Darling, They’re Quoting Our Poem

The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature: Volume 4, 1900-1950

edited by I.R. Willison
Cambridge University Press, 1,414 pp., $49.50

The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1950

chosen and edited by Helen Gardner
Oxford University Press, 974 pp., $10.00

Edith Sitwell
Edith Sitwell; drawing by David Levine

I want to consider the process by which poems, plays, and fictions, written presumably according to unofficial precepts, become, in a few supremely blessed instances, “Literature”; that is, endorsed as the standard tropes of a period, an age. Or, to put it more specifically, the process by which some few of the thousands of poems in print find themselves authenticated, invited to appear in anthologies. By what bells have these authors, these poems, been summoned?

Kingsley Amis has a poem, “A Bookshop Idyll,” in which he writes of approaching the shelf called POETRY, between GARDENING and COOKERY, and picking out a slim anthology beside the Nonesuch Donne. Well, that shelf will have to make room for two more anthologies, not at all slim, which because of their Oxonian status are likely to displace several hopeful volumes by current poets and squeeze the Nonesuch Donne into a tighter corner. Mr. Willison’s bibliography will be found on the more stringent shelf called BOOKS OF REFERENCE, where its authoritative air will be sensed by the qualified student.

The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature started its career in 1969 with Volume 3. Volume 2 followed in 1971, Volume 4 in late 1972. The first volume has not yet appeared; nor has the last, Volume 5, the index to the four. Volume 4 deals with the years 1900-1950, selecting also from the critiques of that period which were published up to 1969. Volume 3 had already preempted Yeats, Shaw, and Synge, so they are out of bounds to Mr. Willison, who must confine his survey of Irish authors to those who established themselves after 1916. “English” in his title means “The British Isles,” whether the Celts like it or not.

The scope of the work is most impressive, and the concept of literature is extended to include not only printed books but the equally indigenous art by which writers communicate in TV, radio, and film. Mr. Willison does not offer a full account of these matters, but he points in useful directions. His main emphasis is still on the standard genres, however—poetry, fiction, and drama. The category called Prose draws upon critics, historians, philosophers, theologians, travelers, with an implication that the chosen writers answer to a literary interest as well as to the interest of their professional occasions.

The most influential factor in Mr. Willison’s book, however, is likely to be the size of the print; or rather, the denomination of major authors in separate sections, certified by block capitals, while the minor authors are squeezed by tiny lettering into an order merely alphabetical. In poetry, the majors are Eliot, Graves, Auden, and Dylan Thomas, but we must remember that Yeats is in another volume and Pound is excluded as an American. The critical judgment that named the four majors is not expounded: it is not even supported by the amount of critical material cited…

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