Cover image for Lives of the poets
Lives of the poets
Schmidt, Michael, 1947-
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1998.
Physical Description:
xii, 975 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
PR502 .S35 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A dazzling account of the entire history of poetry in the English language -- from the fourteenth century to the present -- by one of the most intelligent and passionate critics in the field.          Setting out to write his own homage to Samuel Johnson's legendary Lives of the English Poets of more than two hundred years ago, Michael Schmidt introduces us to the world tradition of poets who have written in English. From the rustic rhythms of Piers Plowman to today's postmodernists, from fifteenth-century Scotland to the contemporary Caribbean, Schmidt explores the lives and creations of more than three hundred poets, discussing their best (and sometimes worst) poems, their triumphs and tragedies, their individual genius. Here is the shared universe and work of so many great poets, including Chaucer, Donne, Blake, Behn, Burns, Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson, Rossetti, Yeats, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Ginsberg, Rich and Heaney, to name but a few. Schmidt also embraces the extraordinary poetry now emerging from Australia, New Zealand, India and other countries, and shows how these varied landscapes and cultures make their contributions to our common language. Tracing the themes and achievements of each poet's work, Schmidt demonstrates with wit and erudition how poets overshadow and inspire one another across the centuries. En route, he champions some unjustly neglected voices and outlines the ways in which history and politics intervene to shape (or sometimes misshape) the poetic imagination.          With infectious enthusiasm and avoiding all fashionable jargon, Schmidt speaks unapologetically for a common language -- the language of poetry, which unites people across continents and across the ages. For anyone who has ever been moved by a poem, a rich and important book.  

Author Notes

Michael Schmidt is the editor of PN Review, which he established in 1972; the founder and editorial director of Carcanet Press, which publishes poetry and fiction; and the director of the writing school at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Using Samuel Johnson's 18th-century Lives of the Poets as a blueprint, this exhaustive survey treks through 600 years of mostly British poetry in English, from Wycliffe and Wyatt to Andrew Motion and Les Murray. In each of 64 chapters crammed with juicy anecdotes ("The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips," reported an enraptured Oscar Wilde upon meeting his idol), Schmidt moves from biography to formal techniques to cultural reception. He focuses, for example, on what Donald Davie liked about Robert Burns, or Pound admired in Chaucer; on how "a living poem can engage another poem at five hundred years' distance, or across the other side of the world." While some would argue that a couple of pages summarizing The Canterbury Tales or The Prelude is insufficient, the book is more of a gathering of friends and rivals than a comprehensive companion. Schmidt, the founder of London's influential Carcanet Press (distributed here by Paul and Co.), has an intuitive sense of organizationÄone sequence from Wallace Stevens to Marianne Moore to Elizabeth Bishop is smoothly connected and riveting. Throughout his tour, he lingers at major moments in political, religious and social history to show how poets have used the resources of language to respond to their respective pressures. Recently rediscovered women poets such as Emilia Lanyer, Charlotte Smith and Mina Loy receive ample attention, and 20th-century trends and movements (imagism, vorticism, confessionalism, language poetry, etc.) are forcefully elucidated. Schmidt's interest in the history of publishing shadows the main narrative, allowing the reader to emerge with greater appreciation for those publishers who gambled on their taste to disseminate the work of history's most scandalous, reclusive and devoted wordsmiths. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

From 14th-century England to 20th-century Australia, from the world of the balladeer to the world of the rap artist, from Anonymous to Zukofsky, Michael Schmidt's Lives of the Poets presents nothing less than the entire history of poetry written in the English language. Toward the end of this sweeping survey, the author admits that "it is an act of folly ... to undertake so large a task as this." Although his self-criticism is justified--the reader does find problems in proportion, emphasis, and omission--overall Schmidt succeeds wonderfully. In comments often notable for their pithiness, he discusses poets generally neglected or undervalued--for example, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Charlotte Mew, Basil Bunting, Edgell Rickword, Norman MacCaig--as well as canonical poets such as Chaucer, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, and Yeats. Typically, Schmidt describes not only the poet's life but also his or her major works, themes, or formal experiments. Schmidt's guiding principle throughout is the far-flung abundance of the English language; that is, he explores not just the poets of England and the US but also those of Scotland, Ireland, the Caribbean, India, New Zealand, and Australia. Strongly recommended for all academic and public libraries. D. D. Kummings; University of Wisconsin--Parkside

Booklist Review

This immense book seems doomed to be dipped into rather than read straight through, to be a reference more than a sustained reading experience. That is probably just as well, for a big book that lays out the relationships between the lives of the noteworthy poets writing in English and their works will enjoy a livelier shelf life than any single biography or book of poems ever would. The only absolute requirement such a book must meet is that it be adequately written, and the only thing to carp about is its coverage. Schmidt writes literately and with the proper authority, meeting the basic requirement, and, at least until he reaches the middle of the twentieth century, no one should object to his coverage. The bricks will start flying over who among recent poets is excluded, but those who are included--plenty of poets who are neither American nor English--seem, one and all, justly included. Consider this a new cornerstone for literature collections. --Ray Olson

