Since nobody has the slightest idea where, when or why poetry began (i.e., who was the first to be overcome by the need to emote), this is a most fertile field for the bluffer.
In poetry, the mists of obscurity lend a mellow fruitfulness to speculation, pretence and making very little knowledge go a very long way.
Of course, it’s quite possible that one day, an archaeologist digging away in the Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia will unearth a 30,000-year-old relic with a limerick carved on it, revealing an ape-like wit:
If ever they come to detect us,
They’ll look at our skulls, and suspect us,
Of walking around
With our hands off the ground,
And label us Homo erectus.
Until then, our jumping-off point has to be the ancient city of Uruk in Mesopotamia. About 4,000 years ago, a Sumerian poet prepared several hundred clay tablets, sat down and then, in the wedgeshaped cuneiform writing of the day (which is tremendously easy to rhyme, when you come to look at it), wrote The Epic of Gilgamesh.
This is a long poem about a king who was two parts god and one part man, who reigned for 126 years, and whose life was spent in a losing battle with what appears to be congenital pessimism – a very suitable subject for a poem. It’s full of ‘bitter weeping’ and ‘evil deeds’ and ‘was it for this I…’ – the very stuff of poetry for millennia.
Fifteen hundred years later came the next great poem, Homer’s Iliad, often described as the Bible of Greece. It isn’t necessary to read it; just remember that it’s about the the last days of the decade-long Trojan War, and go into raptures about how wonderful it must have been to hear it chanted by minstrels in the halls of kings – you can adopt this approach to all poetry composed before 1500 AD.
The other thing to remember about the Iliad, and its sister poem the Odyssey, is that they are the only long narrative poems about deeds of valour that you shouldn’t describe as ‘Homeric’. If you must read one, try the Odyssey; it’s 4,000 lines shorter. Every four years, at the Panathenaea in Athens, Homer’s epics were performed in front of a vast audience by ‘rhapsodes’ – men who carried long sticks and recited poems for a living. Perhaps they would have put on these performances with greater frequency had they not taken about three years and 11 months to get through them each time. If you really want to impress, you could espouse the cause of Hesiod, a lesser-known Greek poet, whose most famous piece was Works and Days, an 800-verse poem about a grumpy farmer – a bit like The Archers, but indactylic hexameters.
The father of Roman poetry was Ennius (c239-169 BC), who is alleged to have said: ‘Unless I have the gout, I never write poetry’. In the end, of course, he died of both.
Some consider Latin a terser, more forceful and more precise language than Greek, and say that the Roman poets (Virgil, Horace, Seneca, Propertius et al) displayed a constant moral concern and a more clinical attitude to the emotions.
The upshot of all this is that Virgil’s Aeneid is every bit as long as Homer’s Iliad but you may, at least, describe the Aeneid as Homeric. Be careful: lots of people have heard of the Aeneid; fewer have heard of Virgil’s other great work, The Georgics, which is about farming and the countryside. Bluffers will claim that the Cecil Day-Lewis translation is poetry itself.
If you wish to adopt a more saucy approach to poetry, let Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) be your Roman poet. A wordly individual, he wrote a great deal of naughty poetry and was eventually banished to Romania for his pains. His most famous works were the Amores, the Heroides, the Ars Amatoria, the Tristia and Metamorphoses. To show familiarity with his work, you don’t have to read any of it: just smirk and roll your eyes a lot.
For those with a taste for the top shelf, Catullus is the Roman poet for you. Capable of out-smutting even the naughty boy Ovid, this poet is celebrated for a variety of lyrics including those to, and about, his beloved Lesbia, and others of supreme obscenity and invective. His poems, which do not have titles, are generally referred to by number; while this may initially seem a little odd – after all, untitled poems by other poets (Emily Dickinson, for example) are generally referred to by their opening lines – the fact that Catullus can open a poem with the charming ‘Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo’ (I will sodomise you and face-f*** you) (Number 16) may explain this particular exception to the usual convention.
The most famous Roman poet of them all is Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859 AD), who wrote the Lays of Ancient Rome (don’t let all that Catullus stuff get you excited – ‘lay’ doesn’t mean what you hope it does). His poetry is wonderfully unfashionable now because it’s tremendously easy to learn:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.’ (‘Horatius’)
Always remember that English poetry (as, indeed, all European poetry) began life as ballads, songs and lays, recited by minstrels, troubadours and jongleurs to audiences of mead-quaffing monarchs and exhausted Irish wolfhounds.
