I’m the nerd who didn’t major in English or Literature or Teaching and still took Classical British Literature courses in college because I thought someone forcing me to take the time to read my favorite authors sounded fun. (And it was.)
In fact one of the only reasons I didn’t add English/Literature as a sixth Associates degree to my repertoire was the fact that it required several courses in American Lit. There is a small a handful of American Lit I enjoy (primarily the work of poets, no surprise there) but most classical American prose puts me to sleep… at best. (Really I’m being kind.)
I could wax poetic about the joys of British Lit for days, but for A-Z I’m going to keep it to a brief introduction of three of my favorite British poets today.
1) John Milton: 1608-1674
Paradise Lost is one of my favorite classical British works. I have long held a personal view of the Devil in Christianity in a way that is not frequently preached: not making him truly evil, but more misunderstood. A creature with a role to play in the bigger scheme of things. Someone who certainly doesn’t do good things, but who perhaps never set out with real venom in his heart.
I think this is one reason Milton’s epic work stands out to me so much. The language itself is a beautiful complexity, but his vision of the story of Adam and Eve, while following Christianity at its core, is also slanted in a way that could have been considered a bit dangerous for his time. It makes you ask questions and think of the story in a new light, and for that I adore this work.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”
– Paradise Lost
2) Lord George Gordon Byron: 1788-1824
Lord Byron… forever the ladies man. Did you know that he received hundreds of fan letters from noble families asking for and encouraging him to finish work when he would release single cantos before the entire piece was complete? Being a ‘fan’ is certainly not a new thing.
Despite his long list of romantic interludes and other naughty tales, he also did many positive noteworthy things such as fighting for social reform and workers’ rights in the House of Lords. Below I’ve attached one of my favorites of his work. It’s only two lines, but it speaks volumes.
“The beginning of eternity, the end of time and space,
The beginning of every end, and the end of every place.”
– A Riddle, on the Letter E
3) Elizabeth Barrett Browning: 1806-1861
Elizabeth was the wife of Robert Browning, another well known Victorian poet. One of her most well-known collections is Sonnets from the Portuguese and many people will particularly recognize her sonnet ‘How Do I Love Thee’. By the age of six she was already writing poetry and when Wordsworth passed away in 1850, she nearly gained the title of poet laureate before it finally went to Tennyson.
Many of the British poets interacted and wrote to and about one another, even when generations separated them. But a particular story I love with Elizabeth is her interactions with Edgar Allen Poe, an American poet who of course was alive and writing at the same time she was. Elizabeth’s poem ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’ inspired the meter for Poe’s ‘The Raven’, and when she later gave praise to the poem, Poe dedicated his collection The Raven and Other Poems to her.
There are multiple examples of Elizabeth’s work that I love dearly, but I’d like to share the first stanza of one that perhaps isn’t quite so well known.
“I would build a cloudy House
For my thoughts to live in;
When for earth too fancy-loose
And too low for Heaven!
Hush! I talk my dream aloud—
I build it bright to see,—
I build it on the moonlit cloud,
To which I looked with thee.”
– The House of Clouds
Do you have a favorite classical British poet? American poet? Classical poet of any kind?