the anthology.

Trying to include all the well-known poets, the editors had to leave out some of their best-known works. Kipling’s famous Recessional, a prayer to God to protect England, and his tribute to the British soldier, Tommy, are included in the anthology, but not his poem, If, which is perhaps even better known.

John Betjeman appears in the collection, but not his famous Subaltern’s Love Song.

Peter Porter is present, but not his best known poem, Your Attention Please, warning against a nuclear strike.

The anthology has more than enough good poems, however, to last a lifetime. There are poems of every kind from the nonsense verse of Edward Lear and the light verse of Ogden Nash to the religious meditations of George Herbert and Henry Vaughan and the eroticism of Robert Herrick.

Upon Julia’s Breasts
By Robert Herrick

Display thy breasts, my Julia, there let me
Behold that circummortal2 purity;
Between whose glories, there my lips I’ll lay,
Ravished in that fair Via Lactea.

The Norton anthology does not shy away from sex and swear words. It includes Philip Larkin’s famous This Be the Verse:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

The poems run the gamut of emotions from the bitter This Be the Verse to Wendy Cope’s witty Valentine:

My heart has made its mind up
And I’m afraid it’s you.
Whatever you’ve got lined up,
My heart has made its mind up
And if you can’t be signed up
This year, next year will do.
My heart has made its mind up
And I’m afraid it’s you.

There are Indians in the anthology — AK Ramanujan, Dom Moraes and Vikram Seth — as well as Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone? and Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather. The Norton anthology is a humongous collection of poems, intimidatingly bulky, but great for browsing. The reader is spoilt for choice.

Now about Abrams’s famous book, The Mirror and the Lamp. The Guardian explains its significance:

Abrams also wrote several books, notably the 1953 publication The Mirror and the Lamp, a groundbreaking work of literary theory that celebrated Byron, Keats and other British Romantic poets and popularized a field of study that emphasized how authors’ lives and feelings influenced their work. The Mirror and the Lamp was ranked No 25 on a Modern Library list of the greatest English-language nonfiction books of the 20th century.

In the years before The Mirror and the Lamp, the Romantics had been effectively denigrated by TS Eliot, who found Byron to have a “disorderly mind, and an uninteresting one” and believed Keats and Shelley “not nearly such great poets as they are supposed to be.” He valued reason and restraint, stating that a poem’s meaning should be clear.

But Abrams countered that the Romantics changed and enriched the history of poetry by freeing the emotions and imagination. The Romantics broke from the ideal of capturing the real world (a mirror) and instead composed “lamps”, illuminating the poet’s personal vision.

“The first test any poem must pass is no longer, ‘is it true to nature?’” Abrams wrote, “but a criterion looking in a different direction; namely, ‘Is it sincere? Is it genuine?’”

The Norton anthology includes Pete Seeger’s ballad, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?  So here it is.



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