I’m a friend to any admiring reader of William Cowper:
“Miltonic in its prosody and diction, the poem [“Yardley Oak”] shows what a gift Cowper had for exact, animated description. No less vivid, sensuous, and detailed is the opening of Book V in The Task (`The Winter Morning Walk’). Even then, freighting every line with sublimity here need not deter a reader today or make us forget how impish Cowper’s strange intelligence could also be . . .”
The admirer here is the late Christopher Middleton, introducing “Yardley Oak” in Poets on Poets (eds. Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt), published by Carcanet in 1997. The notion of poets choosing favorite poems from the past and writing about them is not new. When young, I repeatedly borrowed Oscar Williams’ Master Poems of the English Language (Trident Press, 1966) from the library. In it, John Berryman’s essay on “The Darkling Thrush” introduced me to Hardy the poet after I had already lost interest in Hardy the novelist. Anthologies are night school, the autodidact’s best friends. Long before college and before anyone with learning or taste could guide me, Williams walked me through English and American poetry. Thanks to him I took an early shine to Thomas Wyatt and Karl Shapiro, a beautifully mismatched pair.
Some of the selections from Poets on Poets have been posted online, including Wendy Cope on A.E. Housman, Fergus Allen on Fulke Greville and Clive Wilmer on Samuel Johnson. Some pairings seem unlikely but prove inspired. This is from Christopher Logue’s introduction to John Dryden: “Satirist, pedagogue, playright, proselyte, pornographer (mild), occasional plaigiary, songwriter, literary critic (our first), expert in three types of translation (including English to English), always, and above all, the master poet of his age, John Dryden (1631-1700), by today’s standards, is worth at least three or four Nobel Prizes for Literature.” All true. Of course, Logue was himself a sui generis translator (see the definitive War Music: An Account of Homer's Iliad: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). Robert Wells on Thomas Gray and his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” makes the familiar old warhorse new:
“The `Elegy’ is many poems in one. I admire the way that it unfolds and surprises itself. The strong wayward current of its rhetoric is exploratory. Just over half-way through (with the stanza `Yet ev’n these bones . . .’) Gray veers away from the conclusion he had originally planned, and re-enters his subject, to discover the unwritten poem standing at the edge of the one he has been writing, a preoccupation at variance with his conscious theme.”
C.H. Sisson, author of “A Letter to John Donne,” writes of his chosen poet: “Any selection from John Donne (c. 1572-1631) must be inadequate, and the object in making one can only be to tempt the reader to a more extensive exploration of his work. The selector can do no more than choose poems which speak out vividly one of the most forthright and at the same time most subtle minds of the seventeenth century in England. The man who became a famous preacher, as Dean of Saint Paul’s, had been also an exponent of the pleasures of physical nakedness.”
Sisson judges “A Hymn to Christ, at the Author’s Last Going Into Germany” to be “the best of [Donne’s] religious poems,” and singles out this phrase from the third stanza: “The amorousness of an harmonious soul.”