Recommended Reading

On Poetic Craft

For anyone wishing to learn more about writing poetry in English meter, I heartily recommend All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing by Timothy Steele. And by the same author, Missing Measures explains how and why English poetry has changed from being written in formal meter to now being dominated by “free verse.”

For a shorter introduction to poetic craft, John Ciardi’s Essay “How a Poem Means” (not what, but how) provides a great insight into the music and delight of poetry, using Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” as an example.

And for anyone wrestling with literary criticism, I must direct you to the C.S. Lewis essay “An Experiment in Criticism.” In this short work, he challenges us to look at how an author invites us in, and to what purpose. Actually, go ahead and read everything Lewis has written about literary craft: none of it will disappoint.

Narrative Poetry

Even less popular today than metrical poetry is metrical narrative poetry: as a culture, we seem to have lost our not only a taste for it, but our very ability to pay attention to it. Not all of us, of course–so if you are one of those fortunate few who still find delight in the narrative poem, I’d recommend these:

The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser
The longest poem in the English language, written in the Elizabethan period (but not the Elizabethan style–Spenser was purposely trying to evoke some of the medieval style). On one level it is a tale of adventure in faerie; and simultaneously it an allegorical depiction of virtue. I love the first battle described, between the knight of Holiness and the monster Error, “whose vomit full of bookes and papers was.”

Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained by John Milton
This is THE English epic, written by Milton to “justify the ways of God to man.” Written in blank verse (unrhymed pentameter), these poems describe Milton’s conception of the fall of man; and God’s gracious response. Unfortunately, the Romantic period poets re-interpreted his work, imagining Satan to be the hero instead of the villain, ruining the virtue of this piece for centuries of readers. Do not be misled. An excellent resource for this is C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost. (Also, when getting a copy of Milton’s poem, you may want an extensively footnoted edition, as he wrote for an audience that knew Classical (Greek and Latin) literature; and many of his references might now require more explanation.)

Essay on Criticism and Essay on Man by Alexander Pope
Pope was the master of the verse essay, delivering witty (and reasonable) arguments in heroic couplets (rhymed iambic pentameter). The first essay is must reading for any poet wrestling with literary criticism.

Lord of the Isles by Sir Walter Scott
In his day, Sir Walter Scott was the most adored poet in England. After writing many narrative poems, he then became one of the pioneers of the historical novel. Sadly, he is much neglected today, while his Romantic Period contemporaries are more celebrated. But if you want a good historical narrative poem, Scott’s depiction of Sir Robert Bruce (who led Scotland to independence from England) is a good one.

The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton is another master less regarded today–by English speakers, who prefer modern free verse. In fact he remains one of the most translated poets in the world. This ballad is an historical narrative, celebrating a wise patriotism, and challenging people to remember virtue.

The Nameless Isle and The Queen of Drum by C.S. Lewis
Lewis was a poet before he became famous as a novelist, writing a trilogy of science fiction works and the renowned fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia. Unfortunately (for his popularity), he continued to write in formal meter while all around him the poetic world was rejecting meter in favor of modern free verse. Had we stayed with meter, I think Lewis would be acknowledged as one of the great masters of the art. Both of the above works are faerie poems. The Nameless Isle is particularly interesting, as a work done in the Old English accentual-alliterative meter, instead of accentual-syllabic.

John Ciardi’s translation of the Comedia by Dante Alighieri
The Divine Comedy is the greatest of the Medieval poems, as a poem, as a story, as a dissertation on virtue, and as a representation of medieval imagery. Ciardi is the rare English poet who can give it justice in translation (and his version has footnotes, too, for those of us who don’t know enough Italian history to understand the political references). And for those who want to tackle this monument of medieval creativity, I must also recommend The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis: Lewis was a professor of medieval literature, and does a magnificent job of giving our poor modern minds access to that world.


One response

  1. I like your blog. Hope you can find more time for it in the future . . .

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