The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse
chosen and edited by Donald Davie
Oxford University Press, 320 pp., $24.95
The Poems of William Cowper
edited by John D. Baird, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press, Volume I: 1748-1782, 597 pp., $74.00
The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper
edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press, Volume II: 1782-1786, 652 pp., $98.00
The editor of an anthology of Christian verse has, at the outset, to decide what the book is for. Pious browsing? Testimony to the predominance of Christianity in our culture, whether religious or secular? Evidence that adherence to Christian doctrine is compatible with the production of poetry that still seems good? An anthology of religious poetry would, you might suppose, be quite a different matter. Yet Helen Gardner’s Faber Book of Religious Verse contains nothing that is manifestly outside the Christian tradition, unless one defines that tradition very rigorously. She includes Shelley, Hardy, Housman, and Yeats, but no Jewish poetry, to stray no further from the middle of the road than that. Dame Helen professes to distinguish between Christian and religious, but only to let in a few errant masters like those named above.
The lazy confidence of the English assumption that religious, give or take a few marginal cases, means effectively the same thing as Christian, has its amusing side, especially in these days when it is harder than ever to draw the line. A few years ago the American scholar Charles Anderson prevailed on me to abet him in his campaign to install a monument to Henry James in Westminster Abbey. The main task before us, apart from collecting the cash and commissioning the stone, was to persuade the dean and chapter of Westminster that they should give the enterprise their blessing. We were called upon to make our case with proper ceremony, and in due time waited on the dean with the most impressive group of senior establishment figures we could muster; I remember the late C.P. Snow (a lord) and V.S. Pritchett (a knight) and Iris Murdoch; there were others, all in their best clothes. The dean required an assurance that Henry James could properly be called a religious man. We gave it without reservation; if the question had been whether he was a Christian we should have sipped our sherry with less composure. We succeeded; James was installed with all due observances, and Professor Leon Edel preached a notable sermon to a very grand congregation. More recently, the fans of George Eliot have got her in too, though she was quite positively not Christian; and the two novelists now hobnob with Hopkins, Eliot, and Auden, who satisfy much more rigorous standards.
It is a safe guess that if Donald Davie had anything to do with it neither James nor George Eliot would be commemorated in a Christian church. You will look in vain for Shelley, Hardy, Housman, and Yeats in his sacred space. Yet there are obvious reasons why his anthology is enormously superior to its Faber rival. The first is that he is himself a fine poet and critic, admittedly with strong and idiosyncratic tastes, but never likely to call a bad poem a good one. The second is that he has been thinking hard about Christian poetry. In a way his anthology is a companion to his recent book of …