English Renaissance Poetry review – a manual on how to write verse

By Nicholas Lezard

english-renaissance-poetryShakespeare, Donne and Jonson are all represented in this punchy and sinuous anthology, chosen by Stoner author John Williams

The American author and academic John Williams wrote three acclaimed novels (he let his first be quietly forgotten): one set in the wild west (Butcher’s Crossing), one on the campus of a Midwestern university (Stoner, recently republished to great acclaim) and one (Augustus) about the life of the Roman emperor. That’s a wide spread, as far as subject matter goes; the fact that he also published this selection of English Renaissance poetry further demonstrates his capacity for making different eras vivid to us.
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This anthology first came out in 1963, and, as Robert Pinsky says in his introduction, it soon becomes clear that it is a writer’s book, as opposed to an academic’s. The subtitle may be somewhat dry – A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson – though the poems themselves are anything but. This is a labour of love, not an exercise in scholarship and canon-building.
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You can see what attracted Williams to this era, as the one thing his novels have in common is a concern for the proper use of good, plain language. English poetry in the 16th and early 17th centuries was at the top of its game. The big names – Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, all represented here – did not pop up in isolation. Poetry was in the air: everyone with any claim to gentility wrote it, and you couldn’t call yourself well rounded or gentlemanly if you couldn’t knock off an extempore verse (this was almost exclusively a male pursuit).

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