Familar Poems, Annotated
© 1977 Isaac Asimov
In reading I, Asimov, the good doctor made mention of his commentary work — including his Guide to the Bible, Guide to Shakespeare, and now Familiar Poems, Annotated. The book’s approach is quite simple: Asimov has collected thirty-seven poems that are or were broadly known in the United States of his time and regarded as classics of sorts. (The number includes Invictus, one of my favorites.) After each poem, Asimov has penned a few pages of commentary, focusing on historical, scientific, literary, or otherwise cultural allusions and context. In his introduction, he maintains that his purpose is not to comment on matters of meaning and meter, but to explain the “particular words and phrases used in constructing the poems”. He uses an excerpt from his commentary on Cargoes by John Masefield, focusing on the line “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir“.
In connection with [this] first line in Masefield’s Cargoes, it may occur to you to wonder what the devil a quinquireme might be. And who is Nineveh and why does she happen to have a quinquireme? And where, oh where, is Ophir, since you won’t find it in the atlas. After all — once you have the answer to these questions, as I give them to you, you may then go back to the line, and, having lost none of the beauty of the sound, find you have gained an added appreciation of the sense.
The poems are arranged chronologically according to subject, not published date. The selection shows a definite American bias, with 19th century American history being especially-well represented. The commentaries themselves are up to Asimov’s usual stellar par. They read well, are quite detailed, and held my interest for the most part. I enjoyed the poems by themselves: although I’d read bits and pieces of most of them, I’ve never stopped to read them in whole, and this was an opportunity to do so. The Pied Piper of Hamelin and its commentary were especially memorable. My only knowledge of the poem was that it was about a man who played a pipe and cleared a town of its rats: I had no idea he took their children as payment, although having read the poem does make that “gotta pay the piper” utterance make sense. The greatest “A-ha!” experience for me was reading “Ozymandias”: having never read it, I tend it confuse “Behold my works, ye mighty, and despair” with that “I am become death , destroyer of worlds” line, having never read either the Ozymandias poem or the section of the Gita from which the ye-mighty-and-despair-line was. I don’t know if it was my attentive reading or Asimov’s commentary, but I “get” the poem now.
In short, it was an excellent read and I reccommend it. I am tempted to provide the full list of poems, but given that there are nearly forty I shall only list a few:
- Ozimandias, Shelley
- The Destruction of Sennacherib, Lord Bryon
- The Vision of Belshazzar, Lord Bryon
- Antony to Cleopatra, William Haines Lytle
- The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Robert Browning
- A Visit from St. Nicholas, by Celment Clarke Moore (Comments include origins of Christmas)
- The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred Tennyson
- Battle-Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe
- O Captain! My Captain! , Walt Whitman
- Invictus, William Ernest Henley
- The Modern Major-General, William Schwenk Gilbert (The commentary was informative).
- The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus,
- In Flanders Fields, John McCrae