This Sourcebook is not a survey of English lyric poems but rather a florilegium. It singles out great poems of the last five centuries worthy of study in liberal education—in Great Books programs, Core curricula, and the Humanities generally. The poems were selected not as representative of the author’s time or oeuvre, but rather as addressed to the reader and the reader’s time by virtue of representing the nature of things. That is what makes a poem a great poem and worthy of study. The capacities, needs, and interests of current students of such great poetry were the principles of selection.
The great poems selected are arranged in five divisions according to their meters as a measure intrinsic them, rather than to epochal divisions of the history of literature. The paradigmatic example of this is the classical English sonnet. Many an English poet has submitted themselves to the self-discipline of this poetic form born in the classical period of English poetry in Tudor England. But what of such historical context? When Robert Frost chooses to write a sonnet in the 20th century, why associate it more with the free verse of e.e. cummings than of the quincentenary sonnet tradition his chosen form invokes for context?
Although the Sourcebook arranges five centuries of English lyric poems according to five metrical modes, there is also an index of first lines by poet provided as well. The fivefold metrical division does not presume to be either exhaustive or normative, but intends rather to interpret poetic practices. Likewise, as understanding great poetry’s means deepens interpretation of its ends, the Sourcebook also begins with a propaedeutic "grammar" that introduces students to such devices of poetic art as meter, rhyme, and trope. These pedagogical aids are formed around examples of use, such as Shakespearian couplets to illustrate kinds of rhyme and examples of classical tropes from English prose as well as poetry.