The earliest English poetry that we know of is Northumbrian, but written in the language of Wessex.
Poets clearly wished their work to be inaccessible even in those days. Many regard Beowulf (written by a Christian scribe around 700 AD) as the first English poem, but it was preceded by at least three others: Widsith, about Continental courts; Waldhere, about French heroism; and The Fight at Finnesburgh, which is yet another poem about a battle against fearful odds – the sort that Tennyson would have revelled in and which is bluff from beginning to end.
You can say what you like about these three poems; nobody’s ever heard of them, let alone read them. Commit them to memory (the titles will suffice), then disregard anything that purports to be poetry until:
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)
Lots of people have heard of Chaucer because he and Shakespeare have long been the two compulsory English poets, so you have to be very careful here. Only recite a couple of the famous lines, written in Middle English, when you’ve practised the pronunciation (preferably with a slight West Country accent) as follows:
Hwann that Arrpril whith hiss sho-re sawta
the drochte of Maarge hath pair-sed to th’ rota…
The important thing to remember about Chaucer is that his life remains largely a mystery. This gives great scope for bluffing. It is thought that he was employed in the Secret Service for a year, engaging in espionage in Flanders from 1376 to 1377, but there is uncertainty about when he was born, whom he married, and what he did for a living (nobody except Tennyson has ever written poetry for a living).
Since he travelled a great deal, you can speculate wildly about possible meetings he had with Boccaccio and Petrarch (the Italian poets), and talk earnestly (all poetry buffs are earnest) about Italian influences on his work (‘…octosyllabic went right out of the proverbial window, never to return. Couple of glasses of Orvieto under the cypress with Petrarch and it was heroic stanzas all the way…seven lines a stanza…like the Seven Hills of Rome, d’you see?’).
Proceed to describe his later phase (‘…settled down in Aldgate and completely revamped his style…heroic couplets from then on…crowning achievement…try to imagine The Canterbury Tales in any other form…impossible.’).
Don’t dwell on The Canterbury Tales; it’s too well known. Steer clear also of Troilus and Criseyde (you may invite a discussion on the merits and demerits of Chaucer’s rendering versus Shakespeare’s telling of the story). Talk instead about The Book of the Duchess (‘Interesting but immature’), The House of Fame (‘What a shame he never finished it’) and The Legend of Good Women (‘Which version of the allegorical prologue do you prefer? Bit derivative, don’t you think? Ovid’s mark all over it.’).
If all else fails, mention Thomas Tyrwhitt (1730-1786) who established the Chaucer canon. Nobody will know what you mean, but they’ll all nod wisely.
It’s worth remembering, too, that Chaucer created a number of phrases that have passed into general usage:
‘Mordre wil out’, ‘the smyler with the knyf under the cloke’, ‘trouthe is the hyeste thing that man may kepe’, ‘as lene was his hors as is a rake’, ‘he was a verray parfit gentil knight’,‘the lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne’, ‘right as an aspen leef she gan to quake’, ‘entente is al, and nought the lettres’. The trouble is, he couldn’t spell.
Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
Poets were so discouraged by the success of Chaucer that it took 200 years for the next one to make a name of any sort and even he spent his whole life doing things reluctantly. Spenser reluctantly went to live and work in Ireland, where he wrote much of his best-known poem, The Faerie Queene. Some consider him to be as great a poet as Chaucer, and certainly his spelling was a lot better.
Unfortunately, several books of The Faerie Queene were burnt when Spenser’s castle at Kilcolman was set on fire by the locals in 1598. Spenser reluctantly returned to London, where he became reluctantly very poor and very soon died. Apparently reluctantly.
Like most sixteenth-century poets, Spenser oozed admiration for Elizabeth I, and The Faerie Queene would have been an interminable tribute to her if the good people of Kilcolman hadn’t had the sense to burn such a lot of it. It fills six books – Spenser intended 18. Like any poem of such length, it is monotonous, though Spenser did invent a new form of stanza, in which a ninth line of 12 syllables is added to eight lines of 10 syllables, with a rhyming scheme of abab/bcbc/c.
You may well already know a line of Spenser:
Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song
This comes from the poem Prothalamion. Everyone else will think it is some kind of drug, so you can chatter at length about it being written (reluctantly) in 1596 to celebrate the double marriage of Lady Elizabeth and Lady Katherine Somerset (not to each other, to be clear).
