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We British: The Poetry of a People

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‘This book includes some of the greatest of our poetry. I hope that it adds up to a new way of thinking about who we have been, and who we are now.’We British is much more than an anthology. This is a veritable history of Britain, told through the verse of its greatest poets. With the entertaining and enlightening Andrew Marr as our guide, we travel from Saxon settlements ‘This book includes some of the greatest of our poetry. I hope that it adds up to a new way of thinking about who we have been, and who we are now.’We British is much more than an anthology. This is a veritable history of Britain, told through the verse of its greatest poets. With the entertaining and enlightening Andrew Marr as our guide, we travel from Saxon settlements to medieval courts, from Shakespeare’s Globe to the battlefields of the Somme, ending up here in the present day.On the way we will meet Middle English ploughmen, Tudor drunks, Scottish farmers, West Country priests, a Warwickshire actor, and many more bards and balladeers from across the British Isles, each adding their own distinct voice to the chorus. From Caedmon to Zephaniah, the poets we meet will paint a powerful portrait of what it means to be British.


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‘This book includes some of the greatest of our poetry. I hope that it adds up to a new way of thinking about who we have been, and who we are now.’We British is much more than an anthology. This is a veritable history of Britain, told through the verse of its greatest poets. With the entertaining and enlightening Andrew Marr as our guide, we travel from Saxon settlements ‘This book includes some of the greatest of our poetry. I hope that it adds up to a new way of thinking about who we have been, and who we are now.’We British is much more than an anthology. This is a veritable history of Britain, told through the verse of its greatest poets. With the entertaining and enlightening Andrew Marr as our guide, we travel from Saxon settlements to medieval courts, from Shakespeare’s Globe to the battlefields of the Somme, ending up here in the present day.On the way we will meet Middle English ploughmen, Tudor drunks, Scottish farmers, West Country priests, a Warwickshire actor, and many more bards and balladeers from across the British Isles, each adding their own distinct voice to the chorus. From Caedmon to Zephaniah, the poets we meet will paint a powerful portrait of what it means to be British.

30 review for We British: The Poetry of a People

  1. 4 out of 5

    J.C.

