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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

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 in each case. There has been just as much published comment on Masefield and on Edith Sitwell as on Graves, apparently, but that does not rescue them from the small print. Mr. Willison would find it hard to convince me that Thomas deserves his major status, his place in that league, but I yield to the demonstration that many critics have thought his work sufficient to occupy their professional attention.

In fiction, the major novelists are Conrad, Wells, Bennett, Forster, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence, and Graham Greene. I suppose the odd man in is Greene, but this may be due to the fact that death has lent enchantment to the other names. Still, it’s odd that Ford has not found a place in the major list and is relegated to the small print with Galsworthy, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Orwell, J. C. Powys, and Evelyn Waugh. In drama, the only major figures are O’Casey and Beckett, with Beckett as an easy winner, judging by the amount of critical commentary on his work. There are no majors in Prose.

I wish I could debate the question of Major and Minor with Mr. Willison, but he has not said a word on the subject, he has done everything by sleight of print. Perhaps he has good reason for putting Bennett in the first division and leaving Ford to the aperture between Ronald Firbank and C. S. Forester, but I cannot imagine what the reason might be. Ford, “the stylist” in Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” has not established himself in the good graces of our generation, but surely he cannot have fallen so low in our estimate as to deserve the alphabetical company of Firbank and Forester, unless what our age demands is sheer abuse. Of course if Mr. Willison were to write a book of critical essays on various authors, assigning each to his just place in modern literature, the book would have to make its way on its merits; it might convince a million readers, or it might not.

But he does not need to write such a book. The NCBEL has far more rhetorical force, because of its institutional nature, than any critical work Mr. Willison might choose to write. It will stand on the shelves of libraries and bookshops with an air of majesty, making and breaking reputations with a Roman nod. Many students will assume that they have been convinced of its validity, when they have merely been edified by its size. I, like everyone else, will find the book always useful and often necessary, and this complicates the matter: it is churlish to use something and then say it ought to be different. But this is not the first occasion on which an institution has been simultaneously used and questioned. What troubles me about this particular institution is its silence: it has put all its force into action, probably the best bet in the long run, but meanwhile it offers no explanations, no arguments.

Anthologists, too, like to work in silence, unless they are polemicists by nature like Pound, who in the ABC of Reading tells you what it means to be perceptive and then prints passages to prove it. This, he is always saying, is the kind of thing to admire, and it makes a difference. But Pound was truculent, as an Oxford anthologist rarely is. He thought that if you sharpened your perception you could let your taste take care of itself. Helen Gardner has had a good deal to say about the business of criticism, but I do not think she has ever considered herself, like Pound, a prophet. So she presents her New Oxford Book of English Verse with great urbanity and little comment. We are to read between her choice poems, as between their lines.

Her book is a new anthology in the sense that it is not merely a revision of the famous OBEV, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s taste-book. But in some respects the differences between Dame Helen and Quiller-Couch are not so great as we might have expected. Q’s book was first published in 1900, and reprinted sixteen times until the new edition of 1939, which brought the chosen poems up to 1918.

In the preface to his first edition Q obviously thought of himself as addressing readers who wanted to be told, and preferably by a distinguished don, what to read, what to hold in their affection. The theme held in common by Q and his readers was Culture: those first readers were still close enough to the motifs of Arnold and Sidgwick to assume, however vaguely, that Culture was a fine thing and that it ought to be possessed. Quiller-Couch was their priest, his anthology their touchstone, and we are justified in thinking that they received the book in a spirit not utterly different from that in which their ancestors received the Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. In 1900 the air was calmer than in 1600, and as Yeats said of 1900, in that year everybody got down off his stilts, so there was opportunity for the exercise of good taste, the next best thing to religion. I take for granted, then, that there was a certain fellowship among Q’s first readers.

This explains why Q’s appeal to the Muse, in his introduction, is not affectation, as it would be today. The Muse was still acknowledged as the Spirit of Poetry, sister to the Spirit of Truth, and while learned men had lost their talent for conviction, Q’s readers probably satisfied themselves that a Cambridge scholar was in touch with the Muse and thoroughly receptive to her communications. Q thought of his book as a book of lyrics; poems should present the essence of experience rather than its mere particles. By 1939, all was changed, the new poets had gone sour, and Q was angry with them for “sneering at things long by catholic consent accounted beautiful.” So the last pages of the 1939 book now read like a don’s contribution to Britain’s war effort: if careless talk costs lives, as the British government insisted in the early days of the war, Q thought that one of his nobler purposes was to sustain British morale in a darkening time. He may well have been right: if you wanted to be sustained, consoled, or edified, you could hardly have done much better than shove Q’s book into your bag.

Dame Helen’s anthology starts from Q’s date, 1250, and brings the poetry up to 1950. It does not include American or Commonwealth poems, though it makes an exception in favor of Pound because he was “at the centre of the modern movement in England.” There is no appeal to the Muse or to her lyrical spirit; the NOBEV gives excerpts from long poems, “Hudibras,” “Absalom and Achitophel,” “The Deserted Village,” “The Prelude,” and “Mauberley.” There is also much greater recognition of satire, public poetry, familiar verse, and light verse. Invariably, where the same poems occur in both books, Dame Helen’s texts are much more accurate than Q’s; as in Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me,” Johnson’s “Short Song of Congratulation,” Clare’s “I Am,” and Goldsmith’s “When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly”; though Dame Helen has been rebuked for putting titles on some verses when there was no title in the original.

But the chief superiority of Dame Helen’s anthology to Q’s is in her selection from “Early Modern” poets. Q was not sound in that period. Dame Helen is much better on Browning, Hardy, Hopkins, and Yeats. Among the more recent poets her choices are elegant, but not remarkable, and often somewhat predictable: Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Graves’s “A Slice of Wedding Cake,” Edmund Blunden’s “Forefathers,” Empson’s “To an Old Lady” and “Missing Dates,” Auden’s “Lullaby,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Roy Fuller’s “Translation.” Pound, incidentally, having got into the anthology without a British passport, gets short shrift thereafter: he might have opted to stay outside among his countrymen.

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