Poetry À La Mode

by Frank Kermode
THE NEW OXFORD BOOK OF ENGLISH VERSE
edited by Helen Gardner
Oxford University Press, $10.00
The original Oxford Book of English Verse came out in 1900, was revised by its editor, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in 1939, and has kept going to this day. The tradition might be represented as even longer than the three-quarters of a century claimed above; in the preface to his first edition Quiller-Couch acknowledged his debt to an earlier anthology: “Few of my contemporaries can erase—or would wish to erase— the dye their minds took from the late Mr. Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.” Since Palgrave made his selections on the advice of Tennyson, we can identify the dye as laureate crimson; The Oxford Book of English Verse was already, in a sense, archaic when it came out. Q was certainly not the kind of professor who revises his views to accommodate the new, and the 1939 edition makes only a few concessions to changing fashion. He added a hundred pages and updated the collection to 1918, but his heart wasn’t in it, and there is real bitterness in his comments on the poetry of his own later years. “It were profane to misdoubt the Nine as having forsaken these so long favoured islands,” he remarks, adding that in 1939 he is “at a loss what to do with a fashion of morose disparagement; of sneering at things long by catholic consent accounted beautiful; of scorning at ‘Man’s unconquerable mind’ and hanging up (without benefit of laundry) our common humanity as a rag on a clothes-line.”
Perhaps 1939 was the last possible date such prose could have been written, and by very old literary gentlemen still stunned by the wickedness of “The Waste Land.” It was the year of Yeats’s death, but “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” was as far as Q cared to go. As Dame Helen Gardner hints in her preface to the new edition, the 1939 revision of O.B.V. was a disaster, though it’s much easier to be confident about this in 1972 than in 1939.
The character of the difficulties Q faced in 1939 will help us to understand the magnitude, and I fear the hopelessness, of what Dame Helen has tried to do in 1972. What the old man undertook to revise was, in some perfectly real sense of the word, a classic; he had assembled in 1900 a body of verse which won cultural acceptance as in some way canonical. The well-read could argue about its balance, but the normal reader, who might accord to poetry a measure of respect or even love, but associated it primarily with all that was fine in bourgeois sentiment and piety, went on buying it for his children and his pupils. On both sides of the Atlantic the book appeared in so many different guises—morocco bindings, India paper, and many other such variations—that it clearly had acquired some of the status of the Bible, issued (by the same publisher) in just such a range of editions. It may therefore be said to have become a social symbol: it could lie around or stand on a shelf as an index of the owner’s participation in the culture. In due course it ousted Palgrave (though I was given The Golden Treasury, in leather, as a school prize in 1934) as the single volume associated in the public mind with English poetry—beautiful and true, all you know and all you need to know.
What made Q so doleful in 1939 was the sense that this state of affairs was coming to an end; as indeed it was, and precisely because the phase of culture which made it possible was nearly over. Almost anything written in the present century that he could bear to include in the new edition was bound to be very old-fashioned; as the rude young poet Auden might have put it, he had, in the age of the Bristol bomber, tastes appropriate to the age of the penny-farthing bicycle. The entire constitution of the poetry-reading public was changing fast, and the lower-middle-class public, which once assumed that virtue lay in the imitation of a better-educated and more polite class above it, was acquiring different habits. A smattering of poetry was no longer socially necessary. Meanwhile, a new public was adjusting itself to a new poetry, and the universities, using different methods in the United States and Great Britain, began to turn out readers who found in poetry strict but pleasing challenges, moral or intellectual, and had sophisticated ways of talking about it. Q’s book appeared before anybody taught English literature at Oxford or Cambridge; its public was unlearned, unsystematic. Nevertheless, simply by accepting that the poetry it needed was contained in those eight hundred or so pages, the book’s audience constituted a kind of unified literary culture which all the efforts of the universities have not replaced.
It was, no doubt, a culture of a humble, even tiresome kind. Some notion of its lower reaches—occupied by the newly literate, the products of compulsory education, trained largely by special newspapers such as Titbits to pick up the scraps that fell from the inaccessible table of literature—may be had from the “Nausicaa” episode of Joyce’s Ulysses. The date, only four years after the publication of O.B.V., is June 16, 1904: “The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace. Far in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on sea and strand. . . .” The sickening stew of poesy, facetiousness, clerks’ witticisms, novelettes, and girls’ weeklies, concocted by the abstemious Joyce, reminds us that he once claimed to have the mind of a grocer’s assistant. Into it he drops not only St. Bernard’s Litany of the Virgin but lines of poetry that had somehow peeled off the parent poems and sunk into the popular mind: “with all his faults she loved him still” or “golden opinions” or “more sinned against than sinning,” all worn smooth in Gertie’s dialect, like the Latin of the Tantum ergo: Tantumer gosa cramen tum.
