LIVES OF THE POETS
By Michael Schmidt
Attempting to write a one-volume survey of the entire history of English poetry, complete with biographical sketches and critical analysis is, as Michael Schmidt admits, “an act of folly.”
Nevertheless, here it is.
One can easily imagine where a book like this would be likely to go wrong. In the first place, Schmidt has tried to be too inclusive. Going into greater depth with major figures like Donne and Browning would have made more sense than adopting the Domesday Book approach. It is reasonably safe to say that nobody cares about the Scottish Chaucerians today, and the time spent discussing them here could have easily been spent more profitably elsewhere.
Then there is the need to generalize. Even though Schmidt does quote generously and tries to focus on some of the minute particulars, he is invariably forced into vague chit-chat and broad commentary that will make even the most dedicated reader give in to the temptation to skim.
But even given all of this, the surprising thing about Lives of the Poets is how well most of it works. The main prerequisite for a job like this is a love of poetry – and Schmidt is quite well qualified in that department. As a literary judge he is remarkably objective, if not overly generous, in his opinions. And even though he spreads himself far too thin, he is usually informative, accurate, and insightful.
His general approach can be quickly summarized. The method is chronological, though poets within periods are joined together thematically. There is no overarching thesis beyond the well-worn (but never very helpful) notion that there are two main “languages” of poetry: one specialized, formal and classical, the other more representative of the native or common tongue.
Quotes of critical judgments are wisely taken from other poets (Johnson, Eliot, Auden, Graves), and rarely from an academic source. Though a university instructor himself, Schmidt has a healthy distrust for academic critics who “drive a theoretical skewer through poetry, investing their faith not in a poem but in a predetermined approach to poetry.”
The late 20th century is particularly well-represented, and I found it refreshing to read a literary critic with so much genuine interest in the new. The reputation of some of the more recent poets discussed may not last any longer than that of the Scottish Chaucerians, but you have to respect a critic who will go out on a limb.
Given the impossible nature of the task, Schmidt succeeds better than expected. While Lives of the Poets is no substitute for a good anthology of the real thing, it is a well-executed and occasionally rewarding review.
Review first published February 20, 1999.