The English Poetry Canon

When I was a first year undergraduate, I spent a 1/3 of my time doing an English Literature module. My university and degree course allowed me to do this, so I decided to branch out a bit from my chosen major of History (I also did Politics, Philosophy & Religion, but that’s a whole ‘nother story).

The first year was supposed to be a whirlwind journey through the English poetry canon to give us a solid foundation which to leap off in the following years (the fact I gave up English in second year notwithstanding). Looking back on this it got me thinking – what is “the canon”, and does it really exist?

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The problem is that every different person will have a different perspective on which poets you must read in order to have a good grounding for future study. Then there are of course the problems around the fact that many subjects are whitewashed in some way or another, focusing almost exclusively on native English speakers and predominantly white writers (the poets we covered in our first year were almost exclusively white). That’s an issue for another post though (and for input from someone who knows more of the subject than I do).

So who was in this “canon” that we studied? Well first things first – it started in the Renaissance period (briefly crossing European borders to think about poets such as Petrarch, but for moments only), barely touching on the old and middle English writings that had come before. Then we moved quickly on to metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century. Then there was a whirlwind tour of poets like Alexander Pope and John Milton. All of this was covered in a matter of a few weeks.

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We were also doing various fiction writers at the same time, so we barely got more than an hour or two to focus on each writer as I tried to read all of the material. This was the main reason I gave up the subject to be honest – I couldn’t bear having to do everything at such a rush, at such a breakneck speed. To me poetry and fiction is something that needs to be enjoyed… to be digested… and doing it like this was simply sucking all the fun out of it.

We swiftly exited the eighteenth century and moved onto the Romantic poets, through the Gothic writers of the mid-Victorian era, and then hurtled swiftly through into modernity. It was all so fast that I can’t even really remember what the theme of each week was, other than running through each of these eras at breakneck speed.

So my first year of English Lit at university covered:

  • Wyatt
  • Somerset
  • Shakespeare
  • Donne
  • Johnson
  • Milton
  • Pope
  • Coleridge
  • Wordsworth
  • Shelley
  • Byron
  • Barrett-Browning
  • Poe
  • Owen
  • Eliot
  • Hughes
  • Auden

There could have actually been more than that, but by the end of the course I had sort of zoned out. I could’ve spent months studying each of those poets, and to spend less than a week on each of them, whilst also reading fiction authors from all of those eras left me completely cold.

Don’t get me wrong – I understood the intention; to give us a good grounding in what we needed to know for the next two years and decide which direction we wanted to go in. Yet it set me running. This wasn’t how I wanted to study to English.

I’m still not really sure whether there is such a thing as the canon, or whether it is unique to each person who thinks about it (or constructs an anthology). Which poets do you think everyone should read? Are there some poets of the English Language who you simply cannot miss out on? Let me know if you think there are!

Did any of you study English at university? If you did what was it like? Let me know in the comments!

14 thoughts on “The English Poetry Canon

  1. So you studied Eng Lit, too – I didn’t know! Poetry must reads are the full Paradise Lost – I so rarely got to teach any of that! and John Donne, who I feel outranks Shakespeare as a poet… As for the canon, well, it’s a convenient and elastic concept that has never meant an awful lot to me. As you say, it’s mainly dead white males…

    1. Yeah I did! Was going to be my joint major for a while but then I jumped ship into straight history because that was (apparently) my true calling. Loved (and still love) English outside the lecture hall… undergraduate turned out to be something I couldn’t get onboard with! :/

      I’ve never read the full Paradise Lost (although I think somehow I wrote my final exam essay on it!). I am currently going through a classical kind of stage (Euripedes, Ovid, Sophocles etc.) but will tackle it after that! 🙂

      1. What you really need is Anton Lesser’s full-length recording on Naxos; he brings the poetry alive in an astonishing way! If (big if!) I’ve ripped the CDs I’ll see if there’s a way of getting the audio file to you.

  2. Hi Isabelle. I did a combined English major (with a minor in history) combined with a “concurrent” education degree which spread the education courses in over 5 years. At the undergrad level there was quite a bit of symmetry. That changed when I did post grad studies in education which certainly critiqued the notion of canon style readings and has effectively reoriented the role of English teachers in elementary and HS to be promoters of literacy, informational and technical literacy and cultural studies. For many who were exposed to traditional undergrad English literature, this has been like having to load bran on your wheaties. Necessary, but not pleasant. I can elaborate if you wish.

  3. I didn’t study English in college but I certainly can relate to your predicament. I majored in Public Relations & Advertising. My frustration is- you’ve only got few weeks to cover (while you are expected to fully understand) enormous pages of work. What took the authors months or even years to produce. One day, I got so mad that I came up with an argument; an approach to enhance students’ learning. Meanwhile, I’m still a student.
    See for yourself
    Is my frustration justified?

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