As summer turns to autumn, many of us enjoy taking time to reflect on the beauty of our green and pleasant land.
Using the changing seasons as her inspiration, broadcaster and commentator extraordinaire Ana Sampson has been busy collecting together some of the finest verse from Britain’s greatest poets in a beautifully packaged and presented book.
From John Keats’ miasmic Ode to Autumn and the alliterative magnificence of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty to Thomas Gray’s contemplative Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and Matthew Arnold’s atmospheric Dover Beach, this is poetry to make the heart sing and the spirit soar.
As Sampson points out in her introduction, the pastoral tradition has proved particularly fertile ground for British poets. Whether it is Edmund Spenser wandering through a recognisably English landscape in The Faerie Queen or Shelley rhapsodising over the flight of a skylark, our hills, dales and coasts have captured literary imaginations.
Some of the most powerful poetry has come from the pens of the Lake Poets who were moved almost to ecstasy by the sublime vistas, while the later First World War poets wrote wistfully of remembered meadows and rivers as they endured the mud and blood of the trenches.
Popular 20th century poet John Betjeman followed in the footsteps of Wordsworth by railing against the loss of the countryside and making himself a high-profile champion of provincial England.
Poetry, says Sampson, is also an ‘escape hatch’ which parachutes us into pleasure from our hectic lives and transports many of us back to rose-tinted memories of carefree country childhood.
Many of the wonderfully evocative poems included in this mesmerising anthology were written from abroad. Shelley, Keats and both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert Browning were all in Italy when they created verse that still encapsulates the British countryside for today’s readers.
As well as plenty of traditional favourites penned by the likes of Shakespeare, Tennyson, Blake and Coleridge, there are verses from more modern poets such as Ted Hughes, Frances Cornford, Donald Davie and Philip Larkin.
This wonderfully bucolic and British collection of poetry is the next best thing to a walk in the countryside, a dose of rural beauty that has inspired and nourished the most talented writers.
So dip in at any page, take a deep breath and enjoy!
(Michael O’Mara, hardback, £9.99)