Poetry and Soda

Barbara Everett

  • The Penguin Book of Unrespectable Verse edited by Geoffrey Grigson
    Penguin, 335 pp, £1.75, November 1980, ISBN 0 14 042142 4
  • The Penguin Book of Light Verse edited by Gavin Ewart
    Penguin, 639 pp, £9.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 14 042270 6

Anthologies are coming from the publishers with the speed of Verey lights from a sinking ship. What could he better: six hundred pages of other men’s flowers, offering relief from what Henry James is supposed on his death-bed to have attributed his wearing-out to – ‘the labour of discrimination’? But the recent profusion does leave room to reflect that some anthologies are better than other anthologies, and that some subjects are better suited than other subjects to anthologies, and that some subjects are not good subjects anyway – just as anthologies are not necessarily the best form of bookmaking. Poems have as obstinate a life of their own as hamsters or baby pythons, and may profit as little from being gift-wrapped. Whoever edits, say, a gathering of Satirical Verse is going to have to fight the fact that Absalom and Achitophel or the Dunciad don’t get better by being bound up with a few hundred other satires; and since they need the authority of their full length as well as demanding circumambient space, excerpted bits don’t read at all well. Similarly, a collection devoted to that delightful and now very fashionable subject, English topography (or ‘Poems and Places’), has to confront the fact that because poems are mental events, remarkably few are really topographical at all: once past ‘Tintern Abbey’, the anthologist will have trouble finding other good poems he likes that could truthfully be said to do more than mention localities.

Gavin Ewart is a very good and very readable writer of verse which, if not ‘light’, is not heavy either. If, therefore, his Penguin Book of Light Verse is less wholly pleasurable, even less admirable, than Geoffrey Grigson’s now nearly ten-years-old but newly reprinted Unrespectable Verse, then part of the reason may be (given that the two volumes share a number of poems) that Grigson has had either the wisdom or the good fortune not to get saddled with a category as terrible as Light Verse. The concept is insensitive even if used, as most anthologists have used it, in a party-game do-it-yourself spirit like Auden’s Alice and Mabel, by which almost anything can be made for fun to fit into one of two categories: for any anthologist worth going along with finds himself wanting to include poems that don’t fit his definition, as Ewart insists on including Rochester’s savage farce, the ‘Ramble in St James’s Park’, in a collection he defines as ‘playful’, without ‘strong emotion’. A book that was really all Light Verse would be like a ton of candyfloss. For Light Verse is not a term like ‘good poetry’ that can be argued about and played with at will, a useful mechanism for the release of the anthologist’s talents. It is something much more like a fixed historical manifestation, something angular and actual that happened at a given place and time: the place, England (and apparently nowhere else), and the time, principally the 19th century.

It is noticeable that all or almost all the poems liable to provoke argument concerning their ‘lightness’ occur in roughly the first, or pre-1800, half of Ewart’s collection. There are objections to be made, perhaps, about this or that offering in the later part of the book, but these 19th-century-and-after poems provoke a different kind of objection. Thus, a reader might point out that some of the second half are not poems in any way: Ewart’s modern Rugger Song could, I suppose, just survive its sadistic obscenity, but its sheer crassness probably finishes it off as poetry. There are others, rather a lot of others, in the book’s latter three hundred pages whose technical finesse makes them probably qualify as poems, but which are liable to make a reader find them not very good poems. There are, on the other hand, plenty of good poems in the first three hundred pages: they simply happen not to be light. This first section admirably fulfils the general function of anthologies, which is to introduce a reader to new poems or give him the pleasure of meeting old poems, looking new, in a context created by a taste and judgment both different from his own and distinctive and good in itself. Thus we have the ‘Ramble in St James’s Park’, a fiercely comic glimpse of Restoration London by night as seen by a highly civilised but obscene, unhappy and half-mad lover –

Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
Of who fucks who and who does worse

– immediately followed by an anonymous love-poem in thieves’ or beggars’ slang, ‘The Maunder’s Praise of his Strowling Mort’ –

Doxy, oh! thy glaziers shine
  As glimmars by the Salomon!

– and that, by William Walsh’s namby-pamby pseudo-pastoral, ‘The Despairing Lover’:

Distracted with care
For Phillis the fair,
Since nothing could move her,
Poor Damon the lover ...

