Thursday, March 2, 2006

A Review of Immortal Poems of The English Language

If you're anything like me, then you feel your book collection could never be complete without at least some poetry to round out the fiction and nonfiction titles that grace your shelves. But it's difficult to amass a good collection of poetry due to the fact that poets, just like fiction and nonfiction writers, sometimes produce average or even sub-par work. Unlike with novels, however, it's pretty much impossible to separate a poet's great works from the average stuff because they're often sold in the same volume. So the best way to go about building your poetry collection would be to purchase anthologies.

Toward that end, I would have to say that Immortal Poems of the English Language, edited by Oscar Williams, is one of the best poetry anthologies I have ever come across. It contains 447 poems by some of the most famous British and American poets dating back to the 1300s and including works from the 1940s and early 1950s. So if your poetic interests lie within those dates, chances are you're going to find some of your favorite works contained in this volume.

Immortal Poems of the English Language is presented chronologically by author. So the first poems that appear in the book are from Geoffrey Chaucer and continue on from there. Some of the biggest names that appear in this volume include William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Keats, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Milton, Alfred Lord Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Emily Dickenson, and many, many more. The number of works per author varies depending on his or her noteworthy output. So a prolific author like Shakespeare has 53 separate sonnets and snippets from plays in the book, while a lesser-known poet like William Douglas only has a single entry.

This book is very well organized, making it extremely easy and fun to browse through. It's not meant to be read cover to cover, so the poems aren't organized according to theme or movement. However, you certainly could read the book that way if you choose, and your experience wouldn't suffer a bit.

Immortal Poems of the English Language contains two features that help make it a wonderful reference book. First, there is an index of first lines in the back of the volume. So if you happen to know how a poem begins but can't quite put your finger on the author or title of the poem, you can still find it in this book by looking up the first line. Skimming through the first line index is also a fun way to find potentially interesting poems that you might never have heard of. I've found myself intrigued many times by the first lines I see in that particular index, which of course compels me to go through and read the entire poem to see if it's any good.

A second feature in the book that makes it very useful as a reference is the alphabetical author index. With this feature, finding works by your favorite poet is a breeze. All you have to do is look up the author by last name, find the particular title that you are interested in, and flip right to the page.

I also have to say that I am quite pleased with the selections that actually appear in this volume. I think the editor did a fantastic job of choosing which poems to include and which poems to leave out. I can't tell you the number of times I've been put off from buying a poetry anthology because it was either way too thick or too thin to be of any real use. You might think that this means the editor included only the most well-known poems from each of the major poets in the book, but that's not the case. I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about poets and their works, but there were numerous poems in this volume that I had never even heard of prior to reading them in the book. However, there weren't so many "obscure" poems that the book felt too comprehensive. The editor was somehow able to strike an excellent balance here.

If there's one quibble that I had with Immortal Poems of the English Language it would be the fact that the book doesn't contain any biographical information about the poets appearing in the volume. I am not expecting a detailed account of each person's life, of course, but the only thing we get in this book is the birth and death year of the poets. For the better-known poets such as Shakespeare, this isn't really a problem since most readers are probably already familiar with his life to some degree. But a bit of extra information would really have been a bonus for some of the lesser-known poets featured in the book. As it was, if I found myself to be greatly interested by the work of a poet I had never heard of before, I had to go to other sources to track down biographical information.

On the whole, I think Immortal Poems of the English Language is one of the best poetry anthologies out there. You will benefit from this book whether you are an expert on poetry or just a beginner looking to read some of the most famous poems of all time. It is a handy little volume, and would make a terrific addition to any book collection or home library.  

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