Showing the sights

D.J. Enright

  • The New Oxford Book of 16th-Century Verse edited by Emrys Jones
    Oxford, 809 pp, £25.00, June 1991, ISBN 0 19 214126 0

The anthologist’s job is or ought to be a happy one. Less so the reviewer’s, especially if the reviewer is himself or herself an anthologist, and sick and tired of the standard ploys. One reviewer of a recent anthology on the subject of friendship deplored the insufficiency of homoerotic material; well, the editors had striven to avoid eroticism of any sort, as far as was possible. Another complained that the editors had neglected feminist fiction: a just observation, albeit in extenuation it might be pleaded that the theme was friendship, not unfriendliness.

It should be said straight away that the selection of poems in Emrys Jones’s New Oxford Book of 16th-Century Verse is quite splendid, a veritable treasure house (to use a ludicrous outdated trope); there are no shocking omissions to deprecate, and if some of the poems are lengthy it is because they are long poems. But first comes the introductory essay. There is a case for reading introductions last of all, or even for not reading them at all. But there are those – among them students, who for obvious reasons prefer criticism to literature – who find theory more useful and also (which older people may find hard to believe) easier than the texts; the latter, rather than justifying the theory, are justified (if at all) by their tenuous and contingent relation to it.

Allowing that E.K. Chambers’s original Oxford Book of 16th-Century Verse, frequently reprinted since its appearance in 1932, is ‘an admirable volume’, Emrys Jones continues: ‘Sixty years later, however, in a changed world – after the Second World War and a post-war social revolution, and after Modernism, Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and much else – the 16th century and its poetry have come to look rather different.’ It is true, as a relatively brief period of teaching shows, that every time you read a Shakespeare play it looks rather different – while also looking much the same; you never step twice into exactly the same text. But there is still something to be said for the assumptions behind Yeats’s phrase, ‘monuments of unageing intellect’. We shouldn’t be too quick to acquiesce in the theory that our view of the past is always changing in essential respects: along with the implication that if it doesn’t, you are a stick-in-the-river-mud. The idea is popular because it flatters us. I recall somebody claiming that our literary judgments are sounder than Johnson’s because we know much more than he did; while there are certainly moments when we need to defend ourselves against that massive presence, we ought to be able to do so without preening ourselves or knocking the Doctor. It flatters us, it licenses us to say something new – perhaps in the hope, as Johnson put it, for eminence from the heresies of paradox – and never mind how silly it is. For how can you be sure that it’s silly? Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.

We are grateful to Jones for sizeable extracts from Skelton’s ‘Speak, Parrot’, a poem which was ‘unsurprisingly rejected’ by Chambers; the lines ‘Now, Parrot, my sweet bird, speak out yet once again,/ Set aside all sophisms, and speak now true and plain’ seem to have some bearing on the present subject. I’m not sure that ‘rejected’ is quite the right word in this connection: but there is something more distinctly awry in Jones’s assertion that the poem shouldn’t prove too inaccessible to ‘Post-Modernist readers undaunted by The Waste Land and Ulysses’. Is it the case that Post-Modernist readers are not daunted by anything? Perhaps readers ought to be daunted, if only slightly, by The Waste Land and Ulysses, and if we are not so daunted, it may be a sign that we are not taking those works very seriously. The young may well feel gratified by the confidence rested in their sophistication: but older readers, who tackled the works before Post-Modernism happened along, are bound to reflect wryly on their pitiful efforts of yesteryear; they must have resembled primitive tribesmen struck dumb by the sounds emanating from a transistor radio.

No doubt beauty needs a beholder, and beholders are not passive recipients, but beauty is still substantially its own thing; its appeal, pace Keats, may not always increase, but it never passes into nothingness. The laissez-faire that has it that everything is in the mind – including the mind of the student whose mind you are nominally attempting to develop – is, like the principled non-teaching of simple grammar and orthography, a debased and nerveless manifestation or misunderstanding of democracy, or post-democracy: everyone his or her own monument.

Of course taste changes; if it didn’t, it would lose all flavour. We know about the Victorian neglect of Pope, the 20th-century discovery of Donne, the ups and downs and ups of Tennyson. Perhaps we should cultivate a degree of scepticism as regards literary fashions, rather than confirming or fostering them and adding to the natural impetus of change and innovation; it is continuance that needs support. Generally speaking, though we rarely have occasion to speak of it, what we cease to care for in the literature of the past is the third-rate, the writing whose interest was solely or largely topical and temporary. Jones says of Chambers’s book: ‘Reading it now, we are likely to find it even further away from us than the sixty-year interval might suggest.’ We take his meaning: Chambers favoured the lyrical, what might loosely be termed the Romantic conception of poetry, whereas Jones, though far from deficient in the lyrical, embraces the satirical, the moderately grotesque, the difficult, and the ‘troublesomely “topical” or personal’, and – while I don’t see why the two anthologies shouldn’t co-exist, despite Chambers’s occasional wince-inducing pronouncement: Elizabethan poetry ‘lays its emphasis on beauty and desire, roses and the moon’ – it is a measure of Jones’s anthological skills, his literary judgment, not a nose for the modish, that little in the new book is downright boring, lifeless, or truly outdated.

Jones’s Introduction occupies a mere 14 pages, some of them indisputably profitable, against 750 devoted to the poetry. I have paid what must seem disproportionate attention to the Introduction, for the reasons given. I have overstated and oversimplified, because of the sense that it is his view, equally (or more) overstated and oversimplified, that is currently in the ascendant.

