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The Oxford Book of English Verse

ISBN 0192141821 / 9780192141828 / 0-19-214182-1

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Book summary

Let's get one thing straight. Christopher Ricks's 1999 version of The Oxford Book of English Verse contains some of the finest poetry the world has ever seen. Judiciously selected and beautifully produced, this anthology will reward both poetry virgins and over-versed roués with its canny, sometimes inspired conjoining of the familiar and the obscure. (It's also the first edition to let dramatic verse through the gate, meaning that some of the Bard's greatest lines have now made the cut.) From the medieval "Sumer is icumen in" through Seamus Heaney's "The Pitchfork," Ricks selects 822 poems from more than 200 writers. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare comes out on top. But Wyatt, Sidney, Jonson, Milton, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Hardy also make strong showings, as do such under-anthologized females as Mary Robinson, Jane Taylor, and Frances Cornford. In addition, the editor includes an assortment of mnemonically irresistible nursery rhymes.

Anyone who cares about literature in the English language will want this on their shelf. Yet some of those same devotees may have serious reservations about what Ricks has done with this literary institution. When Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote his preface to the first Oxford Book of English Verse in October 1900, his agenda was quite clear. He had

tried to range over the whole field of English Verse from the beginning, or from the Thirteenth Century to this closing year of the Nineteenth, and to choose the best. Nor have I sought in these Islands only, but wheresoever the Muse has followed the tongue which among living tongues she most delights to honour. To bring home and render so great a spoil compendiously has been my capital difficulty.
The metaphors of imperial colonialism spoke confusedly as the Muse followed the English tongue throughout the world and the anthologist brought back the rewards it wrought and wreaked. A century later, the project of "English verse" has lost its imperial certainty, and Ricks is no longer interested in exploiting the former colonies for raw material. Instead, he states categorically that his "does not seek to be a book of Anglophone verse, of verse in the English language whatever its provenance." This leads to some anomalies. He takes American verse only through the 1770s, but is happy to include verse from the Republic of Ireland. As for the linguistic products of the pre-independence Commonwealth: "I judged reluctantly that pre-independence poetry had not achieved poetic independence (freedom from diluted fashion), had not given to the world such poetic accomplishments as would constitute a claim to the pages of an anthology of the best in English poetry." Please discuss!

Ricks's "English verse," then, is predominantly verse from England, and of a fairly senior variety at that--the juniors here are such golden codgers as Thom Gunn, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney. Ricks admits that "most of us are not good at appreciating the poetry of those appreciably younger than we are." That's a shame, because it denies The Oxford Book of English Verse a role in disseminating the work of the younger generation (and we're talking under 60 here) from a diversity of backgrounds. What he has undoubtedly produced, however, is an invaluable record of the past glories of English poetry, which will continue to inspire both readers and poets--whatever their age, wherever they are. --Alan Stewart [via]