Thirty-seven familiar poems, annotated by Isaac Asimov in his own inimitably informative and entertaining way—listed in chronological order of the key historical events described in the poems. Beginning with Shelley’s poem of ancient Egypt (“Ozymandias”), Asimov moves through such works as “The Angels’ Song,” “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “Old Ironsides,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Battle-hymn of the Republic,” “O Captain! My Captain!,” “Invictus,” “In Falnders Fields,” and ends with Robert Frost’s apocalyptic vision, “Fire and Ice,” in a volume that encapsulates some brief, fascinating mini-histories of the Western World. Complete with biographical notes on the poets—including Byron, Dryden, Burns, Milton, Tennyson, Longfellow, Emerson, Wordsworth, Keats, Poe, Whitman, and Kipling—this book shows Asimov demonstrating again the feats of annotation he has already displayed in his interpretations of Milton, Shakespeare, and the Bible.
This is a book which I love quite beyond its merits, and I know why—I first read it at perhaps the happiest time of my life, when the world was truly golden and everything was just peachy-keen. And I read it doing the thing I love doing the I love doing most (outside of reading), tramping about the countryside.
Certainly, I don’t love this book for the poetry. Outside of the fact that I’m generally not a big fan of poetry other than W.S. Gilbert or Ogden Nash, this book is called Familiar Poems, Annotated and not Good Poems, Annotated for a reason. Oh, sure, there’s some good poetry in here: “Ozymandias,” Recessional,” something by some guy named Gilbert, and some others—but there’s also some poetry that makes me gag.
On the other hand, it’s clear that Doubleday was starting to get worn down on preparing these annotations, because this one is thrown together as simply as possible, in sharp contrast to Asimov’s Annotated ‘Don Juan’. Annotations follow the poem, rather than accompanying it at the bottom of the page. (This makes it harder to read the annotations and poem simultaneously, since you have to keep flipping back and forth except in the very few cases when the poem is about half a page long.) And there’s no index.
Still, if one is forced to read any of these poems, I can’t think of a better book to read them in, and I’m going to recommend it highly to the general Asimov fan out of my sheer prejudice in its favor. Just make sure you read it on a sunny afternoon while walking cross-country through the foothills.