Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Victorian Verse!

Some Penguin Classics aren't really classics, no matter how attractively Penguin packages them. This is true of Western canon works mistakenly venerated (Joseph Conrad springs to mind, but oh, there are others), and it's also true of excellent modern volumes prematurely elevated. One such volume is The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse from 1997, edited and introduced by Daniel Karlin. It's an excellent anthology, perhaps even better than the last Victorian verse anthology we discussed here, but as an anthology, it's virtually newborn - it certainly hasn't withstood the tests of time long enough to claim the 'classic' distinction. Whereas there are plenty of poetry anthologies out there that have proven their 'classic' status but still haven't been given (or bought) a spot in the Penguin Classics lineup.

One of those - the first of those? - would surely be The Oxford Book of English Verse in the original Arthur Quiller-Couch edition, and that's actually relevant to our proceedings today, since the Quiller-Couch has got to rank as one of the all-time best Victorian verse anthologies (even though it was intending to be much more than that). Neither the Quiller-Couch nor the far more magisterial Helen Gardner edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse has been honored with a Penguin Classic (understandably enough, since it's a dog-eat-dog world out there in the land of publishing, and I'm the only one daft enough to think being a Penguin Classic should be a privilege other publishers would surrender copyrights to achieve), but here this Karlin concoction has my second-favorite colophon.

He's certainly done everything he can to earn it. His Introduction is a gem of learning and wit, and the highlight of it is his offer of a mock-amalgam of all Victorian verse and its typical crutches. This is hilarious stuff:
The purple shades of evening

Flit o'er the Angel child

Whose woeful mother's weeping

Resounds across the wild.

He joined the gallant Navy

And found a watery grave.

Ah, better far than being

An orphan factory slave!

Or worse, in evil city

A village lass to sink

And fall a prey to Mammon

And bestial vice, and drink.

She hears the thrush's singing

And cooing of the dove

And blesses the dispenser

Of goodness, peace, and love.

So back she goes contented

Towards her humble home

And curtseys to the Parson

Who's on his way to Rome.

And as the Squire passes

Like Lancelot of yore

She shrieks, swoons and expires

And is never heard of more.

And one of the strangest and most daring noteworthy things about his anthology is how much room he gives not to the expected greats of the period but to much lesser-known (today, anyway) poets who come perilously close to echoing that deadly parody - like Eugene Lee-Hamilton and "A Snail's Derby":
 Once, in this Tuscan garden, Noon's huge ball

So slowly crossed the sky above my head,

As I lay idle on my dull wheeled bed,

That, sick of Day's inexorable crawl,

I set some snails a-racing on the wall -

With their striped shells upon their backs, instead

Of motley jackets - black, white, yellow, red;

And watched them till the twilight's tardy fall.

And such my life, as years go one by one:

A garden where I lie beyond the flowers,

And where the snails outrace the creeping sun.

For me there are no pinions to the hours;

Compared with them, the snails like racers run:

Wait but Death's night; and, lo, the great ball lowers.

Of course, the bulk of the book is indeed commandeered by those great expected names. There's plenty here from Wordsworth, the Brownings, the Brontes, and Christina Rossetti, as well as generous selections from the greatest of all Victorian poets, Lord Tennyson, almost always pitched at his most fervid:

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro' the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She look'd down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack'd from side to side;

'The curse is come upon me,' cried

The Lady of Shalott

Keen-eyed readers will know at once why I chose that particular verse - yes, because "The Lady of Shalott" is the subject of this anthology's opulent cover-illustration, a painting of the same name by the great William Holman Hunt, whose "The Awakening Conscience" may be the single dumbest pre-modern painting ever created (for sheer stupidity, it can't compete with blank white canvases hung in galleries and called art, but then, what can?). "The Lady of Shalott" gives a much more accurate demonstration of this artist's wonderful talent, even if you might not be able to make that out from the battered, much-reinforced cover of my paperback.

If you're at all a fan of poetry, your own copy of The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse will quickly become equally dog-eared. It's that good.



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