The New Penguin Book
of Romantic Poetry
, edited by
Jonathan & Jessica Wordsworth
Penguin Books, 1056 pages, $20


reviewed by Adam Kirsch -->

When Francis Turner Palgrave published his famous anthology, The Golden Treasury, in 1861, he made his editorial standard plain in the subtitle: “the best songs and lyrical poems in the English language.” The word appears again, without apology, in the first sentence of his preface: “the best original Lyrical pieces . . . and none beside the best.” The formula echoes the definition of culture itself, by Palgrave’s contemporary Matthew Arnold, as “the best that has been thought and said.”

The Golden Treasury became a Victorian institution, helping to define the taste of generations of readers. But to a twenty-first-century reader, it is clear that Palgrave was very far from including all the best English poetry. His book contains only one poem by George Herbert, and none at all by John Donne; Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is absent, along with Nash’s “Litany in Time of Plague.” In a larger sense, Palgrave’s restriction to lyric and song, entailing a near omission of Dryden, Pope, and Johnson, now seems obsolete. He has left us not a catalog of the best, but an image of his time.

Was Palgrave wrong, then, to make “the best” his standard? One way of answering that question is to look at the sixth edition of his anthology, edited by John Press and reissued in paperback in 2002. Press has added a fifth and sixth book to Palgrave’s original four, carrying the selection forward from Shelley to Paul Muldoon and Craig Raine. What Palgrave himself would have made of twentieth-century poetry is hard to imagine, but, remarkably, Press does manage to make his extension faithful to the spirit of the original. He proves that the Palgrave tradition—lyrical, formal, rural, elegiac—did continue into the age of Modernism, in the Eliot of “New Hampshire” and “Marina,” rather than “The Waste Land”; in the Auden of “Deftly, admiral, cast your fly,” rather than “The Age of Anxiety.”

Assuredly, this is no one’s idea of the best twentieth-century poetry. But by treating Palgrave’s choices as a taste, rather than a standard, Press’s sequel shows us the coherence and strength of the original Golden Treasury. It reminds us that while no age can make an eternally valid selection of the best poems, the effort to do so is an indispensable exercise in practical criticism. Only by deciding on our own vision of the best poetry of the past can we clarify our taste, sharpen our judgment, and guide our own age’s creative activity. Our vision of the past will even help readers of the future to understand us, just as Palgrave offers insight into the strengths and weaknesses of mid-Victorian poetry.

For an anthologist to seek out the best poems of his period, in other words, is not the same thing as choosing a “canon” of poems. The word canon is an unfortunate interloper in literary discussion; with its ecclesiastical lineage and connotations of infallibility, it imposes an alien metaphor on criticism. A canon is handed down from above, but a literary judgment is always offered up from within the fray. This does not mean that it can’t have authority; rather, it has only the authority it earns, from its intelligence, persuasiveness, and conviction. The difference is akin to that proposed by Nietzsche, in “The Use and Abuse of History for Life,” between “monumental history,” which sets a monolithic past in judgment over the present, and “critical history,” which makes a living past into the ally of the present. A good poetry anthology is not a monumental object, but a critical act.

Yet the latest generation of poetry anthologies seems determined to evade that critical responsibility. Last year saw the publication in paperback of two major historical anthologies: The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse, edited by Roger Lonsdale (originally published in the 1980s), and The New Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry, edited by Jonathan and Jessica Wordsworth (the former a descendant of the poet’s brother). These are the new standard texts, and will help to define their periods in the minds of students and general readers for years to come. But while they do not omit the major poetry of their periods, both books present that poetry in such a way that its real achievements, and its continuing appeal, are obscured.

To compare them to their venerable Oxford predecessors—The Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse (1926) and The Oxford Book of English Verse of the Romantic Period (1928)—reveals a fundamental shift, not just in the selections, but in the purpose of the anthology itself. One index of the difference is the new anthologies’ enormous growth. The old Oxford Book of Eigtheenth Century Verse, edited by David Nichol Smith, includes 130 poets; the new version has room for 234. With the Romantic anthologies, the comparison is less precise, since the old Oxford and new Penguin books define the period differently, but of the fifty-one poets in the Penguin, sixteen do not appear in the Oxford at all. Of course, this expansion is not owed to the sudden discovery of dozens of important new poets. It has to do with a shift in editorial emphasis, from selection of the best poems to representation of a historical period.

For Lonsdale, this shift was explicit and polemical, an attempt to jolt readers loose from “traditional accounts of the nature and development of eighteenth-century poetry.” Long before, Nichol Smith had warned in his preface that when “historical interest” joins “intrinsic” merit as a criterion, “The florist has begun to develop, or to degenerate, into the botanist.” But Lonsdale, as though in rebuttal, wanted his book to be “more representative of the full range of eighteenth-century verse than most collections,” and not “in any way definitive”: “The problem, if it is allowed to be a problem, of what is ‘literary’ and what is ‘non-literary’ may well confront some readers at various points.”

