Book review: Plenty of Hughes but no Beowulf

Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt Weidenfeld pounds 22
Single-volume histories of poetry in English have been thin on the ground over the centuries. The last popular one was written in 1777, by a Dr Johnson, whose book covered only the preceding century. Paradoxically, their rarity may stem in part from the very diversity of the poetic tradition. For Michael Schmidt, the poet and publisher who has dared to undertake this gargantuan task, has included some 250 poets in his volume and yet still there are some notable omissions; in particular the Anglo-Saxon masterpiece, Beowulf. But one cannot fault him for his bravery.

He begins with an honourable declaration. "A time has almost come," he writes, "to speak unapologetically of a common language, at least for poetry. Instead of affirming separation and difference, we can begin to affirm continuity." To this end he attempts to tell the story of the development of English as a language, reminding us that from the beginning it represented a political rebellion against the 14th-century dominance of Latin and colonial French.

In fact English, then, was little more than a harsh, vernacular tongue, spoken by servants and northern peasants, and it wasn't until Wycliffe translated the Bible around 1380 that it even began to enter the official vocabulary. And yet, Schmidt avers, "it pointed in the direction of democracy, not of nationalism". For when young Richard II commissioned the poet Gower to write "some newe thing" in English, he chose it precisely because it was the language that ordinary people used.

Schmidt has taken a similarly democratic approach both in his choice of poets and in the information that he gives us about them. Each chapter contains a concise curriculum vitae along with a judicious precis of the critical storms surrounding key poets. In keeping with the theme of poetic procession, Schmidt is intrigued by the importance of influence, maintaining that "every poet has a hand in another poet's pocket", and leaning heavily on past masters of the critical art, from Dryden and Johnson, to Coleridge and Eliot.

He is unashamed in his preference for criticism by practising poets, and pointedly omits any mention of the kind of abstruse literary theory that has so often separated writers from their readers in the 20th century. But if he prefers critical debates to the more alluring biographical controversies that conventionally attract readers, he still manages to tell a good life. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the book is how often the poet's lot has been a miserable one. From the Earl of Surrey, beheaded in the Tower, to Edmund Spenser who died destitute, poets have frequently been martyrs to the muse. There is also much to be gleaned in terms of general historical insight. For instance, in a fascinating chapter on Milton, Schmidt traces the origins of modern angst to the Civil War when, as TS Eliot says, "a belief in the fact that men of culture and intellect will be able to engage in rational discussion had been displaced by faction and sometimes violent intolerance".

Nowhere is this more evident than in the problems Schmidt encounters when he comes to the 20th century. Suddenly he finds that the proliferation of movements and nationalities have forced him to abandon the chronological structure that has so far governed the book. "Why," he plaintively asks, "do so many more poets call out for attention in the twentieth century than before?" Indeed, nearly half of the book's 900 pages are devoted to one century alone. But, alas, he has no answer other than to suggest that " 'the winds of history' have not yet done their winnowing."

He does hint strongly at a personal distaste for much postmodern poetry, which he says has focused excessively on "the orthodox and the ephemeral", confessing that: "against the formal rigour and wholeness of TS Eliot's oeuvre, the fiddlings of post-Modernism have a facile and fudged look." His own tastes incline decidedly towards the accessible, including Hardy, Frost, Murray, Larkin and Cope.

He remains reluctant to address the question of why it should be so difficult to single out certain poets from the melee of fashionable currents and ideas. The refusal to be more ruthless ultimately leaves the second half of the book seriously flawed. Not only is equal space given to everybody from Ted Hughes to two of Schmidt's own favourites, Donald Davie and Thom Gunn - and this despite his admission that Hughes is "less susceptible to development" than his contemporaries. But there are also some very curious chapter groupings. Despite an affinity with Auden, what, for instance, is James Fenton doing in a chapter on the poets of the 1930s?

In a sense, though, the scale of these criticisms is a measure of Schmidt's achievement. For although he claims to have written the book in 10 months, this is a lifetime's work, and in an age that almost demands shoddiness, we are fortunate to have been placed in the hands of a guide who is as scrupulous and meticulous as this, and who can also write prose. The publishers are describing the book as a kind of Sophie's World for poetry, but it is far better than that. Schmidt has written an imperfect masterpiece which will be cherished by readers and critics for years to come.