    It took me a long time to read this book, because I was often tempted to follow up or explore further poets or poetry extracts featured in it. I would say that it opened windows for me. In the concluding paragraphs Andrew Marr calls it, “a book about poets for lovers of poetry” and I did find, throughout the book, that poems I had skimmed through before came to life for me when I learned more about the poet and the contemporary relevance of the work. It is a history, not written in terms of detai It took me a long time to read this book, because I was often tempted to follow up or explore further poets or poetry extracts featured in it. I would say that it opened windows for me. In the concluding paragraphs Andrew Marr calls it, “a book about poets for lovers of poetry” and I did find, throughout the book, that poems I had skimmed through before came to life for me when I learned more about the poet and the contemporary relevance of the work. It is a history, not written in terms of detailed, consequential events, but a history of context, of the prevailing climate, of social pressures and enduring passions. I remember being impressed with the opening, which presents Caedmon, our earliest known poet, (in translation as well as in the original Northumbrian dialect) as freshly and vividly as though he were alive today. It’s not surprising that there should be a bit more historical context in the early section of the book than in the later periods, where Andrew Marr seems frequently to lament that he has to omit poems that he admires, or limit himself to extracts. His tone is light, even flippant, but his commentary is both incisive and profound. There were no more than two or three occasions, as far as I can recall now, where his style of writing jarred. One was where he was at pains to point out that he does not believe in God; it didn’t add anything to what he was saying, and by comparison with his usually carefully phrased commentaries it stood out. I was going to say, “like a sore thumb” but then remembered that I actually got a sore thumb while reading this book, as it’s pretty fat and heavy last thing at night as one is drifting off . . .. but that didn’t add anything either to what I am supposed to be writing about, so I shall stop being hard on Andrew Marr for the odd personal intervention in a book that engrosses, elucidates and elevates. And he is careful, in a politically correct sort of way. He focus on poetesses (oops, I mean, female poets), although what we have of their work from early times is scant, and he includes the entire United Kingdom (though not necessarily, he explains later, the wider dominions of the former Empire, unless the poet spent years in Britain and reflected its values (T.S. Eliot is allowed). He has no trouble delving into Scotland and Ireland, although I felt that Wales took a wee bit of a back seat despite her ample supply of poetic material. He gets to Scotland pretty quickly, and I knew immediately that he is a Scot (I hadn’t particularly noticed the clues in the name!). He has great fun with the early Scottish poets and provides translations or summaries of the poetry in Scots. William Dunbar’s poem, “Lament for the Makars (the makers of poems) sends a shiver down my spine whenever I come across it. It is an elegy for dead poets, and Dunbar himself was sick when he wrote it. Here are two verses. The Latin line means, “The fear of death overcomes me” (or, as Marr has it, “upends me”). The Latin line is in italics, which I can never get to work on Goodreads! “I that in hail wes, and gladnes Am trublit now with gret seikness, And feblit with infirmitie; Timor mortis conturbat me. . . . No stait in erd heir standis sicker; (secure) As with the wynd wavis the wicker, (reed) Wavis this worldis vanitie; Timor mortis conturbat me. This early Scottish section, which contains poems about freedom, independence and what became the essence of socialism, remains my favourite part of the book, and, I think, Andrew Marr’s. It has great vigour, and he seems happy to lay before us his deep admiration for these poets. The chapter on Shakespeare is called, “England’s Miracle”, but incudes the other big names of the Elizabethan and Jacobean reigns. From there on there are plenty of big names to crowd the page, but Marr is at pains also to seek out lesser-known poetry that expresses something of the people and the times. I had never heard of Margaret Cavendish, who is described as a poet “much more impressive than the male poets of her time” (the Restoration). Marr continues, ”Reading her, we get a vivid idea of how the early-modern human mind was beginning to grapple with the disconcerting early revelations of science.” This includes an early “animal rights” poem, where “Wat” is a hare. I can’t resist setting out here a few lines from the longer extract quoted by Marr: “The horns kept time, the hunters shout for joy, And valiant seem, poor Wat for to destroy. Spurring their horses to a full career, Swim rivers deep, leap ditches without fear; Endanger life and limbs, so fast will ride, Only to see how patiently Wat died. . . . Men hooping loud, such acclamations make, As if the devil they did prisoner take. When they do but a shiftless creature kill, To hunt, there needs no valiant soldier’s skill.” Marr quotes Cowper on slavery, Blake on the industrial revolution and Burns on egalitarianism and humanity, not forgetting the latter’s humour and popularity. He does indeed keep up a fairly consistent levity of approach, usually by tacking a post-modernist comment onto the serious historical or social exposition. I found it a highly successful way to trace the path of a people. I could say so much more – I haven’t even mentioned the period before the Great War shook the country into modernity, or the potent time capsule of the war poets, or the thirties ‘social’ poets, or the stunning political and emotional impact of the major Celtic poets, too well known to list – but you need to read the book! I am an inveterate buyer of books, but I surprised myself when I sent for the works of Alexander Pope just because Marr calls him a genius. Watch this space!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jen Burrows

    We British is both history and anthology: an exploration of British life and experience through the eyes of some of the country's greatest poets. There are many classics and old favourites featured here, but this isn't simply a millennium's run-down rating Britain's top poets. Marr favours poems that offer a real sense of what life was like in the Britain of old, covering not just key literary movements or important historical events, but everyday life. The collection features a diverse range of We British is both history and anthology: an exploration of British life and experience through the eyes of some of the country's greatest poets. There are many classics and old favourites featured here, but this isn't simply a millennium's run-down rating Britain's top poets. Marr favours poems that offer a real sense of what life was like in the Britain of old, covering not just key literary movements or important historical events, but everyday life. The collection features a diverse range of voices - across gender, class and country borders - all whilst fostering a sense of national community. Because if poetry can't articulate shared experiences, what can?

