Poems for Su Yen

12 December 2016 by Roy Preece

There were several reasons for choosing each poem for Dear Su Yen. Of course, I was looking for a representative range of English poetry to show Su Yen, but there are thousands of poems to choose from. So, as Su Yen and I developed a dialogue, the final choices often were made in response to her questions, ideas and stories: for example, of her discovery of Oxford (Betjeman) or of her lost love (Browning). It all started, however, with Ariel’s Song which I often use in my job as an international tutor as a way into English poetry. This poem introduces our most famous ‘wordsmith’ (Shakespeare) and shows his wonderful way of using words to create mood and his creative imagery. It introduces also the important ideas of metre and of rhyme, and how the re-ordering of words can transform an ordinary sentence into rhythmical poetry.

Su Yen was interested, too, to understand the procession of English history, so I chose poems that would serve as starting points for discussion of various periods. The beginning of Anglo-Saxon culture and language is introduced with The Hymn of Caedmon (Cooke). The other great root of English culture, the influence of the ancient classical world, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is represented by the translation of Homer’s story of Hector and Achilles (Pope) and by the classical reserve of Pope’s original poems such as his An Essay on Man. Su Yen, like many people, had a rather idealistic view of the English countryside, as expressed in the classical pastoral values of L’Allegro (Milton), but which must be contrasted with the harsh reality of the agricultural labourer’s life portrayed in The Village (Crabbe). We see too this increasing concern for the lives of ordinary people in the sympathetic Elegy by Gray.

Su Yen’s question, ‘What is a sonnet?’ brought us back to Shakespeare and his famous Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ Then we compared this with a nineteenth century sonnet (by Barrett-Browning) where the frank expression of personal feeling is typical of that ‘age of sensibility’. The inhumanity both of the industrial revolution and of the commercialisation of agriculture is expressed in a ballad about the miserable life of the chimney sweep boys (Alcock), and another about the enclosures of the common fields (Freeth). The enigmatic poem The Tiger (Blake) is possibly a metaphorical treatment of both the terror and the beauty of the industrial revolution and of its impact on rural England. Perhaps as a reaction to industrialisation, the nineteenth century was also a time of romantic nostalgia for the middle ages, expressed notably in The Lady of Shallot and especially in the subtle rhythms of Idylls of the King (both by Tennyson). The decline of religious belief at that time is symbolised by an English translation of a Persian poem, the Rubaiyat (Fitzgerald) and by Swinburne’s The Garden of Proserpine.

Coming to the twentieth century, Su Yen had read the lyrical poem When You are Old (Yeats) in a Chinese translation, but as we discussed the poem she was surprised (and so was I) to discover that the Chinese version seemed to give an idea of the poet’s life quite different from the original, and this led us to think about how easily cross-cultural misunderstandings can occur. At the opposite scale of events, the tragic progress of the Great War of 1914-18 inspired several famous poets, known as the “War Poets”; the three poems selected show the transition from initial enthusiasm to bitter disillusionment with the war.

The most recent poem, Fern Hill, (Thomas) was chosen because it is written in a modern and freer style, (and also because it’s one of my favourites). It evokes the inexpressible magic of a country childhood in mid-twentieth century England and the feelings of inevitable loss experienced in growing up; also, perhaps more universally, the decline of traditional English rural life under urbanisation. All these ideas are discussed in much more detail in the book, and there are some poems, about thirty in all, that I have not had space to mention here. We hope you will enjoy discovering them for yourself as you read the book, and above all have your own reactions and ideas. We’d be delighted to hear from you!