Yet however extreme this debasement of literary culture, Gertie nevertheless belongs to such a culture; the tags from Macbeth or Lear drift down to her almost without meaning, yet her culture is continuous with that of the future King Edward VII Professor at Cambridge, QuillerCouch; and no one would dream of saying any such thing about the relationship of any comparable modern girl with Professor L. C. Knights, the present incumbent, who, as it happens, has written a good deal about such sad dissociations. Gertie’s literary tags have no meaning except as signs of a deplorable but large cultural class, and as the unconscious tribute of that class to notions of literary excellence imposed from above.
Q acknowledges, in his original preface, the advice of a large number of literary men; they include Bridges, Binyon, Kipling, Swinburne, Francis Thompson, and Yeats, and contrast sharply with the donnish consultants of Dame Helen. The poet and man of letters has retreated into the university, like his audience. We may not feel altogether badly about this if we consider some of Q’s other advisers, such as Frederick Locker-Lampson, whose own poem “At Her Window” Q gratefully included in his selection. Gertie would have loved it:
Beating Heart! we come again
Where my love reposes:
This is Mabel’s window-pane;
These are Mabel’s roses. . . .
Sing thy song, thou tranced thrush,
Pipe thy best, thy clearest; —
Hush, her lattice moves, O hush—
Dearest Mabel!—dearest. . . .
Even Q dropped this one from his revised edition, together with others, notably a truly incredible outburst by the Irish poet John Todhunter, another cinch for Gertie, though Yeats must have had his doubts; not that leaving Todhunter out made room for Yeats, but the times were changing.
To come at last to the new version; one may say with absolute confidence that Gertie has nothing at all in common with Dame Helen Gardner; and that you will look in vain in the new O.B.V. for farcically corrupted fragments of Eliot, comparable with the decayed Tennysonianisms of the old collection. Of course, chips from Eliot’s poems have never been used to stuff lowermiddle-class conversation either. Palgrave said he hoped his anthology would prove “a storehouse of delight to Labour and Poverty.” That function of poetry is now obsolete; the work is done instead by television advertising. If you take a London child to the Christmas pantomime nowadays you will find that he understands the jokes and you don’t, simply because he watches commercial television more than you; the dialogue is a continuous allusion to advertising gimmicks and slogans. So is normal supermarket conversation. Whether you prefer this is a matter of taste; but it’s worth remembering that the culture of the newly literate in the late nineteenth century might be represented not only by Gertie and Wells’s Mr. Polly (whose neologisms are a tribute to culture) but by D. H. Lawrence. Poetry was still something you might read without embarrassment, and without taking a course in it; it still had some place in the conversation of all the literate. Whether the admen in any sense supply its place I don’t know. What seems quite sure is that there is no longer an easily recognizable public for The Oxford Book of English Verse, and no generally acknowledged corpus of English poetry.
In spite of all this, Dame Helen has remade the book for a new public. In her preface she has a few words to say about changed taste, but this really means the taste inculcated in the universities. Dame Helen is a don, a scholar, as Q was not; she has edited Donne (a poet in whom Q was a little too old and a little too old-fashioned to be very interested) and Eliot, whose existence Q ignored. She offers the public a qualified version of the view of English poetry which on the whole prevails in the universities—qualified because the book is not intended for use there; because some poetry carries on into the new edition as if by inertia; and because she has quite rightly not thought that this is a proper occasion to stimulate controversy.
Some of her inclusions are due, I feel, rather to the constraints of the academic conscience than to any persuasion that there is a public which will respond: these are mostly seventeenthand twentieth-century poems. The editor’s dilemma is illustrated by her inclusion of “The Waste Land” entire, except for the notes. It has to be there, but how odd it looks in this context! Who will read it here, even first time? It simply doesn’t belong; it will never be canonical in the old sense; it is too self-conscious about tradition ever to find a place in the messy continuum of taste I’ve tried to describe; it is the work of a poet who actually announced that tradition was not something you could acquire passively—you must work for it. So with Yeats; it is necessary for Dame Helen, as it was impossible for Q, to include such poems as “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” which can never be the poetry of people who read it only in the Oxford Book.
