Jon Corelis's Reviews > The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918

The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918 by Arthur Quiller-Couch
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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 pretense 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 of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language, the progenitor of Q (as Quiller-Couch's anthology has affectionately come to be known,) 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 review are 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 editors of the subsequent Oxford anthologies 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 its flaws, Q's version is still worth reading, and is in fact I would say an essential volume for anyone interested in the history of English poetry, because it incarnates the popular poetic taste of the past, because it does include a lot of great poetry, and even because it includes some amusingly or endearingly bad verse. Thus my four star rating. If you want only one or two standard poetry anthologies in your house, I'd suggest choosing among The Atlantic Book of British and American Poetry, The Harper Anthology of Poetry, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, and The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1950 (Oxford Books of Verse). But readers who have a special interest in the poetry of the past will be glad also to have a copy of Q on their shelves.
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message 1: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Great review. I usually find that chronological anthologies include many lesser piece when it gets closer to the present day. I'm reading another poetry anthology published in my country of Canada that, in an attempt to be politically correct, includes many lesser works by native Americans, Canadians, and females. The latter making up half of the entries. I think if a female native american born in Canada wrote a poem it was simply included regardless of its value. (nothing against those demographics!!!) I thought that it may be indicative of a new trend.

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