No Ribaldry Please, We’re British

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Our family Bible came from our mum’s side. But our real missals were her poetry books – Come Hither, edited by Walter de la Mare, and The Golden Treasury, edited by Francis Turner Palgrave. Now I have these same books, and they are indeed full of treasure – not least, the pleasure of remembering shared readings, with special emphasis on wordplay and on the almost sensual pleasure of drenching ourselves in emotion.

Many of the poems were the source for rhymes and phrases woven into Mum’s daily speech, often accompanied by meaningful looks to underscore their importance. Sighing and shaking her head on hearing that a well-known person had died, she might remark, ‘All, all are gone, the old familiar faces’ (Charles Lamb, ‘The Old Familiar Faces’). Or, with a curl of her lip at a history programme on TV, ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’ (Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’). Struck by the beauty of the hilly landscape while walking across Hampstead Heath, she might refer to ‘thoughts that oft do lie too deep for tears’ (Wordsworth’s ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’, a poem whose title she enjoyed rolling around her mouth). Seaside trips might lead her to declaim ‘Break, break, break, on thy cold grey stones, O sea!’ (Tennyson, ‘In Memoriam’), while a big hug might conclude with ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ (from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘How Do I Love Thee?’). Naturally, she was a sucker for the Barrett-Browning love story, though I am not so sure that she was au fait with Tennyson’s stifled love for Arthur Hallam. That didn’t
matter, since ‘Oh that ’twere possible/ After long grief and pain/ To feel the arms of my true love/ Round me once again’ (from Tennyson’s ‘Maud’) meant far more to her in her grief over my father’s early death than the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of remembrance.

My parents were potty about each other, though this often manifested

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Our family Bible came from our mum’s side. But our real missals were her poetry books – Come Hither, edited by Walter de la Mare, and The Golden Treasury, edited by Francis Turner Palgrave. Now I have these same books, and they are indeed full of treasure – not least, the pleasure of remembering shared readings, with special emphasis on wordplay and on the almost sensual pleasure of drenching ourselves in emotion.

Many of the poems were the source for rhymes and phrases woven into Mum’s daily speech, often accompanied by meaningful looks to underscore their importance. Sighing and shaking her head on hearing that a well-known person had died, she might remark, ‘All, all are gone, the old familiar faces’ (Charles Lamb, ‘The Old Familiar Faces’). Or, with a curl of her lip at a history programme on TV, ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’ (Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’). Struck by the beauty of the hilly landscape while walking across Hampstead Heath, she might refer to ‘thoughts that oft do lie too deep for tears’ (Wordsworth’s ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’, a poem whose title she enjoyed rolling around her mouth). Seaside trips might lead her to declaim ‘Break, break, break, on thy cold grey stones, O sea!’ (Tennyson, ‘In Memoriam’), while a big hug might conclude with ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ (from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘How Do I Love Thee?’). Naturally, she was a sucker for the Barrett-Browning love story, though I am not so sure that she was au fait with Tennyson’s stifled love for Arthur Hallam. That didn’t
matter, since ‘Oh that ’twere possible/ After long grief and pain/ To feel the arms of my true love/ Round me once again’ (from Tennyson’s ‘Maud’) meant far more to her in her grief over my father’s early death than the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of remembrance.

My parents were potty about each other, though this often manifested itself in flaming rows where plates were thrown and axes hurled (yes, this did happen, though only once). Greetings might be passionate embraces or passionate reproaches. We children would squirm with embarrassment when she applied the words of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Birthday’ to my father: ‘Because the birthday of my life/ Is come, my love is come to me.’ Still, this was preferable to getting all maudlin about her own mother: ‘But she is in her grave, and, oh,/ The difference to me!’ (Wordsworth, ‘To Lucy’).

We took The Golden Treasury’s selection of English verse for granted, but in fact its story is instructive and surprising. First published in 1861, it has claims to be the most popular anthology of
English verse ever. Palgrave divided ‘all the best original lyrical pieces and songs in our language – and none beside the best’ into four ‘books’, or sections, from 1560 to 1860. It is still very popular – indeed we had it in my primary school in the 1950s.

The Golden Treasury has appeared in several editions, two of them updated by Palgrave in his lifetime (1875 and 1897). The 1897 one included a ‘second series’ with works by Tennyson, whom Palgrave idolized. A supplementary fifth ‘book’ edited by Laurence Binyon in 1926 added to the selection already expanded by Palgrave. It was this edition, containing late Victorian, Georgian and War poets as well as Palgrave’s original selection, that was canonical in our household.

Palgrave had several idiosyncratic guidelines, which have been widely mocked by critics and academics, but which have struck chords with the book-buying public throughout the English-speaking
world. First and foremost, he rejected the suggestion that his was ‘an’ anthology, a set of ‘gems’ or ‘pearls’ of English verse. No, it was ‘the’ anthology, containing ‘all’ the best lyrical poetry, so that what was left out was left out on purpose.