Library Journal Review

Editor and publisher Schmidt proposes to examine the range and possibilities of poetry in English as it zigzags across history, geography, and political and national divides. The book is organized historically in a series of biographical sketches that stretch from Richard Rolle of Hampole and John Barbour to Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, and Les Murray. Schmidt uses the poetry of the past and of the present to offer insight into each other. While deeply informed, Schmidt's discussion eschews any specific critical perspective, offering brief biographical sketches and a focus on the uses and innovations of language. His concern is to illuminate the poem rather than to explain it. Like Dr. Johnson's famous book, which provides Schmidt with his title, Lives of the Poets is both rich in its discernment and a pleasure to read.ÄThomas L. Cooksey, Armstrong State Coll., Savannah, GA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



While the Irish football team played the Soviet Union in 1988, four English poets were confined in a radio studio in Dublin -- it was the Writers' Conference -- to take part in a round-table discussion. English-language poets, that is, for none of them accepts the sobriquet "English" and one has vehemently rejected it. In the chair was an anglophone Mexican publisher, me. First of the four was Russian. Joseph Brodsky, a Nobel Prize winner, was attempting that almost possible Conradian, Nabokovian transition from one language to another, writing his new poems directly in English. Jet-lagged and impatient to return to the soccer, he expressed strong opinions on politics, religion, poetry and sport. In his essays he has argued that, as imperial centers corrode and weaken, poetry survives most vigorously in remote provinces, far from their decaying capitals. One thinks of Rome. Now that the British and American claims to the English language have loosened, the art of English poetry continues to thrive. The bourse may still be in the publishing centers of London or New York, but the shares quoted there are in poetic corporations with headquarters in New South Wales, St. Lucia, County Wicklow . . . There is a triumphalism in this line of argument: emancipation. The post-colonial is as much a fashion in literature as the Colonial is in home decoration. Brodsky might have conceded (he did not) that ethnicity, gender and sexual preference can themselves be provinces or peripheries in which, even at the heart of the old geographical centers of empire, poetry can grow. It is an art that thrives when language itself is interrogated, from the moment John Gower challenged himself, "Why not write in English?" to Wordsworth's asking, "Why not write a language closer to speech?" to Adrienne Rich's asking, "Why write in the forms that a tradition hostile to me and my kind prescribes?" History and politics can play a part: they propose questions. In poetry the answers come not as argument but as form. Over a century and a half ago America began to establish its independence, kicking (as Edgar Allan Poe put it) the British grandmama downstairs. Early in this century Scotland began to reaffirm its space, and Ireland too, a space that is firstly political and then cultural. We can speak of sharing a common language only when we possess it, when it is our language rather than theirs. For the Jamaican poet and historian Edward Kamau Braithwaite the English of the educational system in which he was raised, the English of the poetic tradition, is theirs. For many black writers in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, it was theirs. For working-class English writers such as Tony Harrison, it was theirs. When writers interrogate language, they set themselves one of two tasks: to reinvent it, or to take it by storm and (as the novelist Gabriel García Márquez puts it) "expropriate it," give it to the people, often for the first time. "I hate relegation of any sort," says Les Murray. "I hate people being left out. Of course, that I suppose has been the main drama of my life -- coming from the left-out people into the accepted people and being worried about the relegated who are still relegated. I don't want there to be any pockets of relegation left." A time has almost come -- the round-table discussion was early evidence of it -- to speak unapologetically of a common language, at least for poetry. Instead of affirming separation and difference, we can begin to affirm continuity -- not only geographical but historical, analogies and real connections between Eavan Boland and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Allen Ginsberg and William Blake, John Ashbery and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Thom Gunn and Ben Jonson, Elizabeth Bishop and Alexander Pope. The story that includes all poets can be told from the beginning. The second poet in the studio that afternoon was Derek Walcott, born in Castries, St. Lucia, in 1930, of a West Indian mother and an English father. I'm just a