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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2001
  • Online publication date: May 2006

9 - Creating a national poetry


During the middle years of the eighteenth century there was a fruitful intimacy between English poetry and what we now think of as “literary history.” Earlier poets had been conscious of their illustrious predecessors among whom they hoped to find a place, and in that sense the idea of a poetic canon is a very old one. Chaucer's position as the “Father” of English poetry had long been a commonplace, and by 1700 Spenser and Milton were seen as completing a classic pantheon of great writers, with Dryden clearly in contention. Pope's remark to Joseph Spence in 1736 was offered as a truism: “'Tis easy to mark out the general course of our poetry. Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, and Dryden are the great landmarks for it.” But of those “landmarks” Chaucer was virtually unread in the original, and Spenser very little. Their status as canonical English classics was based on reputation rather than reading; their language was generally regarded as outdated and even barbarous, and when being subjected to parody, imitation, or modernization, it was their distance from the present that was being exploited.