The One Great Poem: The Poetries of the Oxford Books of English Verse

by Jon Corelis

When The Oxford Book of English Verse by A. T. Quiller-Couch appeared in 1900, Punch recommended it as "a most useful book for those who, being not 'unaccustomed to public speaking' and loving to embellish their flow of language with quotations from poets whose works they have never read ... are only too grateful to any well-read collector placing so excellent a store as this at their service," and predicted that because those who owned his anthology would be spared the tedious necessity of actually reading poetry, "many an after-dinner and learned society speaker will bless the name of this 'Q. C.'" Behind its deadpan humor, this statement tells us quite a bit about taste and the anthologist's relation to it in the world into which the Oxford Book was born: if the joke depends on the reality that few people read poetry, it equally depends on the pretence that everybody is supposed to, and it also implies a canon of poetry which one ought to read. Such had certainly been the case in the day of Q's mentor Francis Palgrave, who said in his preface to The Golden Treasury, the progenitor of the three successive Oxford books here to be considered, that he would "regard as his fittest readers those who love poetry so well that he can offer them nothing not already known and valued," which assumes there exists a body of verse valued by social consensus. Q's own characterization of his job as "to bring home and render so great a spoil [of poetry] compendiously ... to serve those who already love poetry and to implant that love in some young minds not yet initiated," places him squarely in his mentor's tradition as summarizer and transmitter of the nation's poetic taste.

If Q then was following taste, where did it lead him? Did he produce an anthology giving us a unified array of poems which are, in those words of Shelley which Palgrave had quoted as The Golden Treasury's program, "episodes to that great Poem which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world"? Does his book embody that one great poem? And if so, what does it tell us about that one great mind?

Reading the opening pages of Q's 1939 edition (on which the comments in this essay will be based), we may see them as an overture, presenting the motifs and tensions through which English poetry will evolve. The very first poem, the "Cuckoo Song," with its joyous bird singing amid the irrepressible regeneration of the natural world, seems drawn from an England that existed before the English nation or even the English language, a pagan England in which nature did not have to be redeemed because it was already sacred. This animist substrate of consciousness, usually incarnate (it is deeper than symbolism) in wild bird song, is a constant musical accompaniment to the subsequent voice of English lyric as recorded in Q's selections; often hushed, sometimes to silence, it breaks through ecstatically in the 15th century in the anonymous "Hit is full merry in feyre foreste to here the foulys song," becomes a continually interwoven lovers' refrain in the Renaissance with Sydney's Philomel "mournfully bewailing," Shakespeare's Amiens under the greenwood tree in uncruel Arden, who loves to "turn his merry note unto the sweet bird's throat," and Nashe's spring when "Young lovers meet" to the chorus of "Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!", and then for two centuries becomes occasional and tamed, a bird caged in metaphor, like Marvell's birdlike soul which "sits and sings, then whets and combs its silver wings," until the wild song is stunningly released again with a passion only made stronger by six generations of dour Puritanism and rationalist repression in Shelley, whose skylark "panted forth a flood of rapture so divine."

The "Cuckoo Song" can stand as an example of the thematic nature of Q's volume. We might also notice that Q's second piece, "The Irish Dancer," raises the question of the relationship of English poetry to English nationality, a problem to which all three editors of the Oxford books devised very different solutions, none of them to general satisfaction. Or that the third piece, an erotic upgrading of one Alison in language which verges on liturgical, generates echoes of subsequent beloveds whose allure is set forth in terms of divine purity. Those who smile at the attribution of such sophisticated programming to the old-fashioned Q ought to consider his comment that "the anthologist's is not quite the dilettante business for which it is too often and ignorantly derided."

From such beginnings Q's anthology presents a poetry evolving by a dialectical process of opposition and reconciliation of fundamental cultural polarities: Christian denial of the world against pagan celebration of nature, aristocratic elegance against homely virtue, and sensual gorgeousness against rational austerity, to mention only a few. If this torrent of verse flows within the banks of a limited taste, it also proceeds with almost unremitting excellence until well into the nineteenth century , when it falters badly. The last two hundred and fifty pages are a disaster. Not all the poetry there is bad, and some which is has an excuse: we may tolerate, for instance, encountering lines like "Riches I hold in light esteem, And Love I laugh to scorn," once we learn that they were written by Emily Bronte , and it must be admitted that some are poems, such as Cory's "Heraclitus," which we cherish exactly because they are bad, like some appalling lamp given us by Auntie twenty years ago which we have come to love not despite but because of its hideousness. But what we have here for the most part is a parade of inexcusably bad versifiers, such as Rands, Dobson, Kendall, and others whom (to paraphrase Seneca) if you had ever read, you would have been better off forgetting. The worst pieces, such as Blunt's, are so very bad that one is tempted to question not only the taste but the sanity of anyone who would take them seriously. Despite this deplorable ending, Q's version is still worth reading: one can, after all, simply ignore much of the last fifth of it, and supplement it with a serviceable anthology of more recent poetry.

