This volume concentrates on the years 1880-1918, when some of Britain's most outstanding and poignant poetry was produced from the horror of war by Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon. The poetry of Kipling records the contradicitons of Britain as Empire. The realism of these writers stands in contrast with the early magical poetry of W.B. Yeats and the rural tradition in the works of Thomas Hardy and the young D.H. Lawrence.
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The English Romantic poets, discussed in Volume 4, have much in common with the French Impressionist painters. Both were less of a school than a succession of individuals who were mutually inspired to change the face of an art form. Both situated Man within Nature and freed themselves from classical motifs. And the work of both groups is extremely well known. Poems as familiar as Blake's "The Tyger," Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Wordsworth's "She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways," Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," and Burns's "A Red Red Rose" need to be interpreted with fresh verve and power or those who know them will tune out and those who are making their first acquaintance won't renew it. Although there are nine good professionals on this program, Penguin should have hired a single great one. It has also played it safe in its selections. Still, in conjunction with more interesting recordings of these poets?e.g., Ralph Richardson's Blake (The Poetry of William Blake, HarperAudio, 1966), Frederick Davidson's Byron (Lord Byron: Selected Poems, Blackstone Audio Bks., 1992), Keats, and Wordsworth?this program makes a valuable addition to larger collections. Listening to the final two programs in this six-part series, it is hard to resist asking which poets at the end of the last century point the way to modernism and which poets at the start of this century (the series ends after World War I) seem to belong to it unmistakably. Among the Victorians, it is clear that Robert Browning, in faultless dramatic monologs such as "My Last Duchess," is both the finest poet of his day and the one whose clarity of vision, freedom of line, and conversational voice is fresher and less predictably "Victorian" than many poets writing now. By comparison, the stirring ballades and idylls of Tennyson, such as "Morte d'Arthur" or "The Lady of Shalott," sound like quintessential expressions of a long-vanished age. Also, it is not Swinburne but Stevenson who (as in his novels) represents a minor contribution that is so energetic he has outlasted weightier contemporaries. And the so-called nonsense lyrics of Carroll and Lear, generally treated as amusing curiosities, are actually legitimate forerunners of surrealism, striking a sympathetic chord to the modern ear. The omission of Lear's limericks is inexcusable, but the cast of narrators comes delightfully alive in this section, as if finally enabled to express a spirit of fun. Among the early moderns, it is neither Yeats nor Hopkins who seem to have truly entered the new century, nor even the excellent Thomas Hardy, whose last novels sounded the death-knell for Victorian literature and who was driven into a second career as a poet by the hostile outcry against them. Perhaps surprisingly, it is Rudyard Kipling, commonly regarded as a lesser poet, certainly one whose star has fallen beneath the horizon of changing mores and politics, who stands out. His incomparable "The Mary Gloucester," stunningly narrated by John Moffatt, is one of the most compelling poems, and easily the most moving performance, in the series. Kipling's deft deployment of the colloquial and his proud (not ridiculous) expression of the British working class place him ahead, not behind, his now more fashionable contemporaries. Among the fine poets of World War I, Wilfred Owen is the master, and once again narrator Moffatt creates the kind of emotional impact that has been too rare in this series. His interpretation of Owen's "Spring Offensive" is mesmerizing, reminding us that Owen's response to the war brought forcefully to English verse an element long suppressed but which became one of the hallmarks of modernism: anger. Recommended.?Peter Josyph, New York
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