An Aside: In Teaching the Universe of Discourse, James Moffett describes human discourse as a party at which you show up late, find ongoing conversations all around you, listen until you feel you have something to add, get caught up in a discussion, and eventually have to leave although the party goes on—though perhaps shaped by the arguments you made.
The Review: My purpose in reading English Poets of the Eighteenth Century was to better understand the historical “conversation” of poetry that led to the rise of 19th-century Romanticism (my original introduction to poetry: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats), in hopes that that might better explain how modern poetry has reached its current state.
As an overview of 18th-century poetry, Bernbaum’s book is excellent, primarily in that he presents in the preface a fairly detailed history of the age’s beginnings in Orthodoxy and Classicism and the struggle and eventual triumph of Sentimentalism—precursor to Romanticism—then gathers in the body of the book a collection of poems that—while representative of the most well-known writers and works of the century, with a few lesser-known verses included—convincingly illustrates that struggle.
Even if you’re already familiar with the works of poets such as Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Charles Wesley, Thomas Warton, Thomas Gray, Robert Burns, and William Blake, chances are you’ve not considered them together, in this context. (For me, to see Burns and Blake at the tail end of Classicism, delivering it a killing blow, rather than merely as ushers into Romanticism, makes their genius all the more inspiring.) And if you aren’t familiar with this list of poets, this book is certainly a very good place to start.
You can find English Poets of the Eighteenth Century as a free download at Gutenberg.org, or purchase a used copy from Amazon.com.