Something of the sort was in fact done by Dame Helen Gardner in her New Oxford Book of English Verse in 1972. G (to continue the naming convention) stated that her edition is "not a revision of Q's revision but a new anthology," though she admits that "I have in many ways followed my predecessor's example." Both remarks are justified: G's one great poem, and the story and poet behind it, though recognizably the same as Q's, are reinterpreted from a different historical and critical perspective. The cultural polarities being worked out are largely as before, but a different balance is achieved. For instance, there is more churchgoing at the expense of dallying in the greenwood: it is significant that though G's opening triad shares with Q's the "Cuckoo Song" and "The Irish Dancer," G has substituted for the exquisitely passionate "Alison" the exquisitely chaste "In Praise of Mary." Individual readers may welcome this or not, but one can only approve most of the revisions G has made. Consider Donne, who in Q's selection and contexting seems a metaphysical curiosity, a poet who developed an eccentric, albeit interesting, version of Elizabethan lyric. G's Donne is revealed as one of the most vibrantly alive human beings who ever lived. But it is after Keats, the section of Q's book which as G remarks with diplomatic mildness "had always given least satisfaction," where G has done what Q should have done in 1939. Most of the clunky Victorian furniture has been hauled off to the Sally Ann (though G could not steel herself to throw out dear old Heraclitus, and that great enforcer of yawns Matthew Arnold is still droning on about his carefree Oxford days), and the nervous splendors of twentieth century verse are intelligently grafted onto tradition according to a program which clearly and properly divides them into the build-up to "The Waste Land", "The Waste Land", and the aftermath of "The Waste Land."

One of the magical characteristics of great poetry is that it can alter the earlier poetry which influenced it. No one who grew up reading "The Waste Land" will be able to rid Spenser or Shakespeare or Webster of the overtones which Eliot drew from them, and nobody who knows or cares anything about poetry would want to try. The greatest achievement of G's edition is to give us modernism not only as an extension of tradition but as the climax of it, and the impact of "The Waste Land" in G's setting is the prime example of this: the song of Eliot's nightingale arising from the frightening darkness of the urban wilderness, however tragic, is also consoling, since we realize we have been hearing it forever.

And yet the advantages of G's critical perspective have ominous implications exactly because it is a critic's perspective. In G, the balance between the critic as summarizer of taste and prescriptor of it has shifted in favor of the latter. We can see this for instance in G's determination to open up the anthology to "satiric, political, epistolary, and didactic verse," a decision which however justifiable surely is not based on any growing popularity of those forms among the public between 1939 and 1972. It is based instead on the fact that the search of scholars for new topics to write about which do not already bear a crushing weight of commentary has resulted in those genres becoming recognized English department specializations. Since academic politics requires that no one in the department be left out, it is necessary that representatives of all these genres be included in the poetic canon, and anthologies are the primary means of communicating this judgment to the public. We may see G's edition as standing at a crossroads, or perhaps a better metaphor would be a hilltop, a critical vantage point from which a broader and more judicious survey may be made than previously, but which is also farther removed from the ordinary social world.

With the publication of Christopher Ricks' 1999 edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, this national monument slides down the far side of the hill. Taken a few pages at a time, R's edition has many attractions. Scottish poetry, traditionally a poor cousin, has been given something like its proper prominence. The selections from Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, whether or not they theoretically belong there, sure sound good. Matthew Arnold has been kept to "Dover Beach" and a few other random stanzas; at this rate we may hope that by the edition of 2047 he will finally have been eased out the door. But taken as a whole -- as that one great poem -- we find that the anthologist's mission of portraying the sweep and blood of poetic tradition has been sacrificed to the department head's need not to hurt the feelings of anyone at the faculty meeting. It is not that the poems chosen are not worthwhile (though I for one could have done without Anthony Thwaite's tiresome poetry establishment in-joke of a poem consisting of all the names from Contemporary Poets, or Swinburne's really disgusting ode to foot fetishism and necrophilia, "The Leper"), it is that the necessity of satisfying all scholarly claimants leaves insufficient room for the actual poets who really count. Thus we find in R's selections the ancient roots of English song cut back almost to nothing, Donne demoted again to an eccentric intellectual rake who got religion at the end, Byron a writer of verse novels which must have seemed quite shocking in their day, a Yeats unstained by politics, and an Eliot who wrote one memorable poem about a sad case named Prufrock wandering about London, as well as a number of interesting experiments.

For R's omission of all but eight lines of "The Waste Land" is as emblematic of his failure as G's inclusion of it was of her success. Whatever scholars may think of R's decision, the ordinary non-academic reader of poetry will be numbed by it. I myself informed two members of this increasingly rare species that the new Oxford book had left out Eliot's masterpiece, and each of them responded: "It what?" But perhaps it is appropriate for a collection which does not even attempt to give us our one great poem to omit the single piece which is its most powerful episode for our time. The R edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse neither leads popular taste nor follows it; it is hermetically sealed from it, since in it that one great poet has become a professor. Its poems are not episodes but specimens; it is not really an anthology but a syllabus, and it gives us the great body of English poetry with its heart cut out.

[This article originally appeared in the British literary magazine Acumen.]

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