Jones makes it easier for the non-specialist reader to find the way around. Words, those daughters of earth, do change, and the footnotes on archaic or obscure expressions – to invert Johnson’s comment – are necessary evils, but they are often necessary. I think Jones is right to modernise spelling and punctuation. He doesn’t do so in the case of The Faerie Queene; he hardly could, since Spenser was consciously archaising – ‘affecting the ancients’, in Ben Jonson’s words. Yet there might be an argument for trying it; at least it would be interesting to see what was left after stripping away the factitious charm, or charme. Whatever their particular differences, the two compilers are at one in their estimate of the poem’s worth: Chambers prints 147 stanzas from it and Jones 141. In the event, Chambers’s modernised spelling does something for the verse: ‘blooms’ is less indeterminate than ‘bloosmes’, and ‘bow and shafts’, for ‘boawe and shaftes’, is quite archaic enough. But this famous great work has always daunted me.

Chambers gave 30 poems from Wyatt, Jones prints 28 plus one attribution, and they have 12 poems in common, including ‘They flee from me’, ‘And wilt thou leave me thus?’ and ‘Mine own John Poyntz’. Where they differ in choice, it might be ventured that Jones’s, though still plangent, is more various in subject. He also includes Surrey’s fine epitaph: ‘Wyatt resteth here, that quick could never rest.’ While both editors give generous space to Drayton, Jones prints six of the ‘Idea’ sonnets compared with Chambers’s 15, and, unlike Chambers, unexpectedly omits ‘Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part.’ But Jones unsettles the image of the Elizabethan poet as a highly born lover sighing over the cruelty of his highly bored mistress with Skelton’s sprightly ‘My darling dear, my daisy flower’, a deft blend of elevated tone and low purport, where the lover dozes off and the lady slips away to find somebody more easily aroused. ‘Thus after her cold she caught a heat’: well might he sigh, well might he groan! ‘Hierusalem, my happy home’ is missing (Quiller-Couch dated his version 1601), and so is George Herbert, who was only six when the century ended, and whose absence is partly compensated for by William Alabaster’s religious sonnets. Chambers left Donne for the 17th-century volume, but Emrys Jones is right to give him a handsome showing, if only on the grounds (Jones’s are more serious) that any anthology will benefit from his presence.

It is in the fields Jones mentions as neglected by Chambers that this anthology excels, notably in the attainment of one of his aims: ‘to evoke, however faintly, a sense of the resistant, unassimilable disorderliness of the period’s actual life, as opposed to what usually gets into the historian’s tidied narrative’. For example, women writers, but with the best will in the world he could find only four, ‘and one of those was Queen Elizabeth.’ Another was Anne Askew, who says in a noble ballad ‘made and sang when she was in Newgate’:

Not oft use I to write
In prose nor yet in rhyme.

A necessary note tells us that she was a Protestant martyr, tortured and burned in her 25th year for denying transubstantiation.

Yet will I show one sight
   That I saw in my time.

I saw a royal throne
   Where Justice should have sit,
But in her stead was one
   Of moody cruel wit ...

Then thought I, Jesus Lord,
   When thou shalt judge us all,
Hard is it record
   On these men what will fall.

Yet, Lord, I thee desire
   For that they do to me,
Let them not taste the hire
   Of their iniquity.

A number of others who had something urgent to say will make the like apology. Francis Tregian, an imprisoned recusant, tells his wife, ‘My wont is not to write in verse,’ so she must bear with him if he writes amiss, adding in further excuse that he is making do with a pin for a pen and ‘candle coal’ for ink.

Other impressive examples of the ‘alternative culture’ are Robert Copland’s low-life ‘The High Way to the Spital House’, a dialogue between the poet and a porter, who explains:

Forsooth, yea, we do all such folk in take,
   That do ask lodging for Our Lord’s sake;
And indeed it is our custom and use
   Sometime to take in and some to refuse;

Barnaby Googe’s unorthodox election of money over friendship; the nicely naughty anonymous ‘Fain would I have a pretty thing’; Marlowe’s Ovid: ‘Thy husband to a banquet goes with me,/ Pray God it may his latest supper be’; and the somewhat Brechtian poem by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford: ‘The mason poor, that builds the lordly halls,/ Dwells not in them.’ Also noteworthy are Thomas Gilbart’s ‘Declaration of the death of John Lewes, a most detestable and obstinate heretic, burned at Norwich’, and Thomas Tusser’s ‘December’s Husbandry’, part of his vastly instructive Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry: broom faggot is best for drying haberdine or salt cod on, and if there are no faggots then leave it out in the wind, ‘so the weather be dry’.

John Lewes’s heresy was atheism, and Gilbart denounces him in the strongest terms, but we today, disinclined in the normal course of events to put people to death for their beliefs or lack of them, will rather applaud the simple words which ‘this caitiff’ returned to the warning that unless he recanted, then as he would burn at the stake, so he would go on to burn in hell: ‘Thou liest.’ We find ourselves similarly at odds with Tusser’s suggestion that to make your meadow grow the finer, you should encourage ‘camping’ – i.e. the playing of football – on it. Both instances are remote from late 20th-century thought and procedure, yet both have their links with the world we live in. Tusser makes us think of conservation and perhaps of proposals to ‘develop’ green-belt land for purely altruistic reasons, while Gilbart brings to mind a communiqué announcing that some traitor to the State has been dealt with as befits all enemies of the people. ‘Relevance’ is a very odd business.

‘New light gives new directions,’ wrote Chapman, and devouring Time shall blunt the lion’s paws. But any anthology worthy of the name, whatever its theme, will demonstrate how slow the past is to pass away. A man’s practice, we can still hope, speaks louder than his theory. And hence this New Oxford Book of 16th-Century Verse is to be resoundingly recommended.