Friday, November 14, 2008
The Signet Classic Poetry Series!
Writing about the Oxford World's Classics just now has turned my mind, somewhat predictably, to other book-series I've loved. It's not that implausible a leap: how books are published, the way they're packaged and presented to the reading public, forms a larger segment of how readers enjoy those books than I think gets credit. Certainly my own bookshelves are almost universally populated by not only the books I love most but the versions of those books I love most. If I didn't care about such things, if the only thing that concerned me was raw content, I'd have every Dover edition ever printed, and precious little else.
But invariably, the well-exercised love of books entails more than raw content. We come to like the way certain books feel in the hand, the way they look on the shelf, the way certain notes seem to answer all our questions in just the right way, or how certain abridgements seem to have all the good bits and none of the bad ones, or how the writer who pens the book's Introduction uses just the right tone, inviting but not fawning, collaborative but not condescending. Dozens of intangibles like these go into determining, for instance, which collection of Yeats we'll have, or what edition of The Pickwick Papers.
So it's entirely permissible that I'm thinking about book-series and recalling the ones I've particularly liked. And as Open Letters gears up for its January Poetry Issue, my thoughts naturally turn toward the innumerable volumes of poetry I've owned in my life. Not modern poetry, mind you, although well-meaning friends have been giving me volumes of it for decades - precious little of it seems to find purchase with me, but that doesn't mean I don't love poetry dearly ... and the series I find myself going back to again and again is the long-defunct Signet Classic Poetry Series.
These were solidly-manufactured white paperbacks printed in the 1960s on paper-stock slightly heavier than the norm (then or now) , featuring generous selections from the canonized poets of England and America (Marvell, Sidney, Spenser, Whitman, Milton, Keats, Shelley, etc). Each volume had a specially-commissioned introduction in which the master of ceremonies gave us an overview of the poet's life and times and, in the better attempts, a couple of good quips, as when John Hollander warns us of the "self-absorbed, sometimes drab lyrics" of the Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney - a good phrase and maybe not entirely wrong about Sidney, who could go on a bit much in this vein:
Over these brooks trusting to ease mine eyes,
(Mine eyes even great in labor with their tears)
I laid my face; my face wherein there lies
Clusters of clouds, which no sun ever clears.
In wat'ry glass my wat'ry eyes I see:
Sorrows ill eas'd, where sorrows painted be.
My thoughts imprison'd in my secret woes,
With flamy breath do issue oft in sound:
The sound of this strange air no sooner goes,
But that it doth with Echo's force rebound,
And make me hear the plaints I would refrain:
Thus outward helps my inward griefs maintain.
John Arthos gets the thankless task of introducing John Dryden to what he had to assume would be an audience consisting largely of college students (there was a time, four decades ago, when you couldn't glance in any direction on any campus in the country without spotting one of these books), and he takes a straightforward approach:
Of all England's poets Dryden is the one for whom the manner of grandeur counts the most. He masters it in a hundred ways - in passion, in thought, in mockery, even in joy. He brings grandeur into the light of common day, and it is still itself.
He comments that poetic tastes have drifted away from such grandeur, and he openly laments the fact that this drift has caused Dryden to be down-graded in the poetic pantheon. "We have too often," he tells us, "disposed of as superior journalism what is in fact literature." He hoped for a Dryden revival, and of course so do I, but that forty years ago, and the general run of hipsters attending poetry slams are still in no mood for stuff like this, from Absalom and Achitophel:
Did ever men forsake their present ease,
In midst of health imagine a disease;
Take pains contingent mischiefs to foresee,
Make heirs for monarchs, and for God decree?
What shall we think! Can people give away,
Both for themselves and sons, their native sway?
Then they are left defenseless to the sword
Of each unbounded, arbitrary lord:
The laws are vain, by which we right enjoy,
If Kings unquestioned can those laws destroy.
And if Arthos had the tough task of trying to get his readers to give Dryden a chance, that's nothing compared to the feat John Donne editor Marius Bewley had before him! Dryden wrote about unfashionable topics with bell-like clarity; Donne writes about unfashionable topics (personal religious faith, than which there can be no less fashionable topic among today's themselves-obsessed young people) too, but he does it with triple-jointed, jagged-brained, almost unfollowable mental twists and turns. Bewley does his best to draft a modern analog:
The influence of T.S. Eliot's poetry on the morale of the young literary intellectuals of the twenties and thirties must have resembled, in certain respects, the stimulus that Donne's poetry provided for an impatient generation long since surfeited with Petrarchism and the poetic conventionalities of the earlier Elizabethans.
But nothing Eliot ever wrote compares to this, and this is Donne trying to be accessible:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like a usurp'd town, to another due,
Labor to admit You, but Oh, to no end!
Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto Your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to You, imprison me, for I
Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.
The series got one famous person to write an Introduction. This was W. H. Auden, and for reasons passing understanding, he chose the Lord Byron volume. Thus, for a dozen pages or so, the reader watches, slightly appalled, while a hoof-mouthed and splay-footed irresolute yearner prissily gossips and back-bites about a man who would have eaten him for breakfast and been plenty hungry by lunch. The result is interesting in the way only ghastly mistakes can be, as here, when Auden insinuates for the hundredth time that he, why he himself, might just be a better poet than his subject:
If I had to introduce Byron to a student who knew nothing of his work, I would tell him: "Before you attempt to read any of the poetry, read all of the prose, his letters and journals. Once you have read these, you will be able, when you come to the poems, to recognize immediately which are authentic and which are bogus.
You read something like that and immediately want to corner Auden and ask him which of his own poems are bogus ... but you don't dare, because he would certainly respond by attacking you, and that might damage the gardenia you just this morning put in your lapel. Fortunately, an immutable law holds that when a poet excoriates his betters, he'll always accidentally point the finger at himself, as when Auden gamely tries to figure out just exactly why Byron is so, well, limited:
Byron's aesthetic theories, like those of any poet, were in part a set of working rules to help him write the kind of poetry it was in him to write, and in part an attempt to justify himself for not writing the kind of poetry for which he lacked the talent.
It's all the more maddening because of course Auden the poet is hugely talented, although there's nowhere in him anything as quietly beautiful as this little Stanzas for Music bauble, composed by Lord Byron in an idle afternoon but virtually swimming with translucent serenity:
There be none of Beauty's daughters
With a magic like thee;
And like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me:
When, as if its sounds were causing
The charmed ocean's pausing,
The waves lie still and gleaming,
And the lulled winds seem dreaming
And the midnight moon is weaving
Her bright chain o'er the deep;
Whose breast is gently heaving,
As an infant's asleep:
So the spirit bows before thee,
To listen and adore thee;
With a full but soft emotion,
Like the swell of Summer's ocean.
There's a great deal more to savor in the collected Signet Classic Poetry Series, but alas, the whole run is out of print. Luckily, the books that flooded those campuses (each with a gorgeous, stately cover illustration) now show up regularly in used bookstores (somewhere out there are my Shelley volume and my Milton volume, both having unaccountably vanished from my shelves over the years), ready for you to give them a try.