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BOOK REVIEW: Modern British Poetry ed. by Louis Untermeyer

Modern British PoetryModern British Poetry by Louis Untermeyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page (not the same edition)

 

This is an anthology of 183 poems written by 77 British authors. Given the title, “Modern British Poetry,” the first thing that should be stated is that the original work came out around 1920, and so the bulk of these poems are from the 19th century. That may fit perfectly with your classification of modern poetry, but if you’re looking for present-day poets, this isn’t the book you’re after.

However, the good news is that you might still find some unexpected treasures. Often collections of public domain poetry like this gather poems that are ubiquitous and which are probably already on the shelves of most poetry readers in various collections and anthologies. But of the almost 80 poets included, only a handful will be household names for a general reader—particularly if you aren’t from the UK and thus didn’t get exposed to the more obscure British poets. Of course, there are a number who have stood the test of time: Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, A.E. Housman, William Butler Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, G.K. Chesterton, Alfred Noyes, D.H. Lawrence, Edith Sitwell, and Robert Graves spring to mind. Furthermore, the poems chosen aren’t a straightforward “greatest hits” list. (e.g. “If” isn’t among the four Rudyard Kipling entries.)

As one might expect of a 230 page anthology that contains 183 poems (plus author bios and the occasional footnote), the poems selected are brief. In a few cases, excerpts from longer works are included, but for the most part these are poems that fit comfortably on a single page. This is great for someone trying to get a feel for the various poets and for those who enjoy more compact works over epic poems—which, if we’re being honest, is most of us.

The anthologist, Louis Untermeyer, includes brief bios for each of the poets in front of their entries in the anthology. Generally, each included poet has between one and four poems. While the poems are organized by poet, the poets seem to be organized chronologically (at least as near as I can tell; it begins with Thomas Hardy [1840 – 1928] and ends with Robert Graves [1895 – 1985.])

I read a Kindle version of this work and found it to be far better organized than most of these public domain compilations. It not only had an index that would take one to individual poems or poet bios, but it also contained a hyperlinked index. Unfortunately, I obtained the book some time ago and I couldn’t find the same edition when I looked for it while doing the review. Most of the Kindle editions now seem to bundle Untermeyer’s “Modern American Poetry” with his “Modern British Poetry” but the edition I had was just the British poets.

I recommend this book for poetry readers. In addition to having some exemplary short form poetry from both well-known and forgotten poets, it happens to contain the first poem I ever memorized in it—a powerful little poem by John McCrae entitled “In Flanders Fields” (if you don’t know it, read it; it’s war poetry at its finest.)

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