Turning to it now, after a long lifetime of reading, I ask myself, what was left out? The reply is – oh, so much, all of it reflecting the seriousness of the mid-Victorians. Occasional verse (too trivial for Palgrave’s taste, so that even Shakespeare’s songs were omitted from the first edition), satire, anything political or topical, anything mystical and not Christian, anything sexual or humorous, anything obscure or indeed anything that did not meet the criteria of unity and simplicity which Palgrave shoehorned in from Aristotle’s Poetics. So, much of the glory of English poetry, from Chaucer to the Metaphysicals to Pope’s wit and Byron’s satire. No ribaldry, please, we’re British. Which leads to a very odd selection of Burns and Herrick, neither of them exactly strangers to the bawdy. Yet most of what is included fits many people’s definition of poetry as a thrilling fix of emotion and image to help us make sense of life.

In 1861, the time was ripe for a collection that would introduce a wider public to the riches of English literature. Other collections were fusty, musty and hard to find. The groundswell of agitation which would result in the 1870 Education Act and a largely literate public bent on self-improvement was growing. Palgrave was the man for the hour. His father was a converted Jew who set up the Public Record Office. Palgrave himself went to Balliol College, Oxford, and became one of the set clustering round its Master, Benjamin Jowett, that included the poet Arthur Hugh Clough and Tom Arnold, son of the famous Rugby headmaster.

A prodigy as a boy, Palgrave was an accomplished classicist, a minor poet and a scathing critic. He became a teacher and then a civil servant at the Education Office, and was a lifelong advocate for the teaching of English literature, even if it displaced Latin and Greek: he declared that it ‘must be read much and by many’ in the ‘interests of a living literature’. A quality text for school use seemed to him of paramount importance.

Though a serious-minded man, he differed from other critics of the day in stressing not the morality of texts but their Beauty (with a capital B). He called the Treasury’s highly idiosyncratic structure ‘symphonic organization’ – although the ‘books’ are vaguely chronological, the poems in each section follow what he termed ‘the most poetically effective order’. Usually this moves from Nature to love –the power of attraction, its passionate consummation, its disappointments – and then on to martial valour, death and mourning. As part of this arrangement, early editions had no index of titles, just one of first lines and poets, thus forcing readers to browse and find new ‘treasure’. It is the antithesis of a Kindle.

Palgrave was not driven simply by the desire to establish the canon of lyrical poetry. He was forever trying to gain the approval of Tennyson, who found him a terrible bore and only consented to being involved in the Treasury to shut Palgrave up. He demanded that Gray’s ‘Elegy’ and Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’, ‘Il Penseroso’ and ‘Lycidas’ be included, though the last is in blank verse, which Palgrave had wanted to exclude as not lyrical enough. Tennyson, who also enjoyed reading aloud, spent an evening declaiming Palgrave’s selections to his family of female acolytes, saying how much he admired Lyly’s ‘Cupid and My Campaspe Played’ and that he would rather have written Lovelace’s ‘To Lucasta, Going to the Wars’ than anything he himself had written. These are some of the lightest pieces in the selection, put in at Tennyson’s insistence and notable for grace and charm rather than intense feeling. Perhaps they were Tennyson’s answer to Palgrave’s solemnity.

The Poet Laureate wrote wearily to his family about the torture of Palgrave’s company. Grumpily, he refused to allow any of his poems to be used in the Treasury until he was dead, and Palgrave observed mournfully that including the Laureate’s poems would be one mis-erable consolation for having ‘overlived’ him. Solely because of Tennyson’s obduracy, Palgrave decided to include no living poets whatsoever. The unintended consequence was that over thirty years, and two editions, The Golden Treasury established its ‘brand’, as we might say today, with no real objections.

However, as soon as Tennyson died in 1897 and living poets were included, all hell broke loose. But Palgrave did not live more than a month to see this. And by this time, school libraries had already committed to buying the book.

Readers of the later editions, like my mum, were blissfully ignorant of such critical wrangles. The bowdlerization of Shakespeare, the remorseless butchery of such Tennyson works as ‘In Memoriam’ (a complex poem whose structure is ignored) and the omission of the final sestet from Sidney’s sonnet ‘My true love hath my heart’ went unremarked by her and millions of others.

For Palgrave, The Golden Treasury was a winner in more than simply financial terms. An earlier rejection in love had led to a breakdown, leaving Palgrave with depressive, even suicidal tendencies, but after he book was published in 1871 his star rose, and in 1872 he married. He campaigned for women’s education and for public access to the arts, becoming a prominent public figure while often making enemies with his vitriolic comments. He supported the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and in 1885 became Oxford Professor of Poetry.

Palgrave was eccentric and unconventional, and yet his work was a vital influence in making English literature part of the national psyche. Turning back to my little green book I find:

Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet, and blossom in their dust. (Thomas Shirley, ‘Death the Leveller’)

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Victoria Neumark 2020


About the contributor

Having recently retired from the jungle of higher education, Victoria Neumark is free to wander self-indulgently in the gardens of poesie.

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