The three together liven each other up splendidly, and give a real sense of the possibilities (and impossibilities) of the period. But once one has said this, it has to be added that neither they nor one’s sense of critical categories seem to gain anything from calling all these ‘light verse’.

The fact is, surely, that if we do call all these ‘light’, we merely point to a quality inherent in the aesthetic. For (as Eliot more or less said) no verse is light for the man who wants to do a good job; and all verse is light compared to some of the things unliterary people want to make it into. It seems probable that what we all vaguely recognise as ‘light verse’ is a specific form that emerges late in the 18th century as one of the effects of industrial society; and it contained within itself an actual antipathy to the aesthetic – or, if not an antipathy, at least an adulteration of it. The notion of adulteration comes to mind because so much early 19th-century verse has something in common with that characteristic drink of the Regency buck, hock-and-soda-water; and light verse thrives throughout the Victorian and Edwardian periods as, to alter the class of the drink a little, a sort of aesthetic shandy, poetry for people who don’t really like poetry, or at least can’t take it neat. It has to have something added, like its jingling rhymes, or its jokes and jocularities, or its knowing social references, to make it palatable, or perhaps to make it ‘true’ to some new and unalterably art-less world. It is this watered-down quality, sometimes so oddly touching and nostalgic in its own right, as of a kind of new poetry of the semi-poetic (or the unpoetic, even the anti-poetic), that is strong in Gavin Ewart’s 19th-century section, from Hood and Praed and Calverley through Lear and Carroll and then W. S. Gilbert on to Belloc and Chesterton. Indeed, almost all of the book’s second half is shandy, exceedingly good of its kind – but that kind is essentially different from the real thing in the first half. And the mixing of the two causes restlessness in the reader, for the enforcement of the later ‘lightness’ back on to the earlier poetry is an act that does not particularly harm the poems but may boomerang back on the anthologist.

Worse: since philistinism, as it used to be called, was one of the by-products of the industrial world that created the need for ‘light verse’, the insistence that unlight poetry is light can’t help but seem philistine too, as though the anthologist were simply a tired businessman. It has to be said that up to about 1660 or 1700 no verse is really light because no verse is heavy: it is only when the effects of the mid-17th-century revolution and its reaction begin to make for a wary hardening of imaginative arteries, and moral pretension begins to grow both in answer to and as voicing the emergence of a business ethos, that Heavy Art becomes feasible (Romantic) and Light Art develops with it (Regency). Before this stage, the earliest critic I can think of who holds forth about Light and Heavy is the meddling politician Polonius. ‘Tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited; Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light ...’ This tends to remove Light and Heavy, very properly, from literature into the nonsense of power-politicians and businessmen. It is interesting that the first 17th-century poem that I would concede could be called ‘light’, Butler’s Hudibras, has something distinctly Polonian about it; and this morose, mean-spirited but energetic poem gets what aesthetic life it has only by a kind of moonglow reflection from that anarchic ‘fantastick’ Metaphysical enthusiasm which it makes it its job to destroy.

Certainly not many others among Gavin Ewart’s pre-1700 or even pre-1800 verses really ask or deserve to be called light. He begins with some Anglo-Saxon riddles, presumably feeling that, being both riddles and rude, these must qualify. They fit into his admirably strong and sensible taste and it is good to have them. But the probability is that though it may suggest ‘lightness’ to us now, this riddling quality was an essential part of Anglo-Saxon poetry and merely manifested the learned ingenuity of a verse written by monks for monks. Similarly, to call medieval poems like ‘Adam lay y-bounden’ and Skelton’s ‘Merry Margaret’ light is to seem to suggest that this all-too-sophisticated, even decadent culture must be, because distant, something like quaint – that Merry Margaret lived in Merrie England. And if this is true of Skelton, how much more so of Jonson’s wonderfully judged, poised and (as Leavis used to say) even self-consciously ‘central’ poem, ‘Tonight, grave sir, both my poor house and I ...’; and of Herrick’s ‘A sweet disorder in the dress ...’ and ‘Whenas in silks my Julia goes ...’, and of Marvell’s ‘Ye living lamps, by whose dear light’, and even of Suckling’s ‘Out upon it, I have loved’. And if these are light, it is hard to know what possible definition could serve both for them and – later in the volume – also for The Rape of the Lock and Blake’s ‘The Nurse’s Song’, two of the century’s most distinguished serious poems: here presumably called ‘light’ because one treats of women and sylphs, the other of women and children. To call all these objects of ravishing balance and proportion ‘light’ and so to class them with the Rugger Song is not exactly to sell the pass, but it does risk converting it to a motorway.

