The Oxford Book of Light Verse
IN The Poet’s Tongue, an independent, diverting, exciting anthology, published in 1935 with as confusing an index as ever man or poet, devised, Mr. Auden (in collaboration) declared himself a charming Greek gatherer of flowers. Somewhere in the preface to it Mr. Auden said: ‘In compiling an anthology . . . one must overcome the prejudice that poetry is uplift and show that poetry dan appeal to every level of consciousness. We do not want to read “great” poetry all the time.’ Quite so. Neither do we want to read hymns in a book of ballads or ballads in an anthology of limericks. I am referring now to Mr. Auden’s latest solo anthology, The Oxford Book of Light Verse.
Many American critics in their collective welcome to the vivid group of young Britons who are putting new life into poetry have praised The Oxford Book of Light Verse in the same terms with which they praised The Poet’s Tongue. I fail to see why. Mr. Auden is still able (if I may mix the metaphor) to pull odd bedfellows out of the hat, and most of the verse he has chosen is in itself good, or at least interesting. The correct percentage is unfamiliar. But what of that, when the better part of it is not light verse, for all his tautological preface? I am glad indeed to own this book as an unusual anthology; but I submit that under its present title it has no place in the traditional Oxford series. Mr. Auden has elected to use the word ‘light’ in a special, serious sense; and he proceeds to take more liberties with it than Merrill Moore or Jesse Stuart (let us say) take with the traditional sonnet form. What is the gain? Light verse is the accepted English equivalent for vers de société. But to use ’light verse, or any accepted categorical title, for some esoteric end is little short of silly.
Imagine a modern light-verse anthology with no A. P. Herbert in it! Well, that is Mr. Auden’s idea: no Herbert, no Locker-Lampson, Dobson, Lang, Seaman, Squire, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Guy Wetmore Carryl, Ogden Nash, E. B. White, Louis Untermeyer, or Morris Bishop, for a beginning. There is one verse from Calverley, a trinity from Carroll, and one from Gilbert-three of the greatest masters ot the art. Edward Lear alone is almost adequately represented. On the other hand, we have the ’light verse of Chaucer, Spenser, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Landor, Melville, Hardy, Housman, D. H. Lawrence, and Yeats, omitting Beowulf and Milton. Housman can be light, as we understand it, and Hardy’s ‘Liddell and Scott’ will pass the test; but it is difficult for some of us to welcome ‘The Milleres dale and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue’ to this airy company, or the laughter of that jolly fellow, William Wordsworth (‘The Reverie of Poor Susan,’no less).
At his own game, under his own flag, out of his enviably wide reading, why has Mr. Auden omitted Drummond, Service, the excellent Australian C. J. Dennis, something of Frost, the nonsense of Carl Sandburg, T. S. Eliot, or himself? The one choice from Vachel Lindsay is not the right one. He has done well by us with William Blake, but the reader will find no such triviality in The Poet’s Tongue as in the present couplet (possibly from Iceland):—
Up in the North, a long way off, The donkey’s got the whooping-cough.Anon
That is anonymity in a dimity.
Mr. Auden has filtered out some of our own songs of the West and South, but the choices frequently lack both judgment and authority. ‘Frankie and Johnny,’ according to the jacket, was collected orally. Had it been collected from Sandburg’s American Songbag it would be found to read ‘but he done her wrong,’ not ‘but he did her wrong.’
All of which suggests that his mistitled book is not without interest; but in failing to supplement the 1910 Oxford publication of A Poole of Light Verse, edited nearer the mark (though Milton is in it) by R. M. Leonard, or to displace the Modern Library’s modern attempt, Mr. Auden has left undone what I hope Mr. Herbert of all people will one day see fit to do.