In fact, the goal of Lonsdale’s anthology is to make it a problem. He does not abandon the major eighteenth-century poets—Pope and Swift, Johnson and Goldsmith are all present and accounted for. But along with these peaks, he gives plentiful examples of the valleys of eighteenth-century poetry. Here are the inglorious Miltons who did not remain mute, but perhaps should have: Edward Chicken, Stephen Duck, Samuel Jones, and dozens of other comedians and grumblers, poetasters and amateurs. Jones’s ambition was literally to be another Milton—two of his three selections are subtitled “in imitation of Milton”—but he couldn’t quite figure out how to do it:

Hail, happy lot of the laborious man,
Securest state of life, great Poverty,
To thee thrice hail!—————
Millions of active arms to thee each dawn,
Of supplications feminine devoid,
Erect their noble nerves,—————
There is something touching about those dashes, gamely filling in the gaps in the pentameter. But to include a poet in an anthology expressly because he is a bad poet —an incompetent imitator of the authoritative style—takes the goal of “representation” to a new extreme. As Daniel Karlin, editor of the expanded 1997 edition of ThePenguin Book of Victorian Verse, writes in his preface, “it is arguable that such poetry—the poetry of the commonplace, of received ideas and derivative language, of conventional religoius and ethical sentiment … is indeed representative of what the Victorians wrote and read, just as it would be, mutatis mutandis, of the writing and reading of other periods, including our own.” (Not coincidentally, Karlin’s anthology, at 850 pages, is nearly twice as long as the previous Penguin Book of Victorian Verse, edited by George MacBeth in 1969.)

By putting this principle to work, The New Oxford does achieve a teeming lifelikeness: the eighteenth century becomes an age of impolite letters. A favorite theme is the unhappiness of marriage, which sometimes gives rise to earnest proto-feminist protest, as in Elizabeth Tollet’s “Hypatia”: “What cruel laws depress the female kind,/ To humble cares and servile tasks confined!” Just as often, however, what looks like grievance is really comedy, the same jokes about shrewish wives and bullying husbands that go back to the Wife of Bath and forward to the sitcom era. “Hussy, what I direct you ought to do;/ I’m lord and master of this house and you,” declares the hero of Edward Ward’s “Dialogue between a Squeamish Cotting Mechanic and his Sluttish Wife, in the Kitchen.”

Lonsdale is especially partial to piquant anachronism. The eighteenth century, too, he wants us to know, wrote about drug addiction (“In Praise of Laudanum”) and abortion (“Epitaph on a Child Killed by Procured Abortion”), not to mention cricket (“Cricket. An Heroic Poem”) and what Thomas Mathison called “The Goff”:

Full fifteen clubs’ length from the hole he lay,
A wide cart-road before him crossed his way;
The deep-cut tracks th’intrepid chief defies,
High o’er the road the ball triumphing flies,
Lights on the green, and scours into the hole.
In all these poems, Lonsdale’s purpose is not to preserve work of aesthetic merit, but to offer bits of eighteenth-century life preserved in the amber of rhyme. At rare moments, indeed, these poems can be as movingly lifelike as the petrified victims of Pompeii:

Adieu, dear life! here am I left alone;
The world is strangely changed since thou art gone.
Compose thyself to rest, all will be well;
I’ll come to bed “as fast as possible.”
The force of Jonathan Richardson’s “On My Late Dear Wife” lies as much in its notations—“Really dreamed, July 14–15, 1726”—as in its painful homeliness. (The inevitable contrast with a particular canonical poem—Milton’s sonnet “Methought I saw my late espoused saint”—makes its homeliness all the more effective.) Indeed, almost all of the unfamiliar poems Lonsdale uncovers bear an invisible “really” in their title—they are evidence of people who really lived.

The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse, then, shows what a “representative” anthology can do at its best: it shocks us out of our temporal provincialism. In the eighteenth century, as in the twenty-first, people made jokes, played games, suffered, loved, died. But who could ever doubt such a simple truth? Only an age which instinctively disbelieves in the past would need poetry to function simply as the past’s signature. Lonsdale’s anthology practices what Nietzsche, in his third historical category, calls “antiquarian history,” the mere collection of facts, in which “everything ancient [is] regarded as equally venerable.”

And when everything is equally venerable, there is no distinction between art and documentation. The New Oxford does include the major artists of the period, and its handling of their work is actually more faithful than its predecessor’s. Nichol Smith printed four excerpts from Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes, with invented titles (“Prayer,” “Life’s Last Scene”) that tacitly invite us to view them as separate lyrics; Lonsdale publishes the verse essay in its entirety. Yet if eighteenth-century poetry means Duck and Chicken, and dozens of “Anonymouses,” as well as Johnson and Pope, then the very notion of poetry—as opposed to the medium of verse—fades into the background. It is by no means clear, to the casual reader and especially to the student, why we should read eighteenth-century poetry at all—read it, that is, with the intimate attention we give to the spiritually contemporary. By making its period more novel, The New Oxford paradoxically makes it less vital.

In its very different way, The New Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry also works against the artistic appreciation of major poetry. Here the number of writers represented is much smaller, thanks largely to the fact that the Romantic period, unlike the later eighteenth century, was in fact dominated by a handful of poets. But while the book includes large samples of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats, it is also generous to many less signficant writers: Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Mary Tighe, and more.

