Review: ‘The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse’, ed. Philip Larkin

This anthology edited by Philip Larkin (which, despite its title, only goes up to the early 1970s) is the most comprehensive, diverse and inspiring collection of formal and semi-formal poetry that I have ever come across. It has, naturally, some free verse… but even that is entertaining in this selection.

The book has no one born before 1840 (Blunt and Hardy), no Matthew Arnold, no Gerard Manley Hopkins (died 1889), so there are almost no Thee’s and Thou’s… except from Robert Bridges.

It has no one born after 1946 (Brian Patten); poets of today are not in this book.

Larkin chose to exclude writers not “born in these islands (or resident here for an appreciable time)”, which lets him include Kipling and Eliot as well as any Scots, Welsh or Irish that he chooses, but cuts out E.E. Cummings, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Frost… And Larkin makes no explanation or apology for including Derek Walcott who, born in St. Lucia, lived his life between the Caribbean and the US.

So the anthology is not as complete as could be hoped; but, with 584 poems by 207 poets in 625 pages, it is enormously wide-ranging and full of not just the best of Yeats, Eliot, Auden, but also unexpected treasures by authors barely known today. Here is T.E. Hulme’s ‘The Embankment’, subtitled ‘(The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold, bitter night)’:

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

And in completely contrasting mood, here is ‘An Epitaph’ by Colin Ellis:

He worshipped at the altar of Romance
(Tried to seduce a woman half his age)
And dared to stake his fortune on a chance
(Gambled away his children’s heritage).

He valued only what the world held cheap
(Refused to work, from laziness and pride):
Dreams were his refuge and he welcomed sleep
(He failed at business, took to drink and died).

All types of (“English”) 20th century verse are in the anthology. It is the most wonderful, wonderful read.

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