Saturday, December 30, 2017

verse in the shires

During the last and most unhinged phase of Xmas shopping I found myself in W.H. Smith buying Lego sets. Standing in the queue to check myself out, I glanced at the books on display, and noticed this doorstop, brusquely revalued, which for some reason I found funny. And then I thought, I really can't pass it up at that price,  I'll get it as a present for .... um... um... well, I'll decide later...  Waking up the next morning, it no longer seemed a bright idea to fob it off on a loved one;  I realized that I'd simply have to keep it for myself.

Paul Keegan's 1100-page anthology, first published in 2000, is notable for organizing the poems not by author but by publication date. (Publication in a collection, not in a magazine.) It doesn't really make a lot of sense in earlier centuries, and even in the 20th century it's surely only the very cream of the mainstream whose book publications, well-signalled to national media, can be envisioned as causing a public stir. (Those are, indeed, just the type of poets that populate the final part of Keegan's anthology.) The sequencing may be tough to justify rationally but it has a nice effect. Passing between Wyatt and Surrey and Wyatt and Surrey, is a reading experience that illuminates both, perhaps especially the less extrovert Surrey. Pieces by Sir Walter Raleigh come to us widely separated, under the years 1590, then 1592, then 1600, then 1618. I think Keegan is right to claim that this freshens our response to each poem; we're no longer so intent on placing it within the context of an oeuvre.

Keegan ended the millennium by trying, for perhaps the final time, to encapsulate the whole canon of poetry into a single paper-printed book. The sacrifices were necessarily drastic. The sequencing cunningly disguises the gaps:  poets who, we eventually realize, aren't going to show up at all: Lydgate, Hawes, Lindesay, Gascoigne....  On the other hand, he includes verse translations, which is great. So in this early period we can enjoy bits of Douglas's Virgil, Surrey's Virgil, and Harrington's Ariosto (personally, I have never succeeded in enjoying Golding's Ovid*). The anthology is limited to poets from the British Isles, and to poets born before 1950 -- its final years, therefore, seem particularly thin, with no young voices and no sense of how poetry in English has been transformed in our times into a world poetry, and how modern poetic communities traverse continents.

Keegan seems to think that his pragmatic geographical restriction might "maintain the pressure on a chronology defined in local rather than global ways. In the twentieth century there have been terminal pressures upon the idea of the local, only the echo of which can be heard in these pages." But reading through the anthology I keep reflecting how poets in English have always pushed beyond localism.

Nevertheless, let's end with a few local onions that I pulled up on my way past, finishing up in my home county of Wiltshire.


Come and daunce with me
    In Irlande.                             (Anon)


Ac Gloton was a greet cherl and greved in the luftynge
And cowed up a caudel in Clementis lappe;
Ys none so hungry hounde in Hertfordshyre
Durste lape of that lyvynge, so unlovely hit smauhte.  (Langland)


Had he no fere but his fole by frythes and downes,
Ne no gome bot God by gate with to carp,
Til that he neghed ful negh into the North Wales.
All the iles of Anglesay on lyft half he holdes
And fares over the fordes by the forlondes,
Over at the Holy Hede, til he had eft bonk
In the wyldrenesse of Wyrale ....     (The Gawain-poet)


He has tane Roull of Aberdene
And gentill Roull of Costorphin --
Two bettir fallowis did no man se;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

In Dunfermlyne he has done roune
With Maister Robert Henrisoun ....   (Dunbar)


And whereto serve that wondrous trophei now,
That on the goodly plaine neare Wilton stands?
That huge domb heap, that cannot tel us how,
Nor what, nor whence it is, nor with whose hands,
Nor for whose glory, it was set to shew
How much our pride mockes that of other lands? (Daniel)

* I could also have lived without Barnabe Barnes' repellent rape-fantasy sestina, here positioned just before Sidney's "Ye goteheerde gods", whose Mozartian qualities have no chance of being heard.  To be fair, the plot of  Arcadia is pretty morally hideous too, but that's why we excerpt the poems...  Rape was generally on (male) poets' minds at the time. Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen and Titus, we have written about before.  Hero likes Leander, but you'd have a hard job demonstrating consent when Leander, bold, deaf and pitiless, climbs into her bed in Marlowe's poem. Marlowe's Amores poems delight in amplifying the rape elements in its Ovidian source.  Does Drayton's "No and I" sonnet attempt to demolish the whole validity of a woman withholding consent?


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