red nigger who love the sea, I had a sound colonial education, I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation. His was a francophone and Roman Catholic island; he is from an English-speaking Methodist culture. "Solidarity" is not the issue for him that it has become for Brathwaite. He distinguishes between English, his mother tongue, and the form he used at home, his mother's tongue. He might have courted approval had he chosen to affirm himself in terms of race, but he chose instead to identify himself with all the resources of his language. After all, English wasn't his "second language." "It was my language. I never felt it belonged to anybody else, I never felt that I was really borrowing it." In a poem about the shrinking back of empire, he writes, "It's good that everything's gone except their language, which is everything." "They" have left it and now it is his. Shakespeare, Herrick, Herbert and Larkin belong to him just as they would to an English person. There's no point in denying the violence and dislocations of colonialism, but if, given what history has already done, a writer responds by rejecting the untainted together with the tainted resources . . . The third poet at the table was Seamus Heaney. Born in the north of Ireland, he has complained of being "force-fed" with "the literary language, the civilized utterance from the classic canon of English poetry." At school, poetry class "did not delight us by reflecting our experience; it did not re-echo our own speech in formal and surprising arrangements. Poetry lessons, in fact, were rather like catechism lessons." He has tempered his views since he wrote of the "exclusive civilities" of English. At the round table he declared that the colonial and post-colonial argument is "a theme; it's a way of discoursing about other things, to talk about the language. It's a way of talking about being Protestants and Catholics without using bigoted, sectarian terms, it's a way of talking about heritage. But the fact of the matter is that linguistically one is very adept." He remembers as a child with "the South Derry intonation at the back of my throat" being able to hear, as he read, even though he could not speak it, the alien and beguiling intonations of P. G. Wodehouse. Language can be a medium of servitude; but it can also -- properly apprehended -- become a measure of freedom. "A great writer within any culture changes everything. Because the thing is different afterwards and people comprehend themselves differently. If you take Ireland before James Joyce and Ireland fifty years afterwards, the reality of being part of the collective life is enhanced and changed." The fourth poet, the Australian Les Murray, is a witness to the abundance of the English language and to the freedoms it offers. Born in 1938 in Nabiac, rural New South Wales, he was an only child and grew up on his father's dairy farm in Bunyah. His mother died when he was a boy. In solitude he developed a close affinity with the natural world. Australia is a predominantly urban society; Murray is thoroughly rural. In 1986 he returned to Bunyah to farm, to live with the poetry of gossip, what he calls "bush balladry," and to work for "wholespeak." He takes his bearings, emblematically, from Homer and Hesiod: the arts of war and of peace (Hesiod's Works and Days embodies the principles of permanence, while the Odyssey with its endless wandering and a world subject to strange metamorphoses, and the Iliad with its sense of social impermanence and conflict, illuminate the principles of change). A voice exists for every living creature, human or beast. It is one of the poet's tasks to listen and transcribe: the voice (the diction, syntax and cadence) of the cow and pig, the mollusk, the echidna, the strangler fig, the lyre bird and goose, the tick, the possum, "The Fellow Human." The past is included in the present, and the fuller its inclusion, the less likely relegation will be. Murray works toward an accessible poetry, telling stories, attempting secular and (he is a Roman Catholic) holy communion. An anti-modernist, he might respond to Ezra Pound's commandment "Make it new": "No, make it present." Four writers in English with different accents and dialects, detained in a small recording studio in Dublin, deprived of the big match, all more or less agreeing on the integrity of their art, its place in the world, and on the continuities that it performs. Released at last (the match, alas, was over), the poets returned to Dun Laoghaire for dinner. Their conversation was raucous: a competition of salty tales and limericks ("There was a young fellow called Dave / Who kept a dead whore in a cave"). Neighboring tables tutted and simmered, and a literary critic from Belfast in her indignation reported the poets' boisterous manners back to the Times Literary Supplement . A time has come to speak unapologetically for a common language and to speak a common language of poetry. Almost. Excerpted from Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

