Our book today is Alastair Fowler’s 1991 New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, and it’s as volatile and tremendous a tribute to National Poetry Month as could be imagined. Opinion among those I’ve quizzed is decidedly mixed as to the merit of even having a National Poetry Month (one poet of my acquaintance summed things up by saying “it can’t possibly have any widespread effect other than to further marginalize the most marginalized literature in America”), but that’s surely a debate about browbeating the public, not about the worth of poetry itself. And no other period of human history can rival the ‘long’ 17th century for verse, that glorious epoch from roughly the final years of Queen Elizabeth I to the advent of the Glorious Revolution. As Fowler here reckons that time, it stretches from George Chapman all the way to Alexander Pope, with stops along the way for Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, and Dryden.
There are lots and lots of other names in this updated version of the Oxford classic, including quite a few names that don’t deserve to be here. Fowler is typically British in his diffidence:
A representative selection has meant more Drayton; more Cowley and Marvell; more Oldham and Strode; and many more female poets. It has meant including marginal figures such as the waterman Taylor, the alcoholic Brathwait, and the lunatic Carkesse. It has meant, in fact, including some ‘subliterary’ verse, and some very minor poets. If literature is the nation’s memory, forgotten verse may contain things we need to know.
Or it may not. It’s hard to imagine what even mercifully brief extracts from the life-outpourings of Emilia Lanier, John Chalkhill, or John Digby, the Earl of Bristol could teach us about much of anything, but if they and their ilk are the price of admission to the rest of this mighty host, you won’t hear me complaining.
There’s our old friend Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, writing about the cruelties of mankind and meaning, as she so often does, men, in this excerpt from 1653’s “The Hunting of the Hare”:
As if that God made creatures for man’s meat,
And gave them life and sense, for man to eat;
Or else for sport, or recreation’s sake,
Destroy those lives that God saw good to make;
Making their stomachs graves, which full they fill
With murthered bodies that in sport they kill.
Yet man doth think himself so gentle, mild,
When of all creatures he’s most cruel wild;
And is so proud, thinks only he shall live,
That God a godlike nature did him give,
And that all creatures for his sake alone
Was made for him to tyrannize upon.
And there’s Will Davenant, that weak-willed wit and wannabe wastrel who got his start in literary London while serving in the household of our old friend Fulke Greville and who, amidst stacks and stacks of intensely conventional writing, could occasionally produce something puckish and original, like this from 1673:
O Thou that sleepest like pig in straw,
Thou lady dear, arise:
Open, to keep the sun in awe,
Thy pretty pinking eyes;
And having stretched each leg and arm,
Put on your clean white smock,
And then, I pray, to keep you warm,
A petticoat on dock.
Arise, arise! Why should you sleep,
When you have slept enough?
Long since French boys cried ‘Chimney-sweep’,
And damsels ‘Kitchen-stuff’.
The shops were opened long before,
And youngest prentice goes
To lay at his mistress’ chamber door
His master’s shining shoes.
Arise, arise; your breakfast stays:
Good water gruel warm,
Or sugar sops, which Galen says
With mace will do no harm.
Arise, arise; when you are up,
You’ll find more to your cost,
For morning’s draught in caudle cup,
Good nutbrown ale and toast.
And what of William Drummond of Hawthornden, the able poet and late-life friend of Ben Jonson? Drummond let a long and very active literary life, but in less inclusive anthologies than this one he might nevertheless get crowded right off the stage – either in favor of demographically advisable nonentities or to make room for more Shakespeare. Not so here, where we can read bittersweet little ditties like this bit fro Madrigal II.i, written in the first decade of the new century:
This life which seems so fair
Is like a bubble blown up in the air
By sporting children’s breath,
Who chase it everywhere,
And strive who can most motion it bequeath:
And though it sometime seem of its own might,
Like to an eye of gold, to be fixed there,
And firm to hover in that empty height,
That only is because it is so light.
But in that pomp it doth not long appear;
For even when most admired, it in a thought,
A swelled from nothing, doth dissolve in nought.
I’ve praised these wonderful Oxford Books here before, but when it comes to anthologies this wide-ranging and thought-provoking, I don’t mind repeating myself. And when I’m delighting in the acuity of Fowler’s choices, I don’t even mind all the makeweight names he was forced to mix in amongst them.