The sixteenth century also saw a vast number of knights and nobles writing verse in between voyaging round the world, dying heroically in foreign fields and having their heads cut off, though their poetry was seldom that bad. The best known are Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Philip Sidney, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke.
Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)
Wyatt was one of Anne Boleyn’s lovers (allegedly), but timed his (alleged) affair wisely, i.e., before her marriage to Henry VIII.
You may already know some lines of Wyatt:
They flee from me who sometime did me seek
Noli me tangere ; for Cæsar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
And wilt thou leave me thus?
The last of these he thought so good that he used it several times.
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)
Few know that Sir Walter really spelt his name Ralegh. It’s advisable to abide by this, as by his time even poets’ spelling had improved beyond all recognition, though they still had trouble with ‘desyre’, ‘promysse’, ‘despayre’, and went completely to pieces with ‘ioye’ (eye). The night before he died, Ralegh wrote a clever and moving poem, ‘The Lie’, referring to his execution with a wit and frankness that can’t have been easy. It’s worth reading.
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)
Sir Philip Sidney was one of a group who formed the Areopagus Club for the purpose of naturalising the classic metres in English verse. Those who turned up to the inaugural meeting brandishing spears of a certain green vegetable from their allotments were disappointed to find no mention of vegetables. Sidney is remembered for two things: passing up a drink as he was dying on the battlefield of Zutphen (‘Thy necessity is yet greater than mine’) and writing several famous poems, most starting with the letter A (‘Arcadia’, ‘Apologie for Poetrie’, ‘Astrophel’, atcetera).
He also wrote a prose work about poetry – The Defence of Poesy – in which he attacked some of the lesser bards of his time: ‘There have been many most excellent poets that never versified, and now swarm many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poets.’
Sublime Shakespeare (1564-1616)
There are two vital pieces of information about Shakespeare. First, that he wanted to be remembered as a poet only. Second, that he didn’t write a great deal of poetry: The Rape of Lucrece, Venus and Adonis, The Phoenix and the Turtle and more than 150 sonnets.
The Rape of Lucrece is a poem of seven-lined stanzas on the subject of Lucretia, whose beauty inflames Sextus Tarquinius, son of the King of Rome, to such an extent (so he says) that he can’t control himself. Lucretia commits suicide, and the entire Tarquinius family is booted out of Rome and replaced by a republican government. #
Venus and Adonis is a poem of six-lined stanzas, probably Shakespeare’s first published work, about the inability of Venus to dissuade the youthful Adonis from going hunting and getting himself killed by a wild boar – serves him right.
The Phoenix and the Turtle is a mocking, tragic poem – possibly about a mock turtle and a mock phoenix – both of whom perish in their love. Be warned: very few of Shakespeare’s poems, or anybody else’s for that matter, have happy endings.
But it is the Sonnets that are his finest verse works. Published in 1609, and probably written between 1593 and 1596, they fall into several groups. Nobody is quite sure who they are dedicated to, mainly on account of the enigmatic dedication that precedes the poems:
‘TO.THE. ONLIE.BEGETTER.OF.THESE.INSUING.SONNETS, Mr.W.H.ALL.HAPPINESSE.’
Main candidates include the Earl of Pembroke (William Herbert) and the Earl of Southampton (Henry Wriothesley – yes, this would mean that the initials are reversed, but since when have such details stopped a good theory?). Assume an air of studied indifference whenever some proselytising poetry buff attempts to convert you to his pet theory about this age-old question.
Not so much a whodunnit as a who’dhedunnitwith, this ‘mystery’ about the identity of the dedicatee of the sonnets is a bore’s paradise, and the less you engage with it the better for your mental health and general well-being. Some familiarity with the sonnets themselves is recommended, however, as this sonnet sequence forms one of the highest points of the canon. You don’t have to read the things, of course; suffice to know that they are, broadly speaking, addressed to three people – the fair youth, a rival poet and a dark lady.
There are many well-known quotations from the Sonnets; here are a few that you might want to be able to trot out:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (18)
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds. (94)
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun. (130)
Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds. (116)
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame Is lust in action. (129)
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. (73)
Over and above that, pick a number, any number, learn a few lines other than the first, and look knowledgeable.
For more defense of the poesy, pick up a copy of The Bluffer’s Guide to Poetry.