Six Centuries of Verse
Athena // Unrated // $69.99 // April 27, 2010
Review by Casey Burchby | posted April 20, 2010
M O V I E
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version

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 3: "Chaucer, 1340-1400"
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)

The DVD

The Video
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 Audio
The mono soundtrack is serviceable. The track is clear, but lacks dynamic range.

The Extras
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.

Final Thoughts

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.



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