Five of the best collections of English poetry, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
What are the best English poetry anthologies? And how would one define ‘best’? The answer, of course, is that it’s always going to be subjective to a point. But it’s worth having a go at picking the greatest anthologies from which the poetry fan can choose. The poetry anthology is a great way not only of revisiting old favourites, but of discovering new poets. In this post, we’ve turned our attention to a kind of book that provides a highly valuable service for the poetry-lover. Many of these books can be purchased for the equivalent of the cost of lunch (depending on where you lunch, of course), or, at most, set back the book-buyer no more than a night out in the local pub would. And a volume of poetry can provide a lifetime of pleasure!
The Oxford Book of English Verse. Edited by Sir Christopher Ricks, this anthology is, in our opinion, simply the best one out there. It’s beautifully produced on good-quality paper, presented in clear type, and the selections made by Ricks showcase, not necessarily the most famous poems by a particular poet, but the most moving, thought-provoking, and intriguing. Thus The Oxford Book of English Verse does what a good poetry anthology should do: it gives you a reason to seek out more poems by a writer you might not have read much before. Ricks’s judgment and taste hardly ever errs, so his choices make for an endlessly surprising and satisfying collection.
Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. The Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics (to give it its full title) was first published in 1861 and edited by Francis Turner Palgrave; a subsequent edition was partly selected by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, then Poet Laureate. It’s full of many classic poems from the Renaissance and the Romantic era, but also contains many little-known lyrics which aren’t so widely read or studied nowadays. These obscure gems make it well worth purchasing.
Tottel’s Miscellany: Songs and Sonnets of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Others (Penguin Classics). Published in 1557 as Songes and Sonettes, this was an historically important poetry anthology, since it was the first anthology to introduce the English sonnet to readers. Both Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey had pioneered sonnets in English, and Surrey innovated with the Italian model, in doing so creating the sonnet form that Shakespeare would go on to make world-famous. The 271 poems which appeared in Tottel’s Miscellany had not been published during either Howard’s or Wyatt’s lifetime, and many of them may have been lost if Tottel had not published his anthology.
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them. The brainchild of a father and his son, Anthony and Ben Holden, this is the most recent poetry anthology on this list. Published in 2014, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry contains 100 poems chosen by famous male figures, from Daniel Radcliffe to Simon Schama. These are, as the title of the anthology suggests, poems that induce that most overwhelming of responses – poems that cause us to shed a tear. There are some great choices here, among them poems by W. H. Auden, Thomas Hardy, and A. E. Housman. And it’s all in the name of raising money for Amnesty International. The companion volume, Poems That Make Grown Women Cry, is also well worth a look.
The Norton Anthology of Poetry. This anthology is pretty comprehensive, running from Cædmon’s Hymn in the seventh century to contemporary poets writing in English. If you want to read the greatest and most celebrated poetry written in English, this is an excellent place to start, as it contains many of the ‘greatest hits’ in English-language poetry (unlike most of the others on this list, it also includes a generous amount of poetry by American poets such as Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens), and so provides a great crash course for the poetry fan and student.
Have we missed off your favourite from this list? What would earn its place in your list of the best English poetry anthologies? We’ve picked some of the best books for language-lovers here and offered a selection of the best introductions to literary theory here. For a change of pace, we recommend this definitive anthology of the best ‘worst’ poems in English literature.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: From Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics by Francis Turner Palgrave (artist unknown), Wikimedia Commons.