As I Please

in Tribune

7 March 1947

George Orwell

SOME time ago a foreign visitor asked me if I could recommend a good, representative anthology of English verse. When I thought it over I found that I could not name a single one that seemed to me satisfactory. Of course there are innumerable period anthologies, but nothing, so far as I know, that attempts to cover the whole of English literature except Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and, more comprehensive and more up-to-date, The Oxford Book of English Verse.

Now, I do not deny that The Oxford Book is useful, that there is a great deal of good stuff in it, and that every schoolchild ought to have a copy, in default of something better. Still, when you look at the last fifty pages, you think twice about recommending such a book to a foreigner who may imagine that it is really representative of English verse. Indeed, the whole of this part of the book is a lamentable illustration of what happens to professors of literature when they have to exercise independent judgement. Up to 1850, or thereabouts, one could not go very wrong in compiling an anthology, because, after all, it is on the whole the best poems that have survived. But as soon as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch reached his contemporaries, all semblance of taste deserted him.

The Oxford Book stops at 1900, and it is true that the last decades of the nineteenth century were a poor period for verse. Still, there were poets even in the nineties. There was Ernest Dowson—‘Cynara’ is not my idea of a good poem, but I would sooner have it than Henley’s ‘England, My England’—there was Hardy, who published his first poems in 1898, and there was Housman, who published A Shropshire Lad in 1896. There was also Hopkins, who was not in print or barely in print, but whom Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch must have known about. None of these appears in The Oxford Book. Yeats, who had already published a great deal at that date, does appear shortly, but he is not represented by his best poems: neither is Kipling, who, I think, did write one or two poems (for instance, ‘How far is St Helena’) which deserve to be included in a serious anthology. And on the other hand, just look at the stuff that has been included! Sir Henry Newholt’s Old Cliftonian keeping a stiff upper Up on the North-West Frontier; other patriotic pieces by Henley and Kipling; and page after page of weak, sickly, imitative verse by Andrew Lang, Sir William Watson, A. C. Benson, Alice Meynell and others now forgotten. What is one to think of an anthologist who puts Newbolt and Edmund Gosse in the same volume with Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Blake?

Perhaps I am just being ignorant and there does already exist a comprehensive anthology running all the way from Chaucer to Dylan Thomas and including no tripe. But if not, I think it is time to compile one, or at least to bring The Oxford Book up to date by making a completely new selection of poets from Tennyson onwards.

Looking through what I have written above, I see that I have spoken rather snootily of Dowson’s ‘Cynara’, I know it is a bad poem, but it is bad in a good way, or good in a bad way, and I do not wish to pretend that I never admired it. Indeed, it was one of the favourites of my boyhood. I am quoting from memory:

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses, riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long—
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

Surely those lines possess, if not actual merit, at least the same kind of charm as belongs to a pink geranium or a soft-centre chocolate.

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