In praise of … The New Oxford Book of English Verse

Looking through my last couple of posts, I can’t help noticing that a curmudgeonly, mocking, and, indeed, belligerent tone has crept in. More than just “crept in”: anyone chancing on my blog for the first time and reading my latest posts would imagine the writer a dyspeptic and ill-tempered old grump, constantly displeased with all around him and spitting venom to one and all. Those who know me, of course, will testify that nothing can be further the truth; they would testify to my geniality, to my desire only to spread sunshine and happiness, and to my positively Pickwickian warmth and benevolence.

Or something like that.

So, before retiring for the night, I thought it would be a nice idea to put up a post about something I love. No shortage of that in that little room I call my library. And walking in, on the impossibly cluttered little coffee table in front of the sofa, I found my old battered copy of The New Oxford Book of English Verse, a much loved companion now for well over thirty years.

132I remember distinctly when I bought this book, and where: it was June 1977; I was 17, and had just completed the last examination of my first year physics undergraduate course. I was feeling rather pleased with myself, as the questions had come up much as I had expected, and I knew I had done well – well enough to be invited back with open arms to the second year of the course. That evening, the other students and I were to meet for a celebration, and, this being in Glasgow, much alcohol was to be consumed – my being distinctly underage being neither here nor there. But that afternoon, long before the first pint was downed, I went into Grants Bookshop (that used to be on Union Street to the east of Glasgow Central Station), and, to celebrate what I was sure would be my success, handed over five pounds and twenty-five pence – an awful lot of money those days, especially for a mere student – and bought myself The New Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Dame Helen Gardner.

Well – what better way is there of celebrating?

I had studied a few poems at school, of course: Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”, Burns’ wonderful satirical hatchet job “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, a very passionate poem by Dylan Thomas called “Especially When the October Wind”, and a few others. But I was not really a poetry reader: apart from a few odd examples gleaned in the English class at school, I did not really know English poetry – I had little idea of the course it had taken, and how it had developed over the centuries. Whatever perception I now have of English poetry has been largely shaped by this book.

The anthology stops at 1950 – or, rather, as Dame Helen says in the introduction, “it includes no poet who had not established himself by 1950”. This seems fairly reasonable, given that this anthology was first published in 1972. And the choice seems to me as good as can be wished for. There are inevitable omissions, of course: at the time, I regretted the omission of “Holy “Willie’s Prayer”, which had so impressed me at school; nowadays, the most notable omission seems to me Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”. But no anthology can have everything. Here were some of the greatest landmarks of English verse – Shakespeare’s sonnets, the finest of the Border ballads, the love poetry and the religious poetry of Donne, the great odes of Keats, the Metaphysical Poets, Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems and a superb selection from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, a generous selection of Gerard Manley Hopkins (including the entire “The Wreck of the Deutschland”), the early Romantic poems of Yeats shading into his own individual brand of modernism, and so on. There was also a wealth so lesser-known poems by lesser-known poets, but which deserved nonetheless to be set before the discerning reader. The entire poetic genius of the British Isles (for, as the introduction makes clear, Dame Helen had no intention, despite the title, of restricting herself merely to poets of England) seemed distilled into a single volume. Here were riches untold. Even now, I find, that the works I am most familiar with even by such major poets as, say, Marvell or Herbert or Hardy, are the ones included in this anthology.

How I remember in the years that followed thrilling to these poems, or puzzling over them, trying to understand! How well I remember being utterly bewildered by “The Waste Land”! Bewildered – yet fascinated; or, as that line from the excerpt from Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” puts it, “dizzy, lost, yet unbewailing”:

Lamp of Earth! where’er thou movest
Its dim shapes are clad with brightness,
And the souls of whom thou lovest
Walk upon the winds with lightness,
Till they fail, as I am failing,
Dizzy, lost, yet unbewailing!

I still have that copy from all those years ago, and, battered though it now is, I wouldn’t change it for a newer one. Since my student days, a newer edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse has been published, this time edited by Sir Christopher Ricks; but, fine though that no doubt is, it won’t displace Dame Helen’s edition from my affections: call it nostalgia if you like. And I am delighted to see that Ricks’ newer edition has not displaced Gardners’ older one – any more than Gardners’ edition has displaced the previous edition edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: all three are currently available, and I am sure there are those of an older generation who are as sentimentally attached to Sir Arthur’s edition as I am to Dame Helen’s.

