It seems like every so often
someone raises an alarm that poetry is facing extinction or, at best,
irrelevancy. It's an understandable concern. Not many
people read poetry outside the classroom, and those who do suffer from
the stigma of being intelligent. It's true that in the last
half-century poetry has suffered from the kind of flighty "anyone
can be an artist" attitude that flourished in the wake of the 1960s.
Form became unfashionable and rhyme is still viewed with some suspicion,
backed by a fear among poets of appearing trivial. Only a deeply
willful and egregiously blinkered culture such as ours would toss the
poetry of Thomas Hardy onto the great bonfire of unread literature.
Currently, however, there are major poets working hard to re-establish
the value of formal limitations in poetry, as well as the kind of readability
of which the greatest poets of their respective eras were acutely aware.
In another fantastic release
from Athena (see Ancient
Lives and The Christians for others), this sweeping overview
of 600 years of English poetry enlivens the written word - an achievement
exceedingly rare on television. Originally broadcast on Britain's
ITV in 1984, and presented by the late, great Sir John Gielgud across
sixteen half-hour episodes, Six Centuries of Verse covers poets
great and small in all genres. From the great Old English epic
Beowulf to the work of modernist masters Yeats and Auden, host Gielgud
provides contextual narration interspersed with readings of significant
poems by a stable of actors that includes Julian Glover, Lee Remick,
Ralph Richardson, and Anthony Hopkins. Far from being dry or perfunctory,
these readings are impassioned, fully-realized performances, invested
with all manner of drama and attitude.
Gielgud's wonderful voice,
austere manner, and driest of English wits make him a charming and affable
host. He guides us with smooth confidence through various developments
in language, form, topical subject matter, and genre. The integration
of Gielgud's narration with the readings makes for a languid yet engaging
presentation. The half-hour format allows us to absorb each topic
without packing our brains too full, or over-indulging to the point
where the poems become indistinguishable from each other. Assisting
in the latter matter are the readers themselves, who are shot in different
locations selected to complement the poem being read. Occasionally,
works written in multiple voices are semi-dramatized, as with "The
Parson's Tale" from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, or
several selections by Shakespeare in the episode devoted to The Immortal
Bard. (My favorite image from that episode, by the way, is without
a doubt that of Gielgud and Ralph Richardson leaning over the top of
a tall hedge, performing dialogue from Antony and Cleopatra.)
Episode titles are mostly self-explanatory:
Episode 1: "Chaucer
- Ted Hughes, 1384-1984"
Episode 2: "Old English" (includes a discussion of Beowulf)
Episode 4: "Medieval - Elizabethan, 1400-1600" (includes
Thomas Wyatt, Marlowe, and Raleigh)
Episode 5: "Shakespeare, 1564-1616"
Episode 6: "Metaphysical & Devotional, 1590-1670" (includes
Donne, Herbert, and Marvell)
Episode 7: "Milton, 1608-1674"
Episode 8: "Restoration & Augustan, 1660-1745" (includes
Dryden, Swift, and Pope)
Episode 9: "Romantic Pioneers, 1750-1805" (includes Blake,
Coleridge, and Wordsworth)
Episode 10: "Wordsworth, 1770-1850"
Episode 11: "Younger Romantics, 1800-1824" (includes Shelley,
Keats, and Byron)
Episode 12: "Victorians, 1837-1901" (includes Tennyson, Bronte,
Browning, and Arnold)
Episode 13: "American Pioneers, 1855-1910" (includes Whitman,
Poe, and Dickinson)
Episode 14: "Romantics & Realists, 1870-1920" (includes
Hardy, Hopkins, and Kipling)
Episode 15: "Early Twentieth Century, 1914-1939" (includes
Yeats, Frost, Eliot, and Auden)
Episode 16: "Towards the Present, 1934-1984" (includes Dylan
Thomas, Philip Larkin, and Auden)
As with other Athena releases, the content is superb, while the technical
presentation leaves something to be desires. The full-screen transfers
don't appear to have been dealt with prior to the issue of this DVD.
Colors are washed out and drab. Maybe this is how these programs
looked in 1984. English television of decades past does have a
tendency to look that way. Still, there is a softness to the picture
that could have been addressed. Overall, the look is adequate
but in no way impressive.
The mono soundtrack is serviceable. The track is clear, but
lacks dynamic range.
There are a few text-based features (Lives of the Poets and
About the Actors), as well as a booklet intended for teachers
who want to use the series in the classroom.
Although hampered by a lack
of technical due diligence, Athena's release of Six Centuries of
Verse offers us another hard-to-find program that more than does
justice to its subject. Recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.