There are several glaring omissions, but otherwise The Oxford Book of Satirical Verse is one of the best anthologies by the best modern anthologist. Geoffrey Grigson has always had a way of picking plums. His famous anthology of the Thirties, New Verse, remains a good introduction to the póetry of that time. He has continued making anthologies ever since. Some of them are anthologies of prose, others are chrestomathies of everything interesting from a given period, but they are all useful. A good anthology gives the reader the sense that he has stumbled on new outcrops of high-grade ore, even in poets whose work he thought he knew. The latest of Grigson’s efforts fulfills that condition pretty well.
The selection runs from Skelton all the way through to, well, me. It could have stopped a bit earlier but I won’t pretend to be disappointed it didn’t. It might have started, however, a lot earlier. There are plenty of satirical passages in Chaucer and anyway it is important to include him for technical reasons, since he, to all intents and purposes, invented the couplet, which provides the formal spine of satire in English even when it is elaborated into other measures.
In his short preface, Grigson doesn’t waste much time on trying to define satire but he does say that it postulates an ideal of human conduct which it then finds wanting, and takes delight in doing so. He points out that the delight is taken by technical means—rhythm, vocabulary, rhyme, surprise. He might also have pointed out that the form is the embodiment of the ideal: the more the poet can show us proportion, balance, and harmony in his form, the more effectively he can use it to say that the world has gone awry. The contrast between the symmetry of the vehicle and its forensic verve marks out the best satire for what it is. There are such things as formless satirical poems—this book includes a few—but they are almost invariably of the second rank. The license to speak allowed by its own strict form gives satire the wide intellectual range which permits it to claim the title of embodying the intelligence of English poetry, just as lyric poetry embodies the emotion. The wide intellectual range was staked out by Chaucer, so it is a pity he is not here.
Enough of the quibbles: here comes the parade. John Skelton is only the first of many to be very satirical about the Scots, who were to remain anybody’s meat until Culloden, after which it took bad taste to continue the joke.
O ye wretched Scots,
Ye puant pisspots,
It shall be your lots
To be knit up with knots
Of halters and ropes
About your traitors’ throats.
“Puant” meant smelly. Skelton is usually put forward as a model of economy but really he is full of wind: those two-beat lines give the illusion of speed but it takes time to get…
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