James Fenton’s An Introduction to English Poetry is an interesting book, though I cannot wholeheartedly recommend it. For a start the title is quite misleading: this is a book about the structure of poetry rather than a book about English poetry per se. Now a book about structure is just what some students need so the misleading title shouldn’t bother us too much. However, much more disturbing for the Catholic English teacher is the artificial time constraint Fenton places upon himself. In his first chapter on ‘The History and Scope of English Poetry’ he is quite open about the fact that English poetry, or at least English poetry as discussed in his book, began in c1500.
There are, as he explains, all sorts of good, practical reasons for limiting his book to the last 500 years of English poetry but surely there are big problems too in ignoring the first thousand years of English poetry, a millennium when, incidentally, England was, for the most part, solidly Catholic. Pope Benedict was not thinking of English poetry when he spoke about a hermeneutic of continuity but his insights can certainly applied to the world of English Literature. It’s easy to ignore this country’s greatest Catholic poetry if you start your analysis at the time of the Reformation.
Not that James Fenton can ignore the pre-Reformation world altogether. He rightly reminds us that “Poetry carries its history within it” but, having considered and then rejected Chaucer (pp.1-2), he is later forced to acknowledge his influence on W.H. Auden (p.68). The way Auden was influenced by Elizabethan poetry is analysed (p.4) but the influence of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse on his work is ignored completely. Surely this is a peculiarly lopsided analysis.
Pre-Reformation poetry (my phrase: not his) is not considered in Fenton’s book essentially on the grounds of incomprehensibility but even here Fenton ties himself in knots by arguing that “the really striking thing about, say, the recent film of Romeo and Juliet is the effectiveness with which the poetry communicates, and does so when delivered at great speed. Leonardo DiCaprio did not slow down in order to get a complex point across. He simply made sure that he understood the point and assumed that his understanding would be enough to carry the audience with him.” Absolutely right but why should this argument apply to Shakespeare and not to other great authors from earlier centuries?
I am not arguing that Fenton is consciously anti-Catholic – far from it – but it surely is the case that our choice of poets shapes our whole understanding of the shape and scope of English poetry. And James Fenton’s choices are, at best, idiosyncratic: John Fuller gets four mentions while Dryden, Hopkins and Wordsworth don’t get that many between them.
There is much that’s worth reading in this book - I shall be recommending the glossary and chapters 5 and 6 (on iambic pentameter), 14 (on the longer stanza: irritatingly, the chapter on the shorter stanza is much less useful), 15 (the sonnet), and 20 (writing for the eye) to my students - but reader beware: there is much that is missing too.