Palgrave’s Revenge

Just before World War I, Ezra Pound decided that the best way to teach British readers “How To Read”—to quote the title of his famous essay—would be to assemble a new anthology of English poetry, chosen on Modernist principles. But when he sent his proposal to an agent, he received a “hasty summons. … I found him awed, as if one had killed a cat in the sacristy. Did I know what I had said in my letter? I did. … I had said: ‘It is time we had something to replace that doddard Palgrave.’ “

The Palgrave Pound had blasphemed against was not just a man but a book, and not just a book but a monument. The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language, edited by Francis Turner Palgrave, first appeared in 1861, and it quickly came to define Victorian taste in poetry. Palgrave sifted 300 years of English verse, from the Elizabethans to the Romantics, for poems that embodied his timeless ideal of lyric poetry: “neither modern nor ancient, but true in all ages, and like the works of Creation, perfect as on the first day.”

Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, as it came to be known, was as influential as any anthology ever published. It not only decided which poems the literate Briton should know; it embodied a whole conception of poetry that is still a large part of what we mean by “poetic.” Palgrave poetry is sincere, direct, and beautiful; it approximates song rather than speech; it deals with the most sweeping subjects—in particular, love, death, and nature—rather than the merely personal and local. Palgrave poetry is almost never urban, ironic, obscure, or verbally ambiguous. Since these are the very qualities that Pound, along with T.S. Eliot and other Modernist poets, wanted to bring into English verse, it is no wonder that he saw Palgrave as Public Enemy No.1. And the Modernists succeeded, as anyone who reads contemporary poetry can tell. Palgrave’s Golden Treasury has become a byword for Victorianism, musty if not positively embarrassing.

That’s why it’s almost shocking to find that Palgrave is back in print, in a sixth edition that extends it right up to the present day. A 20th-century Palgrave, a Palgrave that contains D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, and Seamus Heaney, had seemed inconceivable, like putting a helipad on the Tower of London. Palgrave stopped his selections well before his own