Sunday, May 09, 2010

John Donne edited by Peter Porter

John Donne edited and with an introduction by Peter Porter is a small book that collects Donne’s poems with the occasional reproduction of paintings from the period.  The usual poems are all here and the introduction is adequate, only slightly more informative than one could find in an encyclopedia entry.

My disappointment in this book is due to my unmet expectations.  I requested the book from my library sight unseen. Usually I will go to to see if the book I am looking at in my library’s search engine is what I want.  I did not do that this time.  I had been hoping for a book that included some of his other writings and not just his poetry.  I like his poetry well enough.  I don’t love it.  I most enjoy the moments when he merges his mystical experience with his theological beliefs and I think that is why I had hoped this book would be a more thorough exploration of his writing.

Can’t fault the editor for that, can I?  This book is one very small volume of a series called “The English Poets”—something else I didn’t know when I picked it from my library’s collection.  I am not sure how the editors define English.  One would assume British but I noticed that Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson are both included in the series.  So I guess that they mean poets who wrote in English.  And there are only two women writers included (Elizabeth Barrett is not included!) which makes perfect sense because, as we all know, there were only two women writing poetry in English in the entire history of the English language.

Yes, that last remark is being a bit facetious.  I could waste my time listing women poets contemporaneous with the other poets included in the series but I won’t bother.  I commend the editors for allowing the poet’s works to stand on their own merit, for not offering interpretations or contextualizing the pieces within history, etc.  If someone is unfamiliar with certain poets or wants a superficial look at “English” poetry, the series is perhaps a good enough one.  I, however, am left pondering the definition of English and how it is being used. 

(Note:  It seems that the series has changed its title to Illustrated Poets rather than English Poets. I am guessing I wasn't the first or only one to face the confusion of the series' lack of focus.)

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