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nicola Weideling

    I really enjoyed this. It introduced me to some poets I hadn't read and also reminded me of poems, and poets, that I had enjoyed reading in the past. Providing a history of the British, using poetry as a basis, is a really interesting approach. I read the book chronologically but will go back regularly and dip in and out. Would definitely recommend. I really enjoyed this. It introduced me to some poets I hadn't read and also reminded me of poems, and poets, that I had enjoyed reading in the past. Providing a history of the British, using poetry as a basis, is a really interesting approach. I read the book chronologically but will go back regularly and dip in and out. Would definitely recommend.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Paul Moss

    A romp though the history of poetry in Britain from the earliest time to the current poets. An interesting exposition of the times and styles over the centuries. A book to relish and send you off looking for poets and their influences.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Keith Wheeler

    Great book for getting a good cross section of British poetry. It has lead to many openings for me.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tim Chesterton

    This book isn't quite a history of British (i.e. English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish) poetry from Caedmon to the present day; it's more a sort of annotated anthology, with poems and excerpts from poems giving a representative sample of each period. As such, it's an excellent introduction for the person who enjoys poetry but isn't well-informed about the history of the craft in the British Isles. For me there were lots of old favourites here, but also many with whom I was unfamiliar (old and new). This book isn't quite a history of British (i.e. English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish) poetry from Caedmon to the present day; it's more a sort of annotated anthology, with poems and excerpts from poems giving a representative sample of each period. As such, it's an excellent introduction for the person who enjoys poetry but isn't well-informed about the history of the craft in the British Isles. For me there were lots of old favourites here, but also many with whom I was unfamiliar (old and new). Like all poetry fans reading the book, I was ticked off at the omission of some of my favourites (John Masefield, R.S. Thomas), but a book of 640 pages attempting to introduce the reader to 1,350 years of British poetry is bound to offend in that way. Overall I thought the book was brilliant. And I'd give this one word of reading advice: read it aloud, and with a spouse or partner or friend if you can. My wife and I read it in coffee shops and we thoroughly enjoyed this treat for the ears as well as the eyes. Five stars, and well-deserved.

  7. 5 out of 5

    James Stephen

    Excellent book. I've been reading it every day/night to my toddler (she's too young to understand so I can read adult books!). An excellent idea. Really original. I love that Andrew Marr unashamedly gives his opinion. So many don't and are afraid to knock any of the literary giants. It's very clear when it is his opinion and it gives me a perspective to bounce off - to agree or disagree with. Very well researched and a great selection which doesn't just pander to popular poems and poets but helps Excellent book. I've been reading it every day/night to my toddler (she's too young to understand so I can read adult books!). An excellent idea. Really original. I love that Andrew Marr unashamedly gives his opinion. So many don't and are afraid to knock any of the literary giants. It's very clear when it is his opinion and it gives me a perspective to bounce off - to agree or disagree with. Very well researched and a great selection which doesn't just pander to popular poems and poets but helps to drive the historical narrative. He often also chooses lesser-known poems but which reveal more about the author and time than others. Overall, I'd say full marks. The only thing I should point out, being a Somerset lad, is Frost At Midnight was written at his cottage in Nether Stowey, Somerset not Devon. I've been there a couple of times. Many of his best-known poems were penned there!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Peter

    Andrew Marr is just amazing. He uniquely tells the history of the British people with a combination of “canonical/non-canonical” poetry interspersed with literary and historical context. From Beowulf to Hugh MacDiarmid, he nails it.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Robert Davies

  10. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Hancock

  11. 4 out of 5

    Diane

  12. 4 out of 5

    Guy Olliff-Cooper

  13. 4 out of 5

    Stevep

  14. 4 out of 5

    Bob Holden

  15. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Busick

  16. 5 out of 5

    C

  17. 5 out of 5

    William Allen

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jen

  19. 4 out of 5

    John Burgess

  20. 5 out of 5

    J Welby

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kenny

  22. 5 out of 5

    John

  23. 5 out of 5

    Marion

  24. 5 out of 5

    Adamoroptimism

  25. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sue H

  27. 4 out of 5

    C

  28. 5 out of 5

    Rich

  29. 4 out of 5

    Gary

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Cleminson

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