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This review is taken from PN Review 77, Volume 17 Number 3, January - February 1991.

AS FORMER THINGS GROW OLD Gerald Hammond, Fleeting Things: English Poets and Poems, 1616-1660 (Harvard University Press) £24.95

It is a common and sad experience that books 'on' (in this case, poetry) are usually much less enjoyable than books 'of'; Gerald Hammond's book on English poetry between 1616 and 1660 avoids this fate by being both, quoting so much poetry (hundreds of poems by more than fifty poets) that it sometimes seems more like a splendid anthology, surrounded by an extensive, informed and illuminating commentary. The book's strength derives partly from the quality of the writing, chiefly from its approach: whereas in recent years we have been subjected to the procedures of the New Historicism and deconstructionism, masticating poetry into abstractions (philosophical, psychological, ideological), Hammond stays with poems, people, everyday doings, things ('No ideas but in things') in a way that sympathetically evokes, more than more elaborated methodologies, the experience of a way of life not only past but aware of itself as being in passing.

What dominates here is a sense of a culture not in turbulent, creative invention, but in eloquent retrospection. Some poets then, and critics now, engage with major forces, elaborating schemes of exploration, analysis and construction, but the major issues are not directly confronted here. Instead, we have minor poets (Kynaston, Davenant, Fanshawe), or minor issues (the analogies between rose-bushes and Eve's pubic hair, in Paradise Lost; Donne's 'seven sleepers' might refer not only to the miraculous Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, but to dormice), while the method subtly conceals its thematic organization behind a veil of loosely-threaded association. Herrick bulks ...


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