Mellow fruitfulness tops the pick of the poems

July 10, 1998

The Classic Hundred Poems. A Columbia Granger's Multimedia Anthology. Edited by William Harmon, Alice Quinn and Cindee Scott. Columbia University Press. UK distributor John Wiley +44 1243 779777. Pounds 140.00 + VAT. Windows 3.1+/Mac System 7.1+CD. ISBN 0 231 10974 1

The title of this attractively produced American CD-Rom probably says it all, at least to British users: add the word "top" and the parallel with other cultural hit parades of packaged accessibility is clear. This particular top 100 consists of the most frequently anthologised poems in a trawl of more than 1,000 anthologies. Highly anthologised poems are not only classic but conveniently out of copyright, so the selection falls into fairly predictable groupings: Shakespeare and contemporaries, the Metaphysicals, Romantics, Victorians and early 20th century poets. Nothing much predates and the most recent poems are by Dylan Thomas. What the producers do with the poems, however, makes for an enjoyable browse. The interface is both clear and easy to use: I found the "Back" facility most helpful and there is a "Help" too, with text supported by brief audio commentary, a feature used throughout. The material is best accessed via a series of lists. There is a popularity list (Keats's "To Autumn" is top of the pops) as well as lists for subject, genre and verse form. "Genre" is the most innovative, cross-classifying the poems under everything from "Address to someone" to "Vision": Waller's "Go Lovely Rose", for example, the poem I chose to track through all its occurrences, appears under "Envoy", "Epistle" and "Love Lyric".

The text of each poem is accompanied by a small illustration, enlarged when you click on it: that for "Go Lovely Rose" is a 1612 emblem of a rose by Peacham with a note on its significance, while Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" appropriately has a richly coloured reproduction of Brueghel's The Fall of Icarus. You can hear a reading of each poem while viewing the text. I found the American voices a refreshing change from the actorly received pronunciation accent that most often occurs on English-produced audio poetry, though the quality of delivery is variable: "Go Lovely Rose", for example, is recited in a rather sing-song fashion with, to my ear, several misplaced stresses.

There are notes interpreting supposedly difficult words and ambiguous meanings plus a more detailed commentary. I was pleased that the commentary on "Go Lovely Rose" picks up on Lawes, who set the poem to music, and Pound, whose "Envoi" from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley takes the poem as its starting point: a quotation from the Pound underlines the connection. There is also a biography of each poet, highlighting significant artistic, social and political elements, together with a relevant picture, usually a portrait.

There is also a glossary of poetic terms, a timeline and maps. You can scroll through dozens of terms from "Allegory" to "Villanelle" and find something useful, though variable in quality: the entry for "conceit" is a meaty paragraph, while "canto: a part of a long poem" is pointlessly underinformative. The timeline scrolls horizontally, logging each poem and poet against a background of world events: the hyperlinks to texts and biographies make this a great browsing option. Places with poetic associations are shown on clickable maps of the United States and the British Isles. The latter is cluttered but the clicks bring up useful information. This package provides a survey of popular English and American poems that is informative and visually interesting without presenting too many challenges of analysis or theory. It could appeal to the "common reader". Yet its price suggests that it is aimed at the education market and there is mention of a teacher's manual in the sleeve notes. It could be used for individual or small group work in secondary and further education contexts, as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, a more focused course. And it would make a pleasant addition to the literature shelves of any library.

Peter Wilson is programme director for English and critical theory, University of North London.

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