The Match: Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Les Murrayp. 3
Our Sublime Superiorsp. 7
The Anthologyp. 12
Where It Begins: Richard Rolle of Hampole, Robert Manning of Brunne, John Barbourp. 15
Tutelary Spirits: Richard II and John Wycliffep. 23
"In englesh forto make a book": John Gowerp. 30
SouthwarK: John Gower, Boethius, Romance of the Rose, Geoffrey Chaucerp. 38
"And as I lay and lened and loked in the wateres": William Langlandp. 46
"Go, litel bok": Geoffrey Chaucerp. 53
"Sing cuccu!": Anonp. 75
Entr'acte: Charles of Orleans, Thomas Hoccleve, John Lydgate, Juliana Bernersp. 78
"Merely written for the people": Ballads: Bishop Percy, Sir Walter Scottp. 87
"Not as I suld, I wrait, but as I couth": Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas, Stephen Hawesp. 94
The Watershed: William Caxtonp. 107
Motley: John Skeltonp. 113
Petrarch Comes to England: Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard Earl of Surreyp. 121
The Green Knight: Thomas Lord Vaux, Thomas Tusser, Thomas Sackville Earl of Dorset, George Gascoigne, Edward de Vere, Isabella Whitneyp. 130
"A little man with little hands and little cuffs": Edmund Spenserp. 137
"Of love, and love, and love": Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir Philip Sidney, Mary Sidney Countess of Pembroke, Queen Elizabeth Ip. 148
Substance with and without Rites: George Chapman, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespearep. 167
Bad Feelings: William Shakespeare, Emilia Lanyerp. 178
Words Strung on Air: Thomas Campionp. 186
Singing School: Ben Jonson, Lady Mary Wrothp. 191
"The world's a bubble": John Donne, Sir Francis Baconp. 202
Pastoral Care: Robert Herrick, George Herbert, Henry Vaughanp. 214
The Eccentric: John Milton, Anne Bradstreet, Margaret Cavendishp. 229
An End of Delicacy: Richard Lovelace, Richard Crashaw, Sir John Suckling, Thomas Carew, Andrew Marvell, Edmund Waller, Henry Vaughanp. 246
New Pilots: John Dryden, John Wilmot Earl of Rochester, Katherine Philips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch Countess of Winchilsea, Edward Taylorp. 259
Three Friends: Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Alexander Popep. 277
Dead Pastoral: James Thomsonp. 294
Doctor Johnsonp. 299
Methods and Madnesses: Thomas Gray, Christopher Smart, Oliver Goldsmithp. 306
"The stricken deer": William Cowper, Charlotte Smithp. 325
Youth and Age: Thomas Chatterton, Phillis Wheatley, George Crabbep. 335
Killing Doctor Johnson: William Blakep. 346
Humble Truth: James Macpherson, Robert Burnsp. 356
Liberty Versus Legitimacy: William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridgep. 364
Marble into Flesh--and Spirit: Walter Savage Landor, George Gordon Lord Byron, Felicia Dorothea Hemans, Percy Bysshe Shelleyp. 385
"Touch has a memory": John Clare, William Cullen Bryant, John Keats, Thomas Lovell Beddoesp. 405
Long Gray Beards and Glittering Eyes: William Barnes, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ralph Waldo Emersonp. 422
Snapping Asunder the Leading-Strings: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melvillep. 436
"They lived once thus at Venice" and in Camden: Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Walt Whitmanp. 452
Winter Is Good: Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossettip. 468
The Phantom of Ourselves: Matthew Arnold, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Gerard Manley Hopkinsp. 481
A Beginning of the End of Victorian Poetry: Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Mew, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edgar Lee Masters, Stephen Cranep. 501
"The land of lost content": A. E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brookep. 527
"A language not to be betrayed ...": W. B. Yeats, the Rhymers' Club, Edward Thomas, Robert Frostp. 556
"The lighting of the lamps": T. E. Hulme, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, H.D. (Hilda Dolittle)p. 582
A Pause for Breathp. 622
"Arranging, deepening, enchanting": Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Amy Clampitt, Sharon Olds, Mark Dotyp. 626
"What shall I say, because talk I must?": William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, J. H. Prynne, John Riley, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Charles Tomlinsonp. 647
Reinvention: Hugh Macdiarmid, Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh, David Jones, Edith Sitwell, Mina Loy, Robinson Jeffers, E. E. Cummings, Langston Hughesp. 672
"The troubles of a book": Robert Graves, Laura Riding, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Hart Cranep. 709
"A low, dishonest decade": Edgell Rickword, Roy Campbell, William Empson, W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, Louis Macneice, Thomas Kinsella, James Fentonp. 723
Going West: Yvor Winters, Elizabeth Daryush, Wendy Cope, Donald Davie, Thom Gunnp. 751
Apocalypse and After: Dylan Thomas, David Gascoyne, W. S. Graham, Burns Singer, John Heath-Stubbs, George Barker, C. H. Sisson, Stevie Smith, Theodore Roethke, R. S. Thomasp. 770
The Other War: Keith Douglas, F. T. Prince, A. D. Hope, Randall Jarrell, Norman Maccaig, Edwin Morganp. 797
Candors: Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Patricia Beer, Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkinp. 814
Language and the Body: Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Eavan Boland, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Allen Curnow, James K. Baxter, W. S. Merwinp. 846
Inventing and Reinventing the Wheel: Geoffrey Hill, Derek Mahon, Charles Causley, Richard Wilbur, Bill Manhire, Craig Raine, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitagep. 874
Beyond Stylistic Irony: Iain Crichton Smith, Gary Snyder, Elaine Feinstein, Mimi Khalvati, Sujata Bhatt, Gillian Clarke, Robert Minhinnick, Gwyneth Lewis, Andrew Motion, David Constantinep. 888
"An instance of itself": Frank O'Hara, John Ash, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Mark Strand, Christopher Middleton, Roy Fisher, Michael Hofmann, Jeffrey Wainwrightp. 905
Speaking and Speaking For: Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Derek Walcott, Lorna Goodison, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Tony Harrison, Joseph Brodsky, Les Murrayp. 919
Loose Endsp. 938
Acknowledgmentsp. 940
Brief Bibliographyp. 941
Indexp. 959