The Penguin Book of English Verse!
Our book today is that saddest of all kinds of books, the superseded classic. In this case, we’re talking about The Penguin Book of English Verse – not the massive 2004 version edited in all its splendor by Paul Keegan but rather the 1956 version edited by John Hayward, who had the old-fashioned chutzpah to open his note to the reader by writing: “The chief, if not the only end of poetry, Dryden said, is to delight. It is with this end always in view that the following selection of English poetry has been made.”
To delight! And … Dryden! If the book’s $2 cover price weren’t reason enough for us to suspect we’re far from the fields we know, that would do it. But that’s not the only thing in this old volume (mine is a white-spine musty old mass market paperback, bought at the Harvard Bookstore eight years ago) that feels out of place, out of time; Hayward’s selections are more foursquare and classical than the relatively few variations that appear in the later edition. Both have the same spine and connective tissue, as virtually any big book of English verse must have; there’s always a procession of Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare and Pope and Wordsworth and Shelley, and there are always the odd gems from Donne and, in Hayward’s case, George Herbert, with his intensely subversive poem “Love”:
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here;
Love said, you shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then will I serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat;
So I did sit and eat.
Hayward winds his anthology down to Dylan Thomas and Stephen Spender, with the poets and traditions that sprang up in the wake of Auden not yet taken into account as they must be in later anthologies. There’s therefore a rounded-off feeling to this little volume, as artificial a feeling as they no doubt is. Re-reading the book, I found again all the entries that provoked me to bracket or make notes in the margin. I remarked, for instance, on how much I loved the music of John Clare in small doses rather than large helpings, like in his beautiful “Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter”:
I love to see the old heath’s withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps his melancholy wing,
And oddling crow in idle motions swing
On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gipsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the haw round fields and cloven rove,
And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.
I wouldn’t dispense with Paul Keegan’s much bigger volume for all the mud in Egypt, but even so, walking around with this earlier book for a few hot summer days and feeling my affection for it rekindle, I found myself wishing there were room in the Procrustean publishing world for both.