Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Oxford Book of English Verse

Our book today is the venerable Oxford Book of English Verse in the second edition helmed by the mighty Helen Gardner.

In John Mortimer's short story "Rumpole and the Golden Thread," the main character Horace Rumpole opines that when time and tide have washed away all remnants of the England he knows, three things will still survive: the British Breakfast, the presumption of innocence, and ... the Oxford Book of English Verse. In this as in so many things (like never pleading guilty, or the salubrious qualities of Chateau Thames Embankment), we here at Stevereads find ourselves in complete agreement with that lovable Old Bailey hack.

Or rather, almost complete. Rumpole's allegiance is, after all, to the first edition of the Oxford Book produced in 1900 through the herculean efforts of Arthur Quiller-Couch. Here we must admit a small apostasy: good as the Quiller-Couch volume is, it's nevertheless a quaintly Victorian conception, more a response to Palgrave's Treasury than to anything alive in the world of poetry at the turn of the 20th century. Even Quiller-Couch's revision of his own seminal work is more grudging than great-hearted.

No, it's enough to say he planted the seed and guarded its first sapling growth. Helen Gardner it is who brings it to perfection. Her volume, in turn, can never be bettered - when the time comes, it will need to be broken apart and entirely remade.

Botanical metaphors seem inevitable in describing a work of this much beauty and variety. An old Arab saying has it that a book is a garden you can carry i your satchel. If this is so, then the Oxford Book of English Verse represents the opulent parks and walkways of Versailles. Four pillars hold aloft the grand edifice of English letters - the novels of Jane Austen, the plays of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and this indispensable volume.

Like those other pillars, it's really many volumes, as many volumes as there are readers who find it. The lovestruck mooncalf will find heartfelt outpouring aplenty. The melancholy brooder will find his surfeit of sighs. And the jeering satirist will find knives to make him smile. Gardner's range is far greater than Quiller-Couch's, and she is much more willing than he was to cut chunks of great verse from longer works. There is everything here, and all an appreciative reader can really do is flip pages and share their favorites. We here at Stevereads are no different in this, and we will leave you today with a few selections.

The first is from Henry King (1592-1669), written in one dash of self-pity the morning after he learned one of the best-kept secrets in the world:

Sic Vita

Like to the falling of a star,
Or as the flights of eagles are,
Or like the fresh spring's gaudy hue,
Or silver drops of morning dew,
Or like a wind that chafes the flood,
Or bubbles which on water stood:
Ever such is man whose borrowed light
Is straight called in, and paid to night.

The wind blows out the bubble dies;
The spring entombed in autumn dies;
The dew dries up, the star is shot;
The flight is past: and man forgot.

And here's the great John Dryden, waxing at his most pithy, as he always did when his heart was hurting:

Farewell, Ungrateful Traitor

Farewell, ungrateful traitor,
Farewell, my perjured swain,
Let never injured creature
Believe a man again.
The pleasure of possessing
Surpasses all expressing,
But 'tis too short a blessing,
And love too long a pain.

'Tis easy to deceive us
In pity of your pain,
But when we love you leave us
To rail at you in vain.
Before we have descried it
There is no bliss beside it,
But she that once has tried it
Will never love again.

The passion you pretended
Was only to obtain,
But when the charm is ended
The charmer you disdain.
Your love by ours we measure
Till we have lost our treasure
But dying is a pleasure,
When living is a pain.

And we'll end on a hopeful note, one of the most hopeful notes ever struck by a poet and one of our most loved pieces of verse (even though we don't believe a word of what it promises), by Christina Rossetti:

Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow, dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.


Sam said...

The only way the British breakfast will survive will be in its undigested, unmetabolized, nearly unaltered state beneath the ribcage of many a British skeleton. I'm going to venture there are no odes selected by Helen Gardner to the glories of black pudding, stewed tomatoes, and baked beans in the morning.

Kevin Caron said...

Bleah. Agreed.

steve said...

If Rumpole says it, it must be true.

Anonymous said...

A nice collection