The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse
When T.S. Eliot found himself with, for whatever reason, time to kill—waiting for a train, for example—it was his habit to repeat to himself, as far as his memory allowed him to reconstruct them, certain favorite poems. It was a very miscellaneous list, this private anthology of Elliot’s. It included, for example, “Danny Deever,” the best probably of Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads, but as Eliot has acknowledged in his prefatory essay to his selection from Kipling’s verse nothing Kipling wrote was quite poetry in the ordinary sense of the word. John Davidson’s “Thirty Bob a Week” was an even more unexpected item to find Eliot reconstructing in a station waitingroom. It is quite a long poem with few striking phrases and the order in which the stanzas occur is—or seems to be—decidedly haphazard. Campion’s “Rose-cheeked Laura, come” was another of Eliot’s time-killers. Its unusual combination of trochees and spondees had been used by Campion to demonstrate one of the ways a classical meter could be used accentually in English; no doubt the challenge it presented to Eliot’s prosodic interests made it worth his retaining or recovering, though it has also, of course, a genuine if minimal lyric quality.
Kingsley Amis’s anthology of light verse in English, in addition to providing several hours of good bedside reading, enables those of us whose memories are less good than Eliot’s was to recover immediately and painlessly the sub-poetry of which fragments have had a way of sticking in our minds, when all we can remember of Paradise Lost is perhaps the first line. Was it the “reeling English drunkard who made the rolling English road”? No, as Amis correctly prints Chesterton’s poem in this entertaining selection, that line has “rolling” twice, and “reeling” only comes into the next line:
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire.
However we define this anomalous object the verse that is light (not heavy? not serious?)—a problem that Amis has a go at in his enjoyable and irreverent introduction—one thing sticks out a mile: it must be memorable. There must be mnemonic aids. Light verse must rhyme; it must scan—even when written out as prose (Gilbert made the typographical change in the Iolanthe nightmare while maintaining both rhyme and meter); it helps if it also alliterates. The Greeks made the Muses the daughters of Mnemosyne (Memory); that baggage Light Verse wasn’t included—not however because she is often improper but because rhyme has no part in Greek metrics. As “poetry,” the sublime stuff, composed in the English language becomes increasingly read—often demanding an immediate rereading or two—on the printed page, light verse becomes by its demand for rhyme and a strict scansion the last link between the spoken word and poetry. There is a certain irony in that image of Eliot waiting for his train. The great poet whom it is difficult to remember except in isolated phrases—apart from the early quatrains—was able to reconstruct “Thirty Bob a Week” and similar pieces of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.