Monthly Archives: May 2015

The History of English Poetry, Peter Whitfield (Naxos audiobook)

I bought this thinking this would be an anthology of verse read aloud, with at most brief introductions to each selection, but it’s an audiobook, dating from 2009, with extracts of poetry read to illustrate. What is it an audiobook of? There is a printed version of this text, but it’s clearly a spinoff of the audiobook rather than the other way round. So who is Peter Whitfield and why should one listen to 8 hours of his thoughts on English poetry?

He is otherwise mostly known for a number of popularising books about science in the Elizabethan period. To judge by COPAC, few of his works are to be found in University libraries. He is said to be a poet but I can find no example of his poetry. He has also done Naxos histories of art and science, so not a literature specialist.

I didn’t detect actual inaccuracy in the text (however I did not have a means of checking facts at hand), though there were solecisims (Dryden was described as a ‘doyenne’ of poetry!). But my real problem was the style of the criticism. I am not one for theory-laden jargon, and certainly not in a work intended for the general listener, but this could have been written half a century ago. Witness the flowery prose style laden with stock metaphors and with a limited range of descriptive terms (I lost count of the times I heard ‘sensuous’) and the ubiquity of the biographical fallacy (except for matters of sexuality). We are told of the intense speculation about the identity of the woman addressed in Marvell’s ‘To my coy mistress’ – the possibility that she is a purely literary construct is not considered. Obscurer works are dismissed as ‘of interest only to scholars’ (I couldn’t suppress a wry smile every time I heard this). Whitfield makes considerable effort to demonstrate that Yeats was not a modernist, but do people claim that he was? ‘Indian’ for ‘Native American’ and masculine pronouns for the implied reader also mark the style of an earlier age. I was left feeling that this work drew heavily on early and mid-20th century predecessors. Even New Criticism when described seemed a bit too new for him.

The poems are well read, mostly not by Jacobi, but by actors, with local accents respected. There are fewer towards the end of the audiobook, presumably for copyright reasons. The snippets are rather irritatingly short. Why only two short stanzas of Blake’s ‘London’, rather than all four?

I didn’t learn much about English poetry from this side of the Atlantic, though I was introduced to some Americans, and learnt about others who had been just names. There are a number of short guides to English poetry already in existence and it would have been better to have recorded one of those, rather than commissioning this one. Better still, do what I had originally hoped to find, and simply record an anthology of poems read by top-quality readers, with at most a short introduction to each.

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