For a generation of readers influenced by the literary criticism of T. S. Eliot, the distinction between “major” and “minor” poets is an accepted commonplace. The implication, of course, is that a major poet is somehow better than a minor. Most of us, however, reserve a valued place in our reading lives for the “great minor poet”— someone whose work is of the highest distinction, is original and memorable, and gives great pleasure, but who lacks the grand ambition to make, like Milton or Dante, a major philosophical or religious statement; to define, as Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Yeats, and Whitman did, an epoch or a national or ethnic identity.

It can be a relief to turn from these top-heavy, “major” goliaths to artists we think of as minor. Samuel Johnson took the measure not only of Milton but of other literary greats when he wrote: “Paradise Lost is one ...