Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

How Ricks Redusts a Classic

cover The Oxford Book of English Verse
edited by Christopher Ricks. Oxford University Press, 2000. 690 pp. $39.95

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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.     Though no longer the signal event it once was in the English-speaking world, the appearance of a new Oxford Book of English Verse still raises a certain frisson among those disposed to view tradition as, at worst, a necessary evil rather than, at best, an evil necessity. A golden thread of continuity binds this edition of the famous anthology, edited by Christopher Ricks, with those of its predecessors, from Arthur Quiller-Couch, through W. B. Yeats, to Helen Gardner. It may be somewhat flimsier than in previous decades, but the links established with an ever more tenuous, because elitist, British past—some for the first time in this new millennial collection—by the present volume must be seen as welcome, even if less confidence abounds in their being as accessible when another 30 years have come and gone.
     Ricks’s editorial preface points to some innovations as regards the Oxford Book’s current policy of inclusion, among the more interesting of which involves what he calls "the dear daily kinds of verse: nursery rhymes (a loved glory of English culture), limericks, and clerihews." These, along with excerpts from long poems (what used to be dismissed as "bleeding chunks") and bringing together two versions of half a dozen poems, are in, but decidedly out are selections by precipitously contemporary poets and "those younger poets who are presently before the public eye and who stand in no need of reinstatement." Thus, the anthology’s table of contents trails off satisfyingly, if predictably, with Geoffrey Hill (1932- ) and Seamus Heaney (1939- )—both poets who continue to wax eloquent as our day of Panglossolalia underwritten by literature wanes. Will the newly ushered in millennium find poetry in things and places hitherto closed to books, or will the circumscriptive culture of texts and textuality stagger on, denuded of pith and pertinence, into a slick and spare gehenna of a future such as Arthur C. Clarke (in anticipation of an important anniversary) persists, late in 1999, in updating—one in which man-dissing virtualities casually hegemonize, while relegating impotent humanity to languish for ever in spacey choreographies culled from all the déclassé Strausses? Certainly the world typecast by Gutenberg has appeared of late less a living, breathing logos than a many-layered paperweight as proud of its density as it is heedless of a metastasizing moribundity that threatens to swallow it whole.
     All that to the contrary notwithstanding, Ricks harbors few doubts that poetry—or more specifically, English poetry—can and will survive in a media-driven age of Eltonic johns and mindlessly overcrowned Jewels without relinquishing its beleaguered humanity, if, and only if, it can stay in touch with that unique and indissoluble core of knowledge that only the greatest poetry, steeped in the sustaining judgments of its finest critical minds, can provide. For on his view, English verse without the empowering (as well as enabling) imprimaturs of the Drydens, the Jo(h)nsons, the Arnolds, and the Eliots is as lushly sterile as heavenless manna, as brokenly askew as febrile wit untethered and in its cups.
     The purpose in issuing a new Oxford Book is to finetune the image of British poetic culture—insistently flickering since the last finetuning of the controls by Helen Gardner in the late ‘60s—and register a recalibrating sense of where that culture is likely to go on the basis of where, and by the efforts of whom, it has managed so far to get. One empowerment any anthologist reads into his or her job description is the shrinking or enlarging of the space allotted to this or that "classic" English poet. Ricks surely departs from established precedent in assigning Housman, Kipling and Yeats no more than 5 or 6 pages each, and numerous other redistributions of clout abound in its pages. In the preface to her edition of the volume, Dame Helen took issue with Quiller-Couch’s indulgence of a letch for the Coleridgean sublime, "his bias towards the lyrical and the poem of joys and sorrows." Her own view of the canon, she was keen to establish, would balance "against poems of the private life poems that deal with public events, and historic occasions, or express convictions, religious, moral, or political." Christopher Ricks, an apparent contrarian wherever privatization by publicans rears its head, lines up with the reader against both peremptory subjectivity (asserted by romantic as well as modern poets on the basis of eminent domain) and chauvinistic posturing (dissimulated without regard to time by laureates—and not just English ones—with preferment on their minds). His editorial responsibility as he sees it is to shift the emphasis in poetry from conception to reception—which is to say, to return the reader, after what seems eons of romantic mooniness, to the full light of day, unencumbered by associations, whether of intense inanes or of shoreable ruins.
     One way of accomplishing this is to move to remove such barriers as those that have restricted female poets to merely token representation within the British literary pantheon. As a consequence, many—well, many more—women poets have made the honor roll than in past editions of the Oxford Book, not just those whose published works coincide with the agitating of literary feminists over the last several decades. While it seems hardly radical to lead off the parade of poetesses with Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621), some names Ricks saw fit to include will strike little flint of recognition among browsers of standard anthologies. Katherine Philips (1637-1674), Mary Leapor (1722-1746), and Jean Elliot (1727-1805), toseize upon three at random, are either the result of recondite barrel-bottom searches or remarkable archaeological finds, depending on one’s point of view.
     In the case of Mary Leapor one can’t help observing that her departure from the world occurred in her 24th year, limning a careering mortality that no doubt left little time to take stock of the sorts of things that gravitate toward memorialization in poems. "Mira’s Will," her single contribution to the Oxford Book, makes this point with unsobering panache that, as a premonitory ritual anticipating her own leavetaking, suggests a humor as rudely willful as testamentarily conative:

