Leaves of Grass: First and “Death-Bed” Editions contains best known work of American poet Walt Whitman as well as additional poems that he published before his breakthrough work and that he didn’t include in his final publication. Containing hundreds of poems from the “father of free verse”, the reader gets a essentially a full view of Whitman’s career from beginning to end. In additional each new section of the book has an introduction by Dr. Karen Karbiener who also wrote the Notes at the end of the book giving the reader a better understanding of the essence surrounding Whitman’s work. Though many Whitman loves will enjoy this book, for some like myself this turned out to be too much of something that it turns out I didn’t like after all.
The oldest epic poem in English follows the feats of its titular protagonist over the course of days and years that made him a legend among his clan, friends, and even enemies. Beowulf was most likely orally transmitted before finally be written down several centuries later by an unknown Christian hand in Old English that today is readily accessible thanks to the translation by Seamus Heaney.
The epic tale of Beowulf begins in the mead hall of King Hrothgar of the Danes which is attacked by the monster Grendel for years. Beowulf, upon hearing of Hrothgar’s plight, gathers fourteen companions and sails from Geatland to the land of the Danes. Hrothgar welcomes the Geats and feasts them, attracting the attention of Grendel who attacks. One of the Geats is killed before the monster and Beowulf battle hand-to-hand which ends with Beowulf ripping off Grendel’s arm. The monster flees and bleeds out in the swamp-like lair shared with his mother. Grendel’s mother attacks the mead hall looking for revenge and kills one of Hrothgar’s long-time friends. Beowulf, his companions, Hrothgar, and others ride to the lair and Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother with a giant’s sword. After another feast, the Geats return home and fifty years later, Beowulf is King when a dragon guarding a hoard of treasure is awakened by a thief and goes on a rampage. Beowulf and younger chosen companions go to face the fiery serpent, but all but one of his companions flees after the King goes to face the foe. However, the one young warrior who stays is able to help the old King defeat the dragon though he his mortally wounded. It is this young warrior who supervises the dying Beowulf’s last wishes.
This is just a rough summary of a 3000 line poem that not only deals with Beowulf’s deeds but also the warrior culture and surprisingly the political insightfulness that many secondary characters talk about throughout the poem. The poem begins and ends with funerals with warrior kings giving look at pagan worldview even as the unknown Christian poet tried to his best to hide it with references to Christian religiosity. Although some say that any translation deprived the poem of the Old English rhyme and rhythm, the evolution of English in the thousand years since the poem was first put down in words means that unless one reads the original with a dictionary on hand, this poem would not be read. Heaney’s translation gives the poem its original epicness while also allowing present day readers a chance to “hear” the story in their own language thus giving it new life.
Beowulf is one of the many epic poems that have influenced storytelling over the centuries. Yet with its Scandinavian pagan oral roots and Christian authorship it is also a melding of two traditions that seem at odds yet together still create a power tale. Unlike some high school or college course force students to read the Old England or so-so translated excerpts from the poem, Seamus Heaney’s book gives the reader something that will keep their attention and greatly entertain.
Almost 4800 years after his reign in the city of Uruk, Gilgamesh is still remembered not only in his native land but now around the world even though his native language is long forgotten. In Stephen Mitchell’s English verse translation of Gilgamesh, the story of the demigod’s calming friendship with Enkidu and his quest to avoid his mortality.
The tale of Gilgamesh is not just about the king of Uruk, it is the tale of Enkidu and his civilizing by Shamhat, the friendship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh as well as their adventures, and finally the death of Enkidu that sends Gilgamesh in his vain search to stop death by asking the one man whom the gods made immortal. Yet while several aspects of Gilgamesh are similar to later tales of Greek and Germanic origin, there are clear differences as well especially when it comes to Gilgamesh expressing his fear in the face of very dangers and ends with accepting his own mortality in the end.
Unfortunately, the story of Gilgamesh that we have is not as complete as it was 4000 years ago. Several sections are fragmentary which Mitchell had to work around to make the book read well and keeping true to the narrative; in this he did a wonderful job. Yet, in a book that has around 300 pages only 123 covers the epic itself which while not dishonest is surprising about how short the tale is and how much analysis Mitchell provides the reader before and notes after.
Gilgamesh: A New English Version is a fantastic book both in the tale of the heroic demigod king and the translation done by Stephen Mitchell.
Edgar Allan Poe is best known for his dark and psychological poems and short stories that have had an influence not only American literature throughout the world not only in literature but television and film. Yet while a number of Poe’s work has stood the test of time and made a large impression, a lot more expose stereotypical tropes and themes that repeat so much that they lose impact to the reader.
Before I go through the problems I have with Poe, I’m going to spend a little time praising his better pieces. “The Raven” is obviously the best known of Poe’s poetry and arguably his best, even though you’ve might have read it or heard it read before just reading it again makes you appreciate it before. The three Auguste Dupin short stories, the precursors to the detective genre, are wonderful reads in which Poe’s deductive reason is used well in written form to create fascinating mysteries and solutions. Although I could go on, the last story I will mention is “The Cask of Amontillado” which is a fantastic revenge story in which the narrator has no qualms with it afterwards.
