Poems in my next anthology are also arranged by theme, if a little vaguely, but there the similarity ends. Modern Poetry selected and edited by Maurice Wollman (The Scholar’s Library: Macmillan, 1939) is aimed at the academic market, and indeed my copy comes from a university library. The editor was the Senior English Master at the Barking Abbey School, and we can hear the schoolmaster’s sobriety in the Preface:
The aim of this Anthology is to be representative of the poetry of the last dozen years. No poem, however, has been admitted for the sake of representing its author: each poem has been judged solely on its merits.
The collection is an all-British affair (if we include Ireland). A few poets are missing because they had published little over the period in question -AE Housman, Robert Graves, Hilaire Belloc, Max Plowman, William Watson and ‘Q’ — but the selection seems otherwise reasonably comprehensive. No significant name I can think of is excluded, and there are several I don’t recall meeting before.
The anthology is well put together, with biographical notes on the contributors, notes to the poems, and questions on the poems as poems – i.e. on the themes, craft, approach and success of the poets concerned in the way I remember from my own school days, which is no doubt hopelessly old-fashioned now. The quality also seems higher — more intellectual bite to the content, and fewer of the previous ‘beautiful thoughts in pleasing verse’ entries.
Let me start by giving some notion of the work by reproducing the first stanza of the first seven poems:
Here I will build a citadel of love,
Impregnable against the hours’ assault;
So steadfast rooted in felicity
Its very blemishes possess not fault;
So garrisoned, bastioned and secure
That placed in loneliness upon a height
No threatening may disturb its peace by day
Nor stealthy strife encroach on it by night.
from Dedication by John Gawsworth
I thought of all the passions men have known:
Despair which hardens to a moveless stone;
Rage running round and round until it falls,
And fallen, deaf and blind, in narrow stalls
Is fastened, self-consenting, unappeased;
Bereavement, which, by deathless Memory teased,
Pores o’er the same, forever altered track,
Turns, ever on the old lost way turns back;
from An Ancient Song by Edwin Muir
Nothing is easy! Pity then!
The poet more than other men.
And since his aim is ecstasy,
And since none work as hard as he,
Forgive the poet poesy!
from Nothing Is Easy by James Stevens
The robin’s whistled stave
Is tart as half-ripened fruit;
Wood sooth from bower of fruit
The blackbird’s flute;
Shrill-small the ardent’ wren’s;
And the thrust and the long-tailed tit-
Each hath its own apt tongue,
Shrill, harsh or sweet.
from Speech by Walter de la Mare
There is so much to catch
As the days go by,
The line of some queer old thatch
Against wintry sky,
from Art and Life by Lord Dunsany
Why should tales of long ago
Be told again to us who know
All they tell, and cannot find
Their first significance to the mind?
Is it true, is it true then, after all
That the poet should not turn and call
Back the past with an incantation
That can unite the fascination
Of days long done with our imminent days
And deeds, awaken old spirits and raise
Men long dead and give them to the sight-
More seen, more known in the poet’s light
And the poet’s rhythm imposed on life
Then when they endured the human strife?
from First Interlude by Gordon Bottomley
Over their edger of earth
They wearily tread,
Leaving the stone dew,
The hungry grass;
Most proud in their own defeat,
These last men pass
This labouring grass that bears them
from The Little Clan by F.R. Higgins
The Introduction starts with Eliot’s The Waste Land, which was still contentious then, and notes its influence on contemporary poets. Then we move to the issue of modernity. Maurice Wollman remarks:
Allied with this neglect of the reader goes a rigid avoidance of anything that savours of poetic language, of the conventional poetic vocabulary, or of the poetic, “artificial” metre. Rather the most colloquial, the most commonplace, the most debased of everyday words, than the poetic cliché with the stock response it calls forth-rather the simplest and most commonplace and unobtrusive of metres, rather prose rhythm, than technical agility and artifice.
There are better poems than these seven, which clearly don’t fit too well into Mr. Wollman’s notion of modernity – they don’t use speech rhythms, or everyday words, and seem most artificially regimented by the rhymes - but the Introduction goes on to look at themes:
The attitude to life, too, of these poets has changed as a result of the disillusion and disorientation following the War.
The great social changes sweeping Britain after WWI are certainly important to modernism, but I want to stay with the issue of poetic language, artifice and technical ability. All these are banned from serious poetry today, though not always sensibly, I’d have thought, particularly in translations on pre-modernist work. But we have to take poetry world as we find it: poets don’t have these skills today, and don’t want to have them. The question is why?
I have discussed many of the issues involved in the Traditional and Modernist sections of the TextEtc site, and won’t rehash them here. As always in the arts, there are losses and gains in each new movement, and the reasons are not always as writers and critics like to suppose. Some simply involve literary gifts and abilities, or the lack thereof, an obvious matter that no one wants to crassly draw attention to — because it’s unkind to do so, and because ad hominem arguments have no place in academia. But since there seems no reason to think that innate literary gifts should change from generation to generation, or the themes on which poets traditionally write, we are thrown back on more nebulous matters — the zeitgeist, the purpose of poetry, or the mutual inspiration that poets working on common themes give to each other. I will look at these in my next post.