Book review: Best-Loved Poems: A Treasury of Verse by Ana Sampson

Best-Loved Poems: A Treasury of Verse by Ana Sampson
Best-Loved Poems: A Treasury of Verse by Ana Sampson

In an age of digital overload, what a joy to pick up a book of verse and immerse yourself in the words, truths, language and rhythms that have struck a chord with generations of poetry lovers.

Ana Sampson, author of a clutch of dazzling anthologies that have touched hearts and brought back memories both sad and happy, has been busy compiling another gorgeous collection of much-loved poetry to suit every mood and whim.

This treasury of celebrated verse brings together half a millennium of familiar and cherished poetry, carefully and lovingly collated to include classics from the likes of Tennyson, Marvell, Byron and Rossetti through to the more up-to-date voices of Pam Ayres, Larkin and Zephaniah.

From magic voyages through antique lands to the wonders of nature and the roar of city life, from love and war to those poems we used to know by heart, Sampson’s new volume is a bold and beautiful array of the finest verse from some of our greatest poets.

Travel through love poems steeped in pleasure, pain and fantasy, get lost in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous Xanadu, take to the wing with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Windhover, head into the darkness with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Lamplighter or visit Fern Hill with Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

Poets tell us about love, grief, faith, doubt, fear and courage as they have felt it and readers – sometimes coming to their words centuries after they were written – find that the verse perfectly matches their own emotions.

And there is always a thrill in discovering poetry that expresses more clearly and beautifully than we could ever attempt, our joys, ours fears and our struggles. Reading poetry gives us that pause to read, digest and enjoy every syllable and every cadence of words in perfect harmony.

‘Poetry,’ asserts Sampson, ‘can connect us to others and to our own emotions in a profound and valuable way that we need now more than ever in a hyper-connected world that can feel superficial.’

We soak up poetry from our very earliest days, she tells us, and place favourite ones in our mental storehouse, delivered back to us in fragments down the years. Indeed, poetry has been successfully used as a therapeutic tool to unlock emotions and recollections in patients with dementia.

Although the poetry here is divided thematically, one of the beauties of verse is, says Sampson, ‘its ability to address – often in just a handful of words – numerous big questions and passions at once.’

Thus William Blake and Hopkins, for example, find God in the contemplation of birds and beasts while Percy Bysshe Shelley sees his desire for his lover reflected in every corner of the natural world.

So whether it’s the lyrical verse that brings back childhood memories, the wry poems that have tickled everyone’s funny bone down the years or the more prosaic work of contemporary poets, there are words her to provide comfort, inspiration, entertainment and escape.

(Michael O’Mara, hardback, £9.99)