There are other fine anthologies also now available. Oxford also publish the three-volume Treasury of English Verse, edited by John Wain; and Penguin have published the excellent New Penguin Book of English Verse edited by Paul Keegan: it is a larger and more extensive selection than any of the Oxford volumes (apart from Wain’s three volume set), and, intriguingly, groups the poems by year of publication rather than by poet, thus throwing up the most unexpected juxtapositions. These anthologies are all fine for different reasons, but if I had to choose just one, I think I know which one I’d go for: sentiment is a fine thing!

Well, it’s getting late now, and I’d best retire for the night. And I think I know which book I will be taking up to bed with me!

Good night, all!

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Since I have a couple of other fat English poetry anthologies, I’ve never bothered to pick up the Oxford book. But the older I get and the more I read, the more I see it praised everywhere (last year, for example, in reading of Patrick Leigh Fermor and William Moss’ daring WWII kidnapping of the Nazi commander of Crete, where despite the dangerous mission, they’d hauled along as company a remarkable number of books, including this one). I may well try to track down a copy today.

    Reply

    • I’d guess Patrick Leigh-Fermor would have been praising the first edition, edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch. It’s the second edition, edited by Helen gardner, that i find myself sentimentally attached to; and there is, as I said, a third edition also, edited by Christopher Ricks, which I’m sure is very fine also.

      But if you are looking for a good anthology, the one by paul Keegan is a very fine one also. But as I say, sentimental attachment is a powerful factor in these matters!

      Reply

  2. Lovely post again, Himadri. I’d certainly like to see more posts on poetry on your blog, even if they receive fewer replies. I enjoyed your piece on Yeats’s late collection, and was very interested in your first pass at Dante. That you didn’t gallop on to the Purgatorio I think I understand – like too much heavy liqueur all in one sitting. I still have the Paradiso to read after reading the Purgatorio a couple of years ago.

    I have the Oxford anthologies for each century of English Poetry now, from Celia Sisam’s Book of Medieval Verse to Larkin’s 20th Century selection, and they make up a sort of super-anthology on the shelf. But my sentimental book is GB Harrison’s A Book of English Poetry, which I bought when I was 17. It’s a Penguin, and so the cover image of a Turner painting is integral to my sense of the book, as are all the Penguins from that period. Sentimental attachment is so strange and seemingly frivolous, yet essential, I think!

    Reply

    • Thanks very much for that, Chris. I would love to write more about poetry, but I am frankly not too sure how bes tto write about it. Frequently, poetry affects me in the same way as music does. Perhaps the only way to speak about poetry is to carry out a technical analysis of sounds, metres, etc., and I am not sure I can do that sort of thing adequately.

      In that post on Yeats’ collection “The Tower and Other Poems”, I possibly bit off a bit more than I could chew, in that I tackled an entire collection full of extremely complex poems. Perhaps I shopuld be a little less ambitious in future, and try to write about one poem at a time. I need of course to develop a way of writing about poetry that I am happy with, but maybe that could come with time. I’d certainly like to write more about poetry. Next year, I am planning to spend a lot of time with Chaucer – in the original (I have only read so far Neville Coghill’s modernised version of The Canterbury Tales), so hopefully that will give me an opportunity.

      On Dante, I was too painfully aware when reading the Inferno that I wasn’t getting enough out of this. Of course, even the best translation of verse can only be a pale shadow of the original, since so much of the effect of poetry depends on the sound of the words; but even given that, and given also my relative unfamiliarity with Medieval Italy, and with theology; too much seemed to me to be passing me by. It’s one of those works you really need to spend a lifetime immersing yourself in. However, I do plan to read the other two parts of it, if only to have some understanding of what they contain.

      And yes, I remember the anthology you mention edited by GB Harrison. For those of us who have been collecting books over many years, our entire life is reflected by the library we have accumulated. I have many old and tattered paperbacks that I wouldn’t exchange for new, pristine copies. It is irrational, I know, to be so sentimentally attached to what are after all mere objects, but there are times when we should embrace our irrational natures, and not worry about it.

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

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