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The Music of Time

Poetry in the Twentieth Century

A revelatory and deeply personal history of twentieth-century poetry by prize-winning poet and memoirist John Burnside

Poetry helps us to make sense of our world, transforming what the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam called the "noise of time" into a kind of music. The Music of Time is a unique history of twentieth-century poetry by one of today's most acclaimed poets, blending incandescent personal meditations with rare insights into a broad range of poets who distilled the essence of the moment, gave voice to our griefs and joys, and gave shape to our collective memory.

Bringing together poets from times and places as diverse as Tsarist Russia, 1960s Harlem, and Ireland at the height of the Troubles, Burnside reveals how poetry responded to the dramatic events of the past century while shaping our impressions of them. He takes readers from the trenches of World War I to a prison cell in Nazi Germany, and from Rilke's grave in the Swiss Alps to Dylan Thomas's Welsh seaside. His luminous narrative is woven through with insights into the poet's creative process as well as lyrical and thought-provoking digressions on topics ranging from marriage to the Kennedy assassination.

A spellbinding work of literary history, The Music of Time reveals how poets engaged with the most important issues and events of the twentieth century, and bears personal witness to the beauty and power of an art form unlike any other.

Author Information

John Burnside is a poet, novelist, and memoirist whose many books include Still Life with Feeding Snake and On Henry Miller (Princeton). He has won many awards for his poetry, including the T. S. Eliot, Forward, Whitbread, and Geoffrey Faber Memorial prizes. He is professor of English at the University of St Andrews and a regular contributor to the London Review of Books. He lives in Arncroach, Scotland.


"A master of language." —Hilary Mantel, London Review of Books

"Magisterial. This is a fine, often profound book, the work of a very valuable poet and novelist who has thought long and hard about poetry and the many contexts surrounding its writing."—Michael Hulse, coeditor of The 20th Century in Poetry

"Burnside . . . writes lyrical prose with virtuoso ease."—Marcel Theroux, The Guardian

Praise for John Burnside

"The poet who more than any other writing today sees the material world and the world of thought and ideas as two sides of the most fragile of membranes."—Fiona Sampson, poet and author of In Search of Mary Shelley