Unfortunately this unrepentant narrator in “Amontillado” is unfortunately the exception to Poe’s trope of the narrator going crazy with guilt and admitting his crime which is featured in many stories Poe wrote. Along with a young woman always dying and premature burials, Poe’s writing is fraught with these tropes that after a while exhaust the reader with the almost predictable way a trope takes over a particular story to end with the same way. While these trope takeovers are discouraging, the tendency of Poe to begin a short story with a philosophical discourse only for the narrator to suddenly go off on a tangent (usually on a murder he committed) that had nothing to do with the discourse at the beginning. Frankly these literary quirks, or crutches, that Poe used throughout numerous compositions get tiresome while reading the entirety of Poe’s work and make one question his supposed literary greatness.
If you a true Poe fan, this complete collection of his tales and poems are for you. However, if you are someone who wants the best of Poe then avoid this complete collection and find a smaller collection that gives his best.
My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Frankly, I gave a better rating than the entirety of Poe’s poems deserves when really thinking back to everything I read the last few days. Honestly the highlight of the collection is “The Raven” and that’s probably were most of the rating comes from, but really besides a few other poems there isn’t really much here I enjoyed.
My rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars
This unfinished play is all over the place and one can barely make out the barebones of a plot. The highlight is some nice dialogue in a few spots beyond that, it’s an unfinished play with parts that don’t go together.
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Two noble rival families, a prophecy about both, and throw in supernatural horse. An intriguing short story that isn’t very coherent with an ending that weird. Probably over rated the story, but it felt painfully close to being good if only…
The Duc De L’Omelette
My rating: 0.5 out of 5 stars
The titular French nobleman sees a bird fly over him and dies then beats the devil in a card game, I think. A lot of French in the text and since I don’t know the language I’m guessing on everything, glad it was a short story.
A Tale of Jerusalem
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Three priests go to the walls of a besieged Jerusalem to pay the besieging Roman army for animals to conduct their sacrifices, after dropping the money they haul up the animal which turns out to be a pig. The twist ending ALMOST makes up for the stereotypical Jewish characters that borders, if not crosses into anti-Semitism.
Loss of Breath
My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
A wife-beater literally loses his breath while hitting her, but doesn’t die though throughout the story people believe he is when not seeing him move. A satirical look at “life” from a living corpse that would have been better if the reader didn’t get confused several times about what was going on, oh and of course if the jerk wasn’t a wife-beater.
The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson contains a sizeable sample of the total works of the reclusive poet, who only came to prominence after her death. Containing 593 poems separated into five different themes, roughly a third of her overall productivity, this collection gives the reader a wonderful look into the talent of a woman who hid her art not only from the world but also her own family. Besides nearly 600 poems of Dickinson’s work, the reader is given a 25 page introduction to the poet and an analysis of her work by Dr. Rachel Wetzsteon who helps reveal the mysterious artist as best as she can and help the reader understand her work better. Although neither Wetzsteon’s introduction and analysis nor Dickinson’s work is wanting, the fact that this collection gives only a sample of the poet’s work is its main and only flaw.
The first three published poetic volumes of T.S. Eliot career were a sudden surprise upon the literary community, but it was the third that became a centerpiece of modernist poetry. Published within a 5 year period during which not only Eliot’s style was refined but also influenced by his personal life and health. Throughout the rest of his career, Eliot would build upon and around these works that would eventually lead to the Noble Prize in Literature and a prominent place in today’s literature classes.
While I am right now in no way ready to critique Eliot’s work, I will do so in the volume it was presented in. While the publishers and editors wanted to present Eliot’s work with his personal Notes or footnotes in the back of the book to preserve the author’s intention of presentation, over the course of reading the exercise of going from the front of the book to the back to understand the footnotes became tiresome. And while reading “The Waste Land” I had three places marked in my book so as to read the poem and then look at Eliot’s own Notes and the publisher’s footnotes, which quickly became a trial.
This is a book I’m going to have to re-read over and over again for years to come to truly appreciate Eliot’s work. If you’re a better rounded literary individual than I am then this volume will probably be for you as it presents Eliot’s work in the forefront with no intruding footnotes at the bottom of the page; however if you are a reader like myself who wants to enjoy Eliot but needs the help of footnotes I suggest getting another volume in which footnotes are closer to the text they amply.
The Poetry of Robert Frost is the entirety of the great American poet’s published work, an authoritative volume that is structured to show his progression from his earliest work to his last—with a little exception at the end. However for those who have only read Frost in school, like me, you will be in for a surprise because the poems in English and/or Literature class are a deceptive selection of his complete works. While this complete book of Robert Frost’s work is wonderful for poetry enthusiasts, for the more general reader I would suggest you look through this volume and decide if you want a smaller, more select volume of his work.
A Lover’s Complaint by William Shakespeare
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Although in the same metre and structure as The Rape of Lucrece, this poem both shorter and more compact in it’s plot. A Lover’s Complaint is the story of a young woman who is wooed, seduced, and then abandoned by a lover while lamenting the fact that she’d fall for his charms again if given the chance. The short length of the poem while also having a compact plot makes this a better product by Shakespeare, though the quality is not with his other poetry.
Sonnets by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The 154 sonnets by Shakespeare are the height of his poetic effort. The use of language to keep the rhyming so crisp and at such a high level is masterful. To single out one poem as the best would be impossible given the complexity and subject matter that many of them have. But for me personally, the “Dark Lady” sequence was the best.