THE TREASURIES, POETRY ANTHOLOGIES AND THE MAKING OF BRITISH CULTURE: Kevin Saving considers Clare Bucknell’s study of the history of the British poetry anthology

The Treasuries, Poetry Anthologies And The Making Of British Culture
Clare Bucknell 
Head of Zeus
ISBN 978-1800-241442
352pp    £27.99

In the first century BC, the Greek poet Meleager compiled what he termed an Anthologia (or ‘garland’), representing 47 different writers, each of whom was characterised by a different flower. Nearer our own time, Tottel’s Miscellany (1557) introduced an English readership to the Italianate forms, the Sonnet and Ottava Rima – as exemplified by, among others, Thomas Wyatt and the Earl Of Surrey. In 1807 Thomas Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare ‘cancelled’ (or censored or, indeed, ‘Bowdlerised’) the Bard’s ‘naughty bits’, defined as anything “unfit to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies”. Although none of these important anthologies is examined in any detail by The Treasuries, this (first full) publication by Clare Bucknell nonetheless represents a stimulating and scholarly addition to the literature. It proposes a number of popular anthologies as being indicative towards – even catalysts of – various British societal trends. Her exhaustively-researched arguments can be both academically discursive and, often, intellectually persuasive.

The year 1681 saw a joiner, Stephen College, condemned to be hanged and quartered for High Treason (against the so-called ‘Merry Monarch’, Charles II) for the crime of having authored anti-monarchical ballads.

Poor Nation, how art thou undone
By a bad Father, and now worse, his son!

Twenty-three years later this ‘libel’ was to be reprinted in one of a series of four widely-read anthologies, Poems on Affairs of State. These ushered in the fashion of ‘lampoons’ (from the French lampons or “let’s guzzle!” – since they were often associated with bacchanalia). Their usual purpose – after the distinctly inglorious ‘Glorious Revolution’ which placed the Dutch House of Orange on the throne – was to ‘dish the dirt’ on the preceding House of Stuart.

Anthologies seem to have polarised literary opinion amongst the writers of the ‘Romantic’ era – Keats, John Clare, Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt regarding them in a positive light, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Jane Austen taking the contrary view. The debate about what the period was wont to denigrate as ‘beauties’ could be quite tendentious. “Elegant extracts, Anthologies, are sickly things” opined the historian, Francis Palgrave pere, “the splendid bouquet decays into unsavoury trash, and as trash is thrown away”. This from the father of Francis Palgrave fils: the compiler of The Golden Treasury (1861), the most celebrated anthology of them all! By the time of the latter’s apotheosis (roughly speaking, the age of ‘Mid-Victorian Prosperity’ or, otherwise, that of ‘English Colonial Triumphalism’) the battle – particularly for ‘Improving Verse’- had, temporarily at least, been fought and won. In the year of Palgrave fils‘ death (1897) his Golden Treasury had over 140,000 copies in circulation which was, Bucknell assures us, “a vast number for a poetry book of that or any time {…} As an accessible, intellectually serious attempt to gather together all the ‘best’ English poetry in one volume, it became a model for the heavyweight collections that came after it, household fixtures such as the Oxford Book of English Verse (1900) and the Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936)”. Not everyone, however, would be overjoyed. A snooty T.S.Eliot sniped (in 1944) “No doubt The Golden Treasury or the Oxford Book, has given many people their introduction to Milton, to Wordsworth or to Shelley {…but…} I should not say that any such person was a real poetry lover”. Alfred Tennyson, Palgrave’s close friend, seems to have been unofficially co-opted onto a small associate-editorial board for the Treasury. As Britain’s longest-serving poet laureate, he remains the only poet to have been ennobled to a hereditary peerage (as the ‘First Baron Tennyson’) solely by virtue of his literary activities. As Bucknell observes, “in this climate, established living poets were public figures, voices to be listened to on questions of culture and politics alike”. More recent trends, one notes, have seen them supplanted in this role by Reality-t.v. stars, Businessmen and soccer commentators…

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (known as ‘Q’ and holder of the King Edward VII Chair of English literature at Cambridge university) was responsible for the thousand-page doorstop Oxford Book of English Verse (1900), the anthology the ‘soldier-poets of 1914-’18’ took with them to the trenches. It exerted an undoubted influence over the effusions produced by this most-literary of wars. That the war-poetry initially forthcoming was overly-literary can, perhaps, be ascribed to the vast number of under-qualified, civilian bards who felt impelled to add their sanguinary voices against the ‘Rape of Little Belgium’. Another, second, wave of martial verse – by now penned by actual combatants and widely-published in patriotic anthologies – was necessarily still inclined to view the war’s sordid actualities through a subaltern’s periscope of Homeric sacrifice – most-often imbued via their own public school and classical education. By the time the ‘realists’ – the Sassoons, the Rosenbergs, the Owens – finally found belated recognition, all most people really wanted to do was to forget.

The fierce, dialectical mood-swings continued into the thirties and beyond. New Signatures (1932) was left-leaning and socially-engaged. It’s ‘antithesis’, New Lines (1956) constituted “an attempt to take a stand against the tyranny of ideals, to resist the lure of all systems, ideologies, and ‘isms'”. To be, as it were, “less deceived”. This, neutral, stance was in turn repudiated by Al Alvarez’s The New Poetry of 1962 (which introduced many Britons to the ‘confessional poetry’ of the Americans: Lowell, Berryman, Plath and Sexton). The bugbear this time was, for Alvarez, the consummately English one of ‘Gentility’ – or the “belief that life is always more or less orderly, people always more or less polite {…} more or less controllable; that God, in short, is more or less good”. Perhaps he should have consulted Stephen College about this! The ‘New’ poetry dialled-up on post-Wordsworthian ’emotion’, dialled-down on its once-attendant ‘tranquillity’.

The sixties were, it might still (just!) be remembered, a time when the ‘Cold War’ appeared quite likely to end everything precipitately in a shower of radioactive rubble. What mattered now were ‘immediacy’ or ‘spontaneity’ and the next key-note anthology would be The Mersey Sound (1967). The ‘New Pop-Stars’ were, of course, the pop-stars: The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan -all of whom had lyrical pretentions of their own. Though Dylan would go on to win (many years later) the Nobel prize for literature, Roger McGough and his group The Scaffold could still scoop up a Number One Hit (in November, 1968, with ‘Lily the Pink’). If the poets were no longer at the Top Table, at least they’d found a place on the turntable.

Post-Millennium, the anthological Zeitgeist could, maybe, be best described as a ‘therapeutic’ one -though, once again, little exists new under the sun. Freud and Jung had both posited an interconnection between poetic imagination and the ‘unconscious mind’, whilst the ancient Greeks had believed in ‘catharsis’ achieved via the medium of Tragic theatre. A full eighty years prior to Julia Darling’s and Cynthia Fuller’s self-help themed The Poetry Cure (2005), Robert Schauffer had published, in English, an identically-titled anthology with comparable aims. The practice has come to be known as ‘Bibliotherapy’ and is – in publishing terms at least- a highly lucrative one. Where once a Roman theologian, Boethius, might commend The Consolations of Philosophy, or a Georgian man of letters, Samuel Johnson, could aver that “the only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it”, now a more secular age can reach self-consciously for its Emergency Kit or its Poetry Pharmacy. As Wittgenstein somehow never quite said “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must peruse the relevant anthology“.

If The Treasuries is a tad too academic to be called a ‘romp’ through its chosen subject, it still provides many enjoyable insights into the English-speaking world’s various attempts to distil a large, ill-defined subsection of literature into a series of bite-sized, exam-digestible, gobbets.