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DVD Review: Six Centuries of Verse

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Sometimes when you think of the opportunities for the sharing of information and the dissemination of knowledge that are being neglected and compare it to what's normally on offer through today's mass media, it's hard not to be appalled at the waste of technology and resources. Humans have created so much that is beautiful and awe-inspiring in the past few thousand years, yet the chances of seeing any of it outside the confines of educational programming are minimal. Instead of using the media as a means of celebrating our genius and inspiring people with examples of our potential for greatness, its main use appears to be as a means of advertisement. What else can we assume when keeping sponsors happy with high ratings is apparently the major factor in deciding what is aired or isn't aired?

Even more demoralizing is how the majority of the shows created which might make a difference and expose people to some of the marvels of creation are as likely to alienate viewers as enthrall them. For instead of dispelling the beliefs that intelligence and appreciation of the arts are not only suspect but the preserve of an elite segment of society, they end up perpetuating both lies. Either the material is presented in such a reverential manner the viewers can't help be intimidated or believe it has nothing to say to them or their lives, or it comes across as being beyond their abilities to understand.

British television has rightfully garnered a far better reputation for presenting intelligent programming than its American counterpart. However, that doesn't mean they aren't subject to falling into some of the same traps as their counterparts across the Atlantic when it comes to dealing with the arts. That was brought home to me again while watching the new three-disc DVD package Six Centuries Of Verse being released on April 27, 2010 by Acorn Media through its Athena label. Originally broadcast by Thames television in 1985, airing on public television in North America in the 1990s, the 16 episodes trace the history of English language poetry from Beowulf to the 1980s. Each of the episodes deals with a specific period in history, the poets and the style of poetry associated with it.

Hosted by Sir John Gielgud, the series also features assorted British and American actors reciting the poetry from the different eras. While there are names we would normally associate with this type of thing amongst the cast — Anthony Hopkins and Dame Peggy Ashcroft — there are also a couple of surprises — Lee Remick and Stacy Keach — actors more well known for their association with popular television shows and movies than the classics or poetry. When I read the names of the last two amongst those listed, I had hopes the creators of the series had attempted to make it appeal to a wider audience than usual for an arts related program, especially one that deals with poetry.

Unfortunately that ended up not being the case as right from the outset the atmosphere created was one of cloistered elitism. While there is no doubt that Gielgud had one of the finest voices of his generation and was a marvelous actor, the very qualities that made him renowned actually worked against him. He is too perfect in his speaking, and very British, two things that are most associated with the upper classes and higher education and most likely to give people the impression the material at hand is meant only for people like that. Filming him in what looks to be the drawing room of your typical English manor house and its environs only served to increase that impression.

Thankfully they had the sense to ensure that the audience could at least understand the excerpts from Beowulf and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the early episodes through the use of subtitles in the case of the former and reading a translation into modern verse of the latter. However, while I understand the desire to present the material in a chronological order, it might have been a better idea to find a way of starting with something more accessible. Poetry in and of itself is incomprehensible to so many people that starting off with pieces in a "foreign" language is sure to frighten them away. Perhaps it would have been better to have an introductory episode where they gave samples of poems from later eras which could entice viewers into watching. Then, when you do travel back in time to the roots of English language poetry, there's not really the need to spend more than one episode on examples of Old and Middle English verse. It's rather too much to expect people to sit through an entire episode on Chaucer, as even translated his work isn't something people are liable to read outside of the classroom these days anyway.

What I did appreciate about the program was its attempts to place the material in an appropriate physical context. Poems that were set in certain obvious locales, like prison cells or in a forest, were recited in those locations, giving the audience a much better chance of understanding not only the poem, but how poetry is able to convey emotion and ideas in a way that prose can't. While some of the actors gave into the impulse sometimes to "perform" the poems they were reciting, the times they chose to simply recite the material and strove to convey the poems meaning to the listeners were far more effective.

While Six Centuries Of Verse does a reasonable job of representing the history of English language poetry from Beowulf to the modern day (although their omission of the Beat poets like Allan Ginsberg and modernists like e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce was strange) it, like other programs of its type, failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by television to reach a wide audience. Surely there must be a way of presenting poetry, and the arts in general, so that it can be appreciated by more than just those who are already interested in it? If even I, who appreciate most of the works presented over the three discs, found my attention wandering, what does that say about its appeal to an audience who'd rather be watching American Idol? If we're really serious about the arts being for more than just a few, we need to find a way of overcoming the elitist stereotype associated with them. Unfortunately this set, while making a few steps in the right direction, still doesn't manage to make that breakthrough.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.