                Let a small sprig (true Emblem of my rhyme)
           Of blasted Laurel on my Hearse recline;
           Let some grave Wight, that struggles for renown,
           By chanting Dirges through a Market-Town,
           With gentle Step precede the solemn Train;
           A broken flute upon his Arm shall lean.
           Six comick Poets may the Corse surround,
           And All Free-holders, if they can be found:
           The follow nest the melancholy Throng,
           As shrewd Instructors, who themselves are wrong. . . .

Or, jumping ahead a couple centuries to Dollie Radford (1858-1920) and her "Soliloquy of a Maiden-Aunt," we are treated to a pronouncedly un-Browningesque exercise in wistful self-gratulation by a spinster having long ago come to terms with shrunken vistas and lost opportunities. Allan, her one-time beau (though presently a seeker of "staid delight" with someone he chose over her) has evolved, Pokémon-style, into a filial clone who now dances, somewhat less nimbly, with her niece. "Time orders well," she concludes; "we have our Spring, / Our songs, and may-flower gathering, / Our love and laughter," though she also can’t help noticing that

                   the step of Allan’s son,
           Is not as light as was the one
                   That went before it.
           And that old lace, I think, falls down
           Less softly on Priscilla’s gown
                    Than when I wore it.

     Small beer, perhaps; but our own time of emotional mini-brewing is not all that awash in Proustian profundities either, come to that. Over the years we’ve been upbraided for our callowness so often by purveyors of the postmodern that we retain as little tolerance for irony as we do for the squelched velleities that once routinely spawned it, which may be why poets like Dollie Radford are now being dragged out of obscurity into the half-light of a "what you see is what you get" group celebrity.
     A sizeable handful of fresh masculine names could also be singled out, but suffice it to say that, like their female counterparts, all but a few will experience a moment in the sun that may last 30 years, or a lot less. Not so Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), whose poem "To God" has the ring of coinage struck from the true mint of a despair not just clerical but mortal:

                      . . . And there is Orders
           And I am praying for death, death, death,
           And dreadful is the indrawing or out-breathing of breath
           Because of the intolerable insults put on my whole soul,
           Of the soul loathed, loathed, loathed of the soul.
           Gone out every bright thing from my mind.
           All lost that ever God himself designed.
           Not half can be written of cruelty of man, on man,
           Not often such evil guessed as between man and man.

And there are others whose unaccountably neglected works seem no less poignant or stunning for having felt oblivion’s razor’s edge, as, for example, U. A. Fanthorpe, a 70-year-old poet, whose cuttingly brief poem "Portraits of Tudor Statesmen" deserves to grace not only The Oxford Book of English Verse but all other leading compilations of modern verse too. Quoted here in its entirety, it is not at all absurd to ask whether seven lines of verse have ever been put to better use:

           Surviving is keeping your eyes open,
           Controlling the twitchy apparatus
           Of iris, white, cornea, lash and lid.

           So the literal painter set it down—
           The sharp raptorial look; strained eyeball;
           And mail, ruff, bands, beard, anything, to hide
           The violently vulnerable neck.

     W. H. Auden once described Christopher Ricks as "exactly the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding." The poets of this most recent (and, who knows, perhaps the last) Oxford Book of English Verse, whether traditional or modern, well known or freshly rediscovered, might well have found the anthologist of their dreams as well. Unlike quite a few much touted collections of verse that are out there, this one’s finder has produced a keeper which will leave the above-mentioned losers weeping.

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