C. E. CHAFFIN

 

The Top Ten Poets (in English)

Since my reading of The Top 500 Poems (Columbia University Press, NY, 1995, ed. William Harmon) collided with my wife's remark, "Perhaps anthologization is the best test of a good poem," I have, loosely based on the book, been thinking about a list of the "Top Ten Poets."

Harmon purports to include those poems in English most anthologized -- a fairly conservative coin of the literary realm and one perhaps least likely to suffer quick devaluation.

And may I say in praise of this volume that discovering Poe's "The Bells," the most onomatopoeic poem in the language, made the book eminently worth the price.

Anyway, in the wake of my wife's comment, I took up my coverless, dog-eared copy of Harmon's thick (1076 pp.) paperback to do a simple page count as a screening device for detecting major poets. Only nine have more than 20 pages in the anthology (curiously matching the number of muses). This includes none, of course, still living, nor any women. Here's a list of the top twenty in terms of total pages garnered from The Top 500 Poems:

1) Coleridge (36)
2) Keats (32)
3) Donne (31)
4) Shakespeare (29)
5) Wordsworth (28)
6) Eliot (27)
7) Yeats (25)
8) Blake (24)
    Tennyson (24)

(After this it gets dicey.)

10) Marvell (17)
11) Whitman (16)
12) Dickinson (15)
      Frost (15)
      Hardy (15)
      Pope (15)
      Milton (15)
      Shelley (15)
18) Hopkins (14)
19) Dryden (13)
      Stevens (13)

That Chaucer places only his "General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales in the book, a total of two pages, I think a great convenience, since he composed his verse before the common tongue had completely settled, and also because he could as easily be described a novelist -- in that he wrote at a time when prose and poetry differed much more distinctly in their uses. Any tenured English professor worth his salt would no doubt lobby for Chaucer's inclusion in the top ten on merit, but it's easier to ignore an author who wrote in Middle English than make the necessary allowances for any fair comparison. For operational purposes, however, can we just say Geoffrey Chaucer is the greatest poet in Middle English and leave it at that?

That said, why Shakespeare doesn't rank first by this method should be obvious: his plays are not excerpted; only songs from them qualify for inclusion. Shakespeare is that rarest of authors who dominates two genres, forcing Harmon to narrow his definition of poetry by excluding some of the best in the language, because it occurs in dialogue within the larger context of a drama. Besides, picking out Shakespeare's best blank verse from his plays would be, perhaps, more daunting a task than assembling an anthology of anthologies.

More interesting, why does Coleridge rank first? Mainly because of the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which, if he had done nothing else, would have secured him poetic immortality: it also takes up twenty-five pages. His additional pieces are somewhat longish as well, like "Dejection: An Ode," a nice confessional poem about a man battling clinical depression without the advantages of modern psychopharmacology. At the very least, given his numbers, I don't think it fair to think of Coleridge as a "failed genius," rather one whose production was cut short by melancholy and opium addiction, just as Keats's was shortened by tuberculosis. More on the influence of longer poems below. For now, an aside:

Possessed of training in other areas, I couldn't help noticing that of the top nine poets by page count, five had serious mood disorders. Blake and Coleridge were likely manic-depressive, Keats possibly, while Eliot and Tennyson were "merely" depressive, though Tennyson remains suspect for manic-depression because of his personal eccentricities and strong family heritage (the infamous Lord, "Mad Jack," was his direct ancestor). In any event, all the best recent research points to the same gene as a locus for both illnesses, with differing levels of expression in those affected.

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When making anthologies the measure of greatness, the most obvious fallacy is: "The longer you're dead, the better your chances" -- probably the reason Marvell has one more page than Whitman and two more pages than several younger writers bunched tightly at position twelve. And one must also really discard the last fifty years, where one could plausibly name fifty near equal contenders for future anthology inclusions, although Heaney's Nobel must make him an odds-on favorite to reach double digits in pages a century from now, as Eliot and Yeats, the only Moderns to win the prize, have over twenty pages each.

But to the matter at hand: Have I named my top ten? Of course not, that properly comes at the end of the essay. What good is literary strip-tease if I take my panties off first?

As it is, excepting Shakespeare's short shrift by impediment of genre, it's not such a bad list. I mean, Marvell by a nose over Whitman, Dickinson, Hardy, Pope, Milton, Frost and Shelley for tenth place? Them's good hosses, though I think it likely Frost will inch past his elders as the centuries plod on. Of his contemporaries, only Eliot and Yeats have risen higher. (As an aside, I can't tell you how many otherwise well-informed readers outside the U.S. have written me in astonishment after reading Frost for the first time: "Oh, I thought he was associated with children's grammar school poetry and the like, so I never bothered" -- but his art, once encountered, generally makes such readers deplore their former ignorance.)