Sometimes the changes introduced in conformity with standard modern taste have their own interest. For Q there was no sharp distinction between English and American poetry—he had Whitman (in a wretched selection) because Whitman was early domesticated in England, but he also had Whittier and Longfellow. Apart from Auden (an exception needing no excuse), Gardner includes only one American, Ezra Pound, though having made this endearing decision, she spoils it by including only three pieces: “The River-Merchant’s Wife,” a bit of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” and “What thou lovest well remains,” from the Pisan Cantos (she ignores Q’s ban on extracts). Her stated reason for leaving out the Americans is that she needs the space for the great English moderns, Hopkins, Hardy, Yeats, and Eliot; but of course it is also true that since Whitman (who might have been left in on the same grounds as Scottish poetry—“part of the cultural heritage of England”), American poetry isn’t susceptible to the kind of leveling that has to go on in such a book as this, and is for the most part unknown in England. Some American poets—say, Stevens, Williams, Lowell, Plath, Berryman, and Ginsberg—are extremely important to people who read poetry; but neither their names nor their poems have become household words.
The revaluation of styles and periods is also subject to conventional restraints. Gardner greatly increases Skelton’s share, and Fulke Greville’s. She puts in eighteen pages of Donne, against Q’s meager five poems, one of which, lifted from Palgrave, isn’t by Donne anyway. Although she rather surprisingly contents herself with the same single lyric of Chapman selected by Q and the same two poems by Quarles, she adds a whole batch of minor seventeenth-century poets ignored by Q—Samuel Butler, John Cleveland, and Aurelian Townshend, for example. She adds a beautiful poem to Davenant’s portion, doubles Herbert’s share, slightly enlarges Marvell’s, and allows bits of Paradise Lost, rather forlornly one feels, in the Milton section. Pope and Dryden benefit largely from the lifting of Arnold’s ban on them; and Romantic poetry is much better represented. So principle is upheld; but whether representation is the object of such a book is a question.
The major changes naturally occur late in the anthology. Q, as we have seen, was at his worst here; even his Browning selection is disgraceful. Gardner ruthlessly cuts down his favorites: Sydney Dobell, Beeching, William Watson, T. E. Brown, Henry Newbolt, W. D. Howells. James Thomson, who is the author of lyrical trifles in Q, is the author of “The City of Dreadful Night” in Gardner. John Davidson, who appears in Q as a nothing poet, a trifler, is now the author of the splendid “Thirty Bob a Week.” Q left out of his first edition certain contemporaries with evident claims on his space—Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Wilde, not to mention John Gray and Arthur Symons. Perhaps they were all too wicked; certainly they were very much advanced for Gertie.
Gardner is very brisk about all this. Just as she imports Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll into the Victorian pages, she also includes Chesterton and Belloc, as well as Housman, Johnson, and Wilde. Willing enough to be conventional (as when she includes anthology pieces by W. H. Davies, Ralph Hodgson, Walter de la Mare, and John Masefield), she can also surprise us, as when she adds to the obvious Binyon choice, “For the Fallen” (which, incidentally, did, between the wars, acquire a wide cultural spread as an Armistice poem), a beautiful and little-known work written during World War II and called “The Burning of the Leaves.” This, together with Edmund Blunden’s “Report on Experience” and the Davenant dialogue, strikes me as the best Gardner does toward matching Q’s great coup, the discovery of a sonnet by Mark Alexander Boyd which Ezra Pound later called the most beautiful in the language.
Dame Helen’s stars are Hardy, Yeats, and Eliot. She is a bit skimpy on Lawrence, and it might be said that Graves deserves more, perhaps at the expense of Edith Sitwell. She stops at 1950, doing well by Edwin Muir, William Empson, Louis MacNeice, Auden, Roy Fuller, and Dylan Thomas. American readers may be pleased and surprised by Stevie Smith’s poem:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning;
I was much farther out than you thought
And not waving but drowning—
But Miss Smith’s work is now quite widely known in Britain. She may travel as well as John Betjeman or the two poems of Henry Reed which “everybody” knows, and which are properly reprinted here.
It would be silly to argue long about choices, or even to dwell on a suspicion that the book is somehow a shade pious, a little light on erotic poetry. Dame Helen has done her work well. She knows a lot more than Q and has strong preferences, but she has seen the need, if the thing was to work at all, for sticking quite close to the only norm available, “the critical consensus,” as she herself calls it. She has not tried to avoid a family resemblance to Q’s collection, or even to Palgrave’s.
The question remains: who is going to read this book? Not students, not schoolboys, though I suppose they may still have it thrust into their hands. There is the huge array of poetry in paperback, for the truly interested; and there is no longer any need for those who aren’t to pretend. Will it console lonely ladies in London apartments, or provincial reading groups? They no longer exist, at any rate in the form such words conjure up. And modern Gerties feed their fantasies at the telly. I wouldn’t for a moment argue against the proposition that this is in most ascertainable ways a better job than Q’s; but that it can have a comparable place in our lives is surely quite impossible.