As that list suggests, these poets are included mainly because of their gender. That women wrote in the Romantic idiom, and in some cases became well known for doing so, is presented as an accomplishment in its own right, even though the quality of their work is self-evidently inferior. (Even the Wordsworths can’t evade this fact in their lukewarm endorsement: “Women writers, who perhaps have not to the same extent stamped themselves on a particular genre, emerge as strong in their variety.”) The point is reinforced by the short biographies provided by the editors: Smith and Robinson are each described as having been “married off” to “worthless” husbands; the former was “forced to write a novel a year to feed and educate [her] family,” while the latter “subdued increasing physical pain by writing.” Humanly, no doubt, these are important achievements. But by shifting the standard of inclusion from the artistic to the human, the Wordsworths, like Lonsdale, encourage us to see the sheer fact of a poem’s existence as more important than its merit.

Needless to say, the inferiority of these particular poets has nothing to do with their gender. Already at this period, women writers were preeminent in the genre of the novel, and by the time of the Victorians, women poets of the first rank had emerged: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and, in America, Emily Dickinson. Genius and gender are not linked. But the weakness of the female poets in The New Penguin is glaring. Take, for instance, Felicia Hemans’s 1835 sonnet “Remembrance of Nature”:

Oh Nature thou didst rear me for thine own,
With thy free singing-birds and mountain-brooks,
Feeding my thoughts in primrose-haunted nooks
With fairy fantasies and wood-dreams lone;
And thou didst teach me every wandering tone
Drawn from thy many-whispering trees and waves,
And guide my steps to founts and sparry caves …
Clearly Hemans had been reading Wordsworth. But to compare this poem to, for instance, Wordsworth’s “There Was a Boy” is to see the difference between facility and genius:
         And when it chanced
That pauses of deep silence mocked his skill,
Then sometimes in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery—its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven— received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.
Hemans’s Nature is conventional and pretty, her address to it rhetorical and vaguely emotive. It has none of Wordsworth’s dramatic concreteness, or his psychological acuity. Hemans writes a poem on the theme of “nature,” where Wordsworth uses poetry to study a mind’s encounter with nature. By treating them as peers, the anthology reduces—and encourages readers to reduce— these poets to a common denominator, “Nature,” and thus to make Romantic poetry an affair of subjects, instead of artists.

In fact, The New Penguin is organized by topic, not by author. Both of these examples come from the section titled “Ennobling Interchange: Man and Nature”; there are also “Narratives of Love,” “Romantic Hallmarks,” and nine more. Naturally, it is impossible to make these rubrics consistent—Wordsworth’s sonnet on Toussaint L’Ouverture and Shelley’s “England in 1819” appear under “Protest and Politics,” not “The Romantic Sonnet.” Worse, it becomes impossible to see how Byron, for instance, developed from brooding rebel to mocking satirist, and how this development expresses an inner truth about the limitations of Romanticism. Instead, we have a static Byron writing to set topics assigned by the Zeitgeist—“Romantic Solitude,” “Poets in Relationship,” and so on.

In all these ways, The New Penguin, no less than The New Oxford, works to redefine the way we read the poetry of the past. Both are witnesses to the pervasive historicism of literary studies: a disinclination to believe that the past and the present can converse on equal, intimate terms. Of course, the poetry of two hundred years ago can tell us something about the state of society, or the intellectual preoccupations, of two hundred years ago; but this is not its most important function. The best poets offer what Matthew Arnold called, in an often ridiculed but never superseded phrase, a “criticism of life”: a subtle and comprehensive perception, expressed in form and language as well as idea and argument, of life as it appeared to one particular mind. To encounter a poet’s mind, there is no substitute for reading as much of his work as possible, preferably in the order it was written. That is what poetry anthologies are for, and what these particular anthologies refuse to do.

The coincidental appearance of anthologies from the eighteenth century and the Romantic period, in particular, should be the occasion for fruitful debate and revaluation. Much of what is worst in contemporary poetry can be laid to the account of an etiolated Romanticism, which Modernism—as Randall Jarrell understood—did not so much repudiate as radicalize. There is the Romantic narcissism which makes the poet’s every feeling sacred; there is the Romantic Platonism which leads to an ever-more-abstruse pursuit of the absolute; and there is the Romantic esotericism which leads to disregard for the reader.

Of course, there has been and will be great poetry that is confessional, metaphysical, and obscure. But at present, these are not so much convictions as reflexes of our poetry, part of an unexamined notion of what poetry can and cannot do. The best remedy for this situation is to read Pope, Swift, and Johnson—poets whose intelligence, urbanity, and formal mastery the art today sorely lacks. (Shelley’s “Stanzas Written in Dejection” and Swift’s “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” are both classic poems of self-pity, but the throbbing emotionalism of the former seems childish next to the ironic bitterness of the latter.) For today’s poets, and for the readers and students who constitute their audience, the most fruitful way to approach the poetry of the past remains Palgrave’s: to search out “the best . . . and none besides the best.”

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 11
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