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 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.

I said “predictable,” and reading this section of the book I was often inclined to feel that poems get into anthologies by being already in other anthologies, as if anthologists were nodding to one another across the High Table. Being in one anthology, such poems cannot be left out of the next, apparently, so they acquire canonical status in the community. If it’s MacNeice, it must be “Snow.”

I am not going to complain, however, that Dame Helen has put in poem X and left out poem Y; mainly because I have been warned by coming across a passage in Pound’s recently issued Selected Prose 1909-1965 where, spiking the guns of those readers who said his lists were capricious, he confessed: “I have catalogued the towns in Dorset without mentioning Durham: I have listed the cities in England and Scotland and omitted Berwick-on-Tweed.” If Oxford wanted caprice or truculence in its editor, Dame Helen would not have been invited to do the job. Presumably the publisher wanted a distinguished scholar to look again at the range of English verse and bring together its choice instances, as they now appear, mindful of the modern sense of poetry and the changing taste which now rates Donne higher than Herrick, a taste not shared by Q.

But there is not so great a difference, in the event, as I had expected; perhaps taste changes more slowly than I had thought. Or, another possibility, perhaps Dame Helen has restricted herself to certain governing conventions which, because of their urbanity, have the effect of reducing differences. Those conventions seem to be present in the mind of an anthologist who expresses the hope “that some who regret the absence of old favourites will discover new loves, and be stimulated to explore further some poets with whom they are not familiar.” It is an affable idiom, I like it as I like the old graces, but it is closer to Q’s speech than I had expected it to be.

True, the book ends in 1950, and Dame Helen’s taste is largely defined by her reception of Eliot’s poems and the poems of the age of Donne. The sense of poetry which the anthology registers is very much in the spirit of the 1950s, when modern poetry was still an institutionally accepted excitement. Modern poetry in English meant Eliot, Pound, the middle Yeats, and it sustained itself mainly on Eliot’s pre-occupations. Those days are past. If there is a dominant sense of what constitutes poetry in the present years, it has eluded me, and I have not grasped it in Dame Helen’s anthology. We have coteries, pressure groups, allegiances held with the ferocity possible only to minorities, but it is hard to locate a generally endorsed sense of poetry as embodied in certain contemporary poems; poems that we agree to hold in our minds as we agree to hold, say, Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence” or, to take a modern example, Ransom’s “The Equilibrists.” There are poems, but there is no Poetry.

If this is the case, then have we any reason to think that there are thousands of readers waiting to be told by Dame Helen, as their grandparents waited to be told by Q, what to admire? Perhaps this anthology will be treasured by readers who first caught the excitement of poetry twenty years ago, and now want to be reminded how heavenly it was to be young when Poetry knew itself. But a really contemporary anthologist would probably have to be egotistical and outrageous if he were to speak to our peculiar time, and his authority would be entirely personal. Dame Helen’s anthology will not anger anyone, but I have a feeling that it will be well received, possibly by a large readership, as Oxford’s latest address to Middle England.

Philip Larkin has had a different problem with his Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse, though where Dame Helen had Quiller-Couch to reckon with, Mr. Larkin has only Yeats. Yeats’s Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935 was always a rum affair, and so eccentric that Mr. Larkin could virtually ignore it. It might just as well have been called I Had Such Friends, because Yeats thought of modern verse as the work of his friends and congenial elders, a companion to “The Tragic Generation.” So he gave as the first item in his book Pater’s famous sentence about the Mona Lisa (“She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times…”), laid out on the page as if it were verse. Thereafter, the book became a long weekend party, as if at Coole Park: George Russell, Blunt, Colum, Dowson, Drinkwater, Gogarty, Lady Gregory, Henley, F. R. Higgins, Lionel Johnson, Joyce (stretching friendship a little), Masefield, Sturge Moore, Frank O’Connor, Pound, York Powell, Rhys, Rolleston, Margot Ruddock (Yeats’s crazed, sweet dancer), James Stephens, Symons, Synge, Tagore, Dorothy Wellesley, Wilde.

The anthologist seems to have looked elsewhere only when he had already given his friends their places; the poets he could not number as friends he could barely read as poets. He was tone deaf to Hopkins, Eliot, even to Pound, whom he liked without understanding. As an impression of poetry 1892-1935, the book is a great man’s folly, though I am pleased to hear that the publisher intends to keep it in print as a Yeatsian item rather than as a standard book of modern verse. It is best read in association with Yeats’s Autobiographies and Memoirs. In any other critical or historical setting, it is invariably askew, so Mr. Larkin has not been impeded by it.

But I am not sure that Mr. Larkin’s anthology will not appear an odd thing in a few years’ time. He has not confined the book to his friends, unless he has an enormous number of friends; 206, to be exact. Reading 206 poets, I think continually of those who are truly great and resent a little the fact that they are huddled among so many minor fellows. Of course they shine in that company, but they would have shone anyway, and more brightly if they had been allowed enough sky in which to appear. Surely there cannot be 206 poets worth anthologizing for the years 1900 to 1965, if America and the Commonwealth are excluded. Mr. Larkin says that he originally intended to “let the century choose the poets while I chose the poems; but outside two or three dozen names this did not really work.” If poets come cheaper by the dozen, I suppose the intention could not be fulfilled. “In the end,” Mr. Larkin says, “I found that my material fell into three groups: poems representing aspects of the talents of poets judged either by the age or by myself to be worthy of inclusion, poems judged by me to be worthy of inclusion without reference to their authors, and poems judged by me to carry with them something of the century in which they were written.”

