Yes, I agreed. The beautiful morning, cool for late June, burst with the splendor of being alive. The canopy of trees stretched toward the perfect blue sky, shading the quiet, pleasant streets with leafy shadow.
A young mother jogged by, pushing a stroller, a dog trotting beside her. Magnolias, hydrangeas and roses bloomed. A bright red cardinal perched on a neighbor's mailbox.
Ready for the Fourth of July holiday, tiny American flags lined the walkway at the home of a young couple who had recently moved into the neighborhood.
As I walked back toward home, I thought it would be a fine day to read "English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems From Skelton to Jonson," one of my favorite recent literary discoveries.
Edited by John Williams, the acclaimed author of"Stoner," "Butcher's Crossing" and "Augustus," the comprehensive anthology was published in 1963 and recently reissued by the excellent New York Review Press, which also gave new life to Williams' novels a few years ago.
Poet Robert Pinksy in an informed introduction examines the conflicts between traditionalists and experimentalists that divided the poetry world during the 1960s.
He cites an essay by Stanford's Ivor Winters, who led the traditionalist camp against the Beats and others who sought to break with the past. Pinksy sees Williams' anthology as an enduring treasure standing outside of those battles, an essential guide to the history of English poetry.
Along with major poets like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne and Edmund Spenser, the book gives a generous selection of writers mostly forgotten now. Poetry was a widespread pursuit of the age; also represented are Sir Walter Raleigh and St. Thomas More, better known for other endeavors. The collection brings back to the spotlight wonderful writers like George Gascoigne and John Skelton, the inventor of a special meter known as Skeltonics. Here is a Guardian review.
The earliest poems, while at times dry and didactic, display verbal wit and clever wordplay. All are men, most of them courtiers and diplomats for Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth and King James. Later, more of them, like Shakespeare and Jonson, can make their living as professional writers. The later writers' work, influenced by Petrarch, grows more intricate and artistically ambitious. The full gamut of poems share common themes: the passing of time, the sorrow of aging, the triumphs and defeats of love, nature's beauty.
The poems cover a long and volatile stretch of English history. Reading their poems, one can almost hear their voices, vital again after so many centuries. With all of the social and cultural change they experienced, their work displays certainty and serenity, although their lives could quickly shift from comfort to danger. Raleigh spent 13 years in prison, and later was beheaded. Once Henry VIII's most trusted adviser, More met his famous martyrdom.
They lived at the dawn of the new world's discovery. As the Fourth approaches, the bright and new American experiment their country engendered looks imperiled. Their work testifies to the permanence of art, beauty and thought.