Once the Industrial Revolution has taken over, the anthology comes into its own. The big names of Light Verse over a hundred and fifty years or so give, not merely the sense of a consistent genre, but of a surviving though nearly vanished world. One’s sense of ‘Englishness’ hardly goes back further than the 19th century; and this obstinate artlessness that is sometimes antagonism to art – this often brilliantly talented and intelligent Philistinism – is a vital part of it. Hence the nostalgia Praed and Lear and Chesterton can arouse for the memory of an earlier England, pre-Modernistic, unAmericanised, authentically there. The odd thing is that Ewart’s collection reminds a reader again how very dreary that world could be, too: for much of this light verse, this semi-poetry, is profoundly and characteristically melancholy. Possibly all entertainment literature acquires this frightful dreariness if preserved long after the need it served has died; perhaps nothing will seem more doleful fifty years from now than the succulent fiction that perfectly fills a Saturday evening. Certainly if one tries to remove that remorseless and pitiable purpose to amuse that makes ‘light verse’ out of these poems, some of the depressingness goes away: Carroll’s ‘In winter, when the fields are white’ (whose desolation gave me nightmares when I read it as a young child) just turns into premature Wallace Stevens, as Praed’s beautiful ‘Goodnight to the Season’ is Regency Philip Larkin. But all Victorian-and-later light verse has, I think, this pragmatic tilt to the depressing, perhaps in this case from the absence of what Nabokov called ‘aesthetic bliss’, the resolute turning-away from a wild Romanticism found neither feasible nor desirable, yet much parodied and cold-shouldered: a whole Continent cut off by fog.

If praise for Ewart’s in fact meaty and interesting collection tends to the grudging, the fault is Grigson’s. For Geoffrey Grigson is of course the best anthologist in the country. C. S. Lewis once referred to himself as ‘Old Western Man’: by that token, Grigson must be Old Western Man of Letters, and there can’t be going to be many more of him. The catalogue of the Bodleian Library lists 106 items under his name; and though I can’t myself pretend to have read all of these essays, poems, anthologies, editions, books on botany, landscape and painting, even an autobiography, I have read nonetheless a good many of them, of which not one is anything but good, and some are superlative. Grigson’s anthology Before the Romantics (1946) probably taught me more about 18th-century literature than any critical study. The more recent anthologies, the Oxford Satirical Verse and the Faber Poems and Places, suffer a little, perhaps, from justifiable fatigue. But Unrespectable Verse is from the period when Grigson still brought incomparable powers of taste and judgment, clearly matured over thirty or forty years of always widening reading, to bear on the job in hand: and its subject, the ‘unrespectable’ face of the poet, was surely highly congenial to a writer himself about as independent as they come. It probably says something about the success of Unrespectable Verse that, where Ewart sticks (as he was possibly asked to do) to the Oxfordish trudge through chronological sequence, and thereby makes a reader expect of him a historical insight he may or may not have, Grigson – who probably does have this historical sense of literature – creates his own grouping throughout, moving from Stevie Smith to Baudelaire to Cavafy to Cummings to Archipoeta to Langland to Auden to Larkin to Rochester, and never puts a foot wrong: because the anthologist has that rare thing, an absolute sense of what a good poem is, wherever it occurs. Again, unfair as the comparison is, it is notable that where Ewart wrongly calls Rochester’s ‘Ramble in St James’s Park’ light, Grigson takes from this poet instead two poems that really are light (if anything is), ‘Love a woman, you’re an ass!’ and ‘Tell me no more of constancy’ – the first a tease, meant to make a girl’s hackles rise, the second social verse – and calls them both, not light, but merely unrespectable, an undermining of shallow hypocrisies. It is notable, too, that where Gavin Ewart relies – quite permissibly – on erotic or obscene verse to give shocks, Grigson knows at least ten other ways of making the hair rise – from Stevie Smith’s flawless deep needlings of God and Mother to Whitman’s oceanic immodesties. The result is not only a collection of beautiful poems but a book full of quite lastingly disturbing life.