I am not sure that he was wise to ask the age its opinion, or that he should have acted upon it so considerately. He has put in a little of nearly everything, and of nearly everybody, lest a reader miss something and mourn its absence. Presumably the age told Mr. Larkin to include Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “Under Ben Bulben,” though a more stringent anthologist would have omitted both. But Mr. Larkin does not indicate which messages he received from the age, and which from his own judgment. He is a generous, accommodating man, kind to everyone, and reluctant to impose his will upon anyone but himself: hence the tone of his own poems, and of this book.

But I wonder, nevertheless. One of Mr. Larkin’s poems, “Toads,” here anthologized, speaks of his life as intimidated by a toad called “work.” The first stanzas toy with the notion of shaking it off, going native and easy, living on his wits. As the stanzas follow one another, the fancy becomes more engaging, and the poet thinks it might just be possible to shout at his work, his job, his university: “Stuff your pension!” But he knows he can’t, because “something sufficiently toad-like / Squats in me, too,” forbidding him to blarney his way out of responsibilities. The poem ends, looking at the two toads:

I don’t say, one bodies the other One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either, When you have both.

I am not sure which toad has dominated this Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse. I wonder did Mr. Larkin ever feel the urge, when he was working on the anthology as a Visiting Fellow of All Souls, to shout at Oxford University Press: “Stuff your anthology, your institutional status, your royalties, your majesty!” If he did, and if he had yielded, the anthology would have remained in his hands, but it would have been a different selection, quirky, reckless, nonchalant. But Mr. Larkin is not that kind of man, as the poet of “Toads” knows. So he attended, I fancy, to the other toad squatting on his mind, telling him to get on with the job, take counsel from the age, include poems if their inclusion was expected, and be content with the felicity of being for the moment a visitor to Oxford.

The resultant book has many good things, excellent poems, but the latitude of its hospitality I find somewhat oppressive. If Mr. Larkin had left out X’s poem, then he could have given more space to Geoffrey Hill, one of the two or three best poets in England, by my reckoning. Mr. Hill is not adequately represented by one poem, “In Memory of Jane Fraser”; I want a lot more than that, several pages from his Mercian Hymns. Some poets are nicely represented by one poem, like Philip Hobsbaum’s “A Lesson in Love” (“Truth lies between your legs, and so do I.”) Jenny Joseph is new to me, and a bit lightweight if her one poem, “Warning,” is indicative. Derek Walcott shines, as he always does, whatever the company. And Rosemary Tonks looks to have the right stamina, on the strength of her “Farewell to Kurdistan.” But there are, from other poets, many poems which I find myself ready to take or leave, and my finger’s movement to the next page is in those cases quick and insistent.

Two or three points may be worth making. The first is that many of the recent poems in Mr. Larkin’s anthology sound like his own, or like poems he would have been willing and ready to write, given time. The glib answer is that a poet naturally likes the kind of poetry he himself writes. In Mr. Larkin’s case, poetry depends less upon the tentacular roots of words than upon the changing reflections of mood and attitude upon a continuous language, the play of feeling upon visible surfaces. So this anthology begins to define itself as made under the sign of Hardy, rather than of Eliot or Pound: Hardy is the crucial figure, mediated through Mr. Larkin’s own poems. The effect is that “Prufrock,” “The Waste Land,” and “Little Gidding,” which are given in the anthology, appear to be located now a little on the margin of modern verse, as if they were translations from the French. Hardy is England. Eliot’s cadences still fill the ear, as Brian Patten’s poems show, the most recent poet anthologized by Mr. Larkin:

And after this quick bash in the dark
You will rise and go
Thinking of how empty you have grown
And of whether all the evening’s care in front of mirrors
And the younger boys disowned
Led simply to this.
(from “Portrait of a Young Girl Raped at a Suburban Party”)

But Mr. Patten reverts to the Hardy-Larkin norm in his “Ode on Celestial Music,” the last poem in the book.

The second point is: What has happened to the famous obscurity of modern poetry, and to Eliot’s argument that poetry has to be difficult now because life is? Very few of the poems in Mr. Larkin’s anthology are difficult. Readers will not have to spend much energy nagging the verses into lucidity, discovering how the poems work, what goes with what, or where the main verb is. The modern revolution has either been assimilated to an even stronger flow of feeling, called orthodoxy or norm, or else it never happened. I recall an essay of John Crowe Ransom’s, several years ago, in which he maintained that there is going to be a much higher degree of continuity than we had thought obtaining between the old poetry and the new. But he, too, had Hardy in his blood, and he never quite reconciled himself to the naming of our age as the Age of Eliot. I think Mr. Larkin’s book is extremely interesting, but misleading. I cannot get rid of the impression that there was a revolution in poetry, that it was directed mainly by Eliot and Pound, and that we are premature in supposing that it may now be quietly forgotten.

Finally there is the question of readership. Who now will buy and read these anthologies? Will the young in one another’s arms take time out from their preoccupations to recite a few of these official poems? I doubt it. They are more likely to go out and see the latest film, and good luck to them. Perhaps the reading of anthologies is a middle-aged pleasure, like flicking through a photograph album, or “Darling, they’re playing our tune.”

This Issue

April 19, 1973