So, after the advantages of time spent dead, and allowing for our inability to value the poetry of the last fifty years, a third confounding factor in assembling a list based on page count of an anthology of anthologies is what I call "The Coleridge Anomaly," alluded to above. If one's best poems are long, they yield a decided advantage in page counts. Conversely, by counting pages rather than poems, we do a disservice to poets who prefer small canvases, like Emily Dickinson, while expanding the rankings of those who prefer large ones, like Coleridge, Eliot, Wordsworth and Keats. As for Keats's high total, second only to Coleridge, once you decide to include "The Eve of St. Agnes" (Keats's longest fully realized poem), the young man starts with as many pages as Emily's total, fourteen. But notice: Emily Dickinson is also the only woman ranked in the top twenty, no small feat for someone who published but a few poems in her lifetime.

If we recognize the advantages this anthology confers upon the dead and the long-winded, what other virtues should we consider in re-evaluating the raw list? In The Western Canon and elsewhere, the irrepressible Harold Bloom consistently asserts that literary greatness, or genius, must both subsume the past and depart from it. Bloom calls this latter virtue a difference not only in degree but in kind. I concur with his principle in the main, but have argued in an earlier essay [link]: [http://www.melicreview.com/cgibin/ess_archive.cgi?iss07.cechaffin.01] that genius should also include universality of appeal, as I think Bloom honors too many authors who, though admittedly original, are out of reach of the "common reader" he posits; that his insistence on "departure" results in a special admiration for the grotesque if not counterbalanced by the test of universality. All of these virtues assume, of course, that the poet has a substantial body of good work.

Let's look at the list again:

1) Coleridge (36)
2) Keats (32)
3) Donne (31)
4) Shakespeare (29)
5) Wordsworth (28)
6) Eliot (27)
7) Yeats (25)
8) Blake (24)
    Tennyson (24)
10) Marvell (17)
11) Whitman (16)
12) Dickinson (15)
      Frost (15)
      Hardy (15)
      Pope (15)
      Milton (15)
      Shelley (15)

I don't think I'll get much argument in putting Shakespeare first, but who should come second? Who is an innovator with a consistent body of excellent work? Donne qualifies, having raised metaphor to such perfect pitch in poems like "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." He may be attacked on the basis of lack of universal appeal, but I think anyone who likes to read poetry will find his poems worth the work. His conceits are more elegant than Shakespeare's, if his music not always as good.

Coleridge and Blake were innovators, but both lack a body of consistently excellent work, Coleridge more than Blake. Eliot and Wordsworth were innovators who do have a body of consistently excellent work. Yeats and Keats were not innovators, and Keats, like Coleridge, has a limited body of good work, but what is good is so very good that he easily lands in the top nine by page count. Keats extended the ode in English and likely perfected it better than any before or since, but this is less a major innovation than an advance in craft, much like Yeats, who raised the Victorian lyric to a modern sensibility in his late poems. Likewise, Tennyson did little different from his forbears, though he did raise the lyric to new heights of euphony, and perhaps defined the nature of melancholy, especially in his In Memoriam A.H.H., which according to legend, Queen Victoria kept on her bedstead with her bible.

For the sake of the English Renaissance and the Elizabethan mindset that produced it, as well as perfection of craft with innovation, I'll take Donne at second not only to give the Bard some Elizabethan company, but also because I don't think any poet in English has matched Donne's intellectual rigor in substance and form: he appropriates both sides of his brain brilliantly, and he also covers all the major themes of English poetry well -- Love, Death, God, and Nature (which includes the always popular Spring: "When that April, with his showers soote / April is the cruelest month / When I behold the daffodils!")

Now who should come third? Blake, Wordsworth and Eliot are all innovators, but only Wordsworth and Eliot really subsumed the tradition and departed from it: Blake, like Whitman and Dickinson, appears almost out of a vacuum. Wordsworth has the most universal appeal, perhaps, although Blake's "The Tiger" is the most anthologized poem in the language, but to really understand Blake you must get into Immanuel Swedenborg and Blake's personal mythology: the anthologized poems make it look as if he were only the author of simple lyrics, not the organizing mind behind a spiritual revolution as he saw it. Eliot's appeal is not so universal as Wordsworth's or Blake's; like Donne, he can be difficult. Yet next to Wordsworth, who spawned the Romantic movement in English, Eliot (with Pound) was the most revolutionary and influential of those on our list.

I don't like Wordsworth, except for a few great poems; I jokingly refer to his poetic grail, The Prelude, as "The Quaalude." He does have a body of consistently excellent work, but it was composed before the age of forty, and almost everything he wrote after that is eminently forgettable.

