W. H. Auden’s Book of Light Verse
The New York Review of Books
When a poet presents an outline of the history of literature, he generally describes a tradition of many centuries that culminates in his own poems. W.B. Yeats found the high points of English verse and prose in the Irish Protestant writers he claimed as his literary ancestors, Bishop Berkeley and Jonathan Swift, and in visionaries such as William Blake. T.S. Eliot persuaded many of his contemporaries that the central line of descent in the history of English poetry extended from the school of John Donne to Eliot himself; Milton and the Romantics were mere offshoots, and Shakespeare’s primacy was slightly doubtful. W.H. Auden compiled The Oxford Book of Light Verse in 1937 partly to provide an entertaining textbook of literary history that emphasized a tradition that could be traced back from his own poems through the work of Byron, Pope, and Chaucer, with contributions from dozens of poets known only as “Anon.,” derived not only from books but also from oral tradition, broadsides, and tombstones, a tradition that comprised ballads, limericks, nonsense verse, sea chanties, barroom songs, nursery rhymes, epigrams, spirituals, and the songs sung by soldiers, laborers, criminals, and tramps.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the Oxford books of verse enjoyed greater prestige and authority than any other series of anthologies, although they had the slightly stuffy air of monuments left over from an earlier generation. The series began with Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse, first published in 1900, which the compiler unhesitatingly described as a collection of the “best” English verse from the thirteenth through the nineteenth century. Quiller-Couch was both a prolific popular writer and a successful academic whose work was later rewarded with a knighthood. He also produced an Oxford Book of Ballads and an Oxford Book of Victorian Verse. By the mid-1930s other equally distinguished senior academics had prepared Oxford books of English mystical verse, and of sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century verse. In 1936 an Oxford Book of Modern Verse appeared, edited by the elder statesman of poetry in English, W.B. Yeats, whose capricious selections favored the poetry of his late-Victorian youth, and who rewrote some of the contents on the grounds that he was a better poet than the original authors. The book’s publication under the Oxford imprimatur caused a minor literary scandal that would not have occurred had Yeats compiled it for a less dignified and less authoritative press.
When Auden proposed an Oxford book of light verse the following year, he was, at the age of thirty, the most admired poet of his generation, and he had written precociously learned essays on poetry, psychology, and politics, but Oxford dons remembered that they had given him only a third-class degree in 1928, and conservative reviewers mistrusted him as a left-wing firebrand without respect for established authority. His most recent publication was Spain, a pamphlet poem in stark red wrappers about the Spanish civil war; and his light-hearted, gossipy Letters from …