Go, litel bok: Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt

With Lives of the Poets, Michael Schmidt takes up the daunting task of tracing the history of English poetry from the Middle Ages to the present. His engaging style of writing has immediately drawn me into this wonderful book. He writes:

Poems swim free of their age, but it’s hard to think of a single poem that swims entirely free of its medium, not just language but language used in the particular ways that are poetry. Even the most parthenogenetic-seeming poem has a pedigree. The poet may not know precisely a line’s or a stanza’s parents; indeed may not be interested in finding out. Yet as readers of poetry we can come to know more about a poem than the poet does and know it more fully.

Schmidt’s point about pedigree and influence was proven for me almost immediately in his book with the chapter on Chaucer. The early English poets of the fourteenth century were struggling to break free from the literary supremacy of both Latin and French but, by including the introduction to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Schmidt shows that although he chooses to write in English, Chaucer’s Latin ancestors are never far from his mind:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, or that he dye,
So sende might to make it som comedye!
But litel book, so making thow n’envie,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, where as thow seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

The references to Ancient Epic authors is quite obvious, but there is also a hidden allusion in these lines to Catullus that Schmidt doesn’t mention. Catullus was not widely read in this period, but the discovery of his manuscript in 1300 does make it slightly possible that Chaucer know about Catullus’s own libellum (little book) and his introductory poem which is also self-deprecating. In Carmen 1, Catullus begins his collection of poetry(translation is my own):

To whom should I dedicate my new, charming, little book
that I just polished with my dry pumice stone? To you,
Cornelius, you who used to think that my petty scribblings
were actually worth something.

I’ve always suspected that Catullus knows the worth of his talent and that this modesty in the dedication is feigned. Schmidt’s discussion of Chaucer has me wondering the same thing about the English author and his “litel bok.”

I took a British Literature course which was required when I was in high school and I credit this course with making me the reader I have become as far as classic literature is concerned. The first work we read in the class was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which captivated my 16-year-old attention. I haven’t read Chaucer, unfortunately, since I was a teenager, and a pleasant side effect of Schmidt’s book is the rediscovery of old favorites. My plan is to read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as well as Gower’s Confessio Amantis from the same time period.

Last week when I translated Catullus Carmen 1 with my Latin students, I also read to them Chaucer’s lines from Troilus and Criseyde. Not a single student knew who Chaucer was; British Literature is not a required course. So sad…


Filed under British Literature, Classics

8 responses to “Go, litel bok: Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt

  1. Chaucer is such fun! I read him first in a modern translation in my early teens and it was a great introduction (with all the smuttiness which appeals to that particular age group), but then set me up for reading him in the original later.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! That’s such a shock! Chaucer probably isn’t taught in high school any more but at least one of my offspring studied him as part of their English lit degree. And even if you’ve not read him, you should have heard of him! Gosh….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. alilauren1970

    What an interesting post, Melissa! Did you read the entire book? I own his book on the novel, and I dip into it periodically. I read Chaucer in tenth grade (I can’t recall if we read the entire Canterbury Tales or just portions). I went to a private girls’ school so I was exposed to this kind of literature, along with Shakespeare (his sonnets and several of his plays) and Dante (The Inferno). I also was exposed to Latin poetry because I took both AP courses on The Aeneid and Horace and Catullus (and received 5s on both APs–one of my crowning achievements in life, and yet, I didn’t major in the classics in college–for which I am kicking myself at age 48).

    I have recently in this past year become interested in reading more poetry although I know so little about what is good and what is bad–and so I must depend on worthier experts. I have collections by Geoffrey Hill, Richard Wilbur, Keats, Dana Gioia, and Auden. I have dipped into these collections only a bit.

    My latest project is reading Paradise Lost. I actually started it yesterday. I already own two annotated versions of the poem, and I ordered two additional versions, as well as the Cambridge Companion to Milton. I will likely devote a substantial amount of time to it on the weekends and save my weekly reading for other books. I can already tell reading it is going to be life changing (like reading Dante was) even though I am only 200 or so lines into the poem. And I am certain I will return to it again.

    As an aside, you might be interested in Don Paterson’s book, The Poem, which is due out later this spring. It looks marvelous, and I have ordered a copy for myself.


    • I went to an all girls private school as well. I’m so glad that Brit lit was a requirement! I love Milton but haven’t read him since college. Schmidt has a chapter on Milton, so I suspect that might inspire me to pick up Paradise Lost again after all these years.

      The poets I’ve read lately are Philip Larkin who I keep by my bedside table and Louis Zukofsky.

      Thanks so much for the book recommendation. I really appreciate it. It looks like just my thing!


    • Oh and I have only read about 200 pages of the Schmidt book so far. I will probably do a couple more posts about it as I make my way through.


  4. Joel

    Thanks for the note on this book! I imagine the Catullus allusion is present—I’ll keep it mind! I teach tenth-grade English, and our curriculum covers medieval to early modern, including a healthy dose of Chaucer from the Canterbury Tales. Am pleased to cut against the grain of modern high school literature courses!

    Liked by 1 person

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