Yet despite my personal dislike of his verse, I cannot argue with those who crown him the most influential poet of the 19th Century; and as the Romantic Movement preceded the Moderns, I suppose he deserves third place. Also, I don't want to go too far afield from the initial page counts in re-arranging this list, and he has more pages than Eliot by one and than Blake by four. Notice, please, that I do not say Wordsworth is thereby a better poet than Eliot or Blake, only that literary history, as I understand it, must accord him a higher place.

So:

1) Shakespeare
2) Donne
3) Wordsworth

The reader can perhaps anticipate my next move: though less universal in appeal than Wordsworth, Eliot deserves fourth place for his far-reaching effect on poetry. There's been really nothing new since "The Waste Land," a poem which incorporates current culture, street talk, jazz rhythms, symbolism, superstition, psychoanalysis and near anything else one could throw into a modern or post-modern poem. Like the others above him, he subsumed the tradition and departed from it. He can rightly be criticized for being obscure, but he felt his poems could be understood without knowing all the allusions, and I agree. Learning the allusions in his poems may add to the pleasure but does not materially change the substance of his poetry, which operates out of time by paradox, almost as if he subsumed the new tradition of relativity in physics as well.

Now to number five: shall I go with a major innovator (Coleridge, Blake) or a great craftsman (Keats, Yeats, Tennyson)? I love Coleridge, but even Keats has a body of work more consistent in quality, despite his young death. And though Coleridge was an innovator, Wordsworth gets most of the credit for the Romantic revolution: he opened the floodgates of fresh expression about feelings, consciousness, and man's personal connection to the world of nature. Blake, like Coleridge, suffers from inconsistency in the body of his work, as most of his anthologized poems, for instance, come from Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Aye, there's the rub: When does sustained craft trump innovation? If only craft were next, it would surely be Yeats vs. Keats, followed by Tennyson. If only innovation were next, it would be Blake then Coleridge. But one must come to some sort of agreement in one's mind among the various operative factors, so I choose the visionary Blake next, then Yeats, then Keats, then Coleridge, then Tennyson. And for number ten, as I have already alluded to, I would choose Frost, because not only did he attain an unimpeachable level of craft, he changed formal verse forever by incorporating normal syntax, ridding his verse of all unnatural inversions and antiquisms before Yeats thought to do it. Thus he set the standard for formal verse ever more: any mangling of syntax or use of poeticisms can no longer be tolerated since his example.

Let's look at my list now:

1) Shakespeare (29)
2) Donne (31)
3) Wordsworth (28)
4) Eliot (27)
5) Blake (24)
6) Yeats (25)
7) Keats (32)
8) Coleridge (36)
9) Tennyson (24)
10) Frost (15)

Why I eschewed Dickinson and Whitman can be explained by the fact that they did not adequately subsume the tradition, but virtually wrote apart from it. I won't deny their genius, but neither will I endorse a higher position for two whose lives were somewhat insular to the literary world at large, especially in the case of Dickinson. As for Milton, don't ask: I think he wrote in EngLatin, not English, for the most part, with his circuitous blank verse periods. He might be better consigned to Chaucer's circle outside the circle. Hardy is good, but his craft is not as good as Frost's; Pope was not different in kind, only degree, from Dryden; Marvell's been dead a long time, which gives him an unfair advantage, and Shelley, well, do I have to talk about Shelley? His verse is rich in thought and music, but he lacks an internal editor to tell him when to quit. In reading him I am struck, as in Hart Crane's work, by a poet too much in love with the sound of his own voice to stop and question it.

After Shakespeare I realize my ranking is open to assault from all sides: I was somewhat arbitrary in balancing craft and innovation. Yeats' craft is so good it made me raise him above Coleridge, an innovator; Blake is not the master of language that Yeats is, but his impact over time has been at least as great, due to his intensity and accessibility. And except for Shakespeare, Keats and Coleridge, my analysis allows for the general order of page counts to prevail, although Yeats is ranked below Blake despite having one more page.

I don't believe that Blake is a better poet than Yeats; it's hard to find a better poet than Yeats in terms of craft. Again, the innovation factor made me favor Blake over him. And in my defense, remember I ranked Wordsworth third, which caused me to swallow hard. These rankings are about overall impact, greatness, genius -- not individual skill.

Whatever you think of this list, remember, in my schema, the top nine could not be dislodged, only re-arranged. I suppose if I wrote another essay the order might change a little -- I might rank Yeats above Blake, for instance -- but I am fairly confident I would end up with the same first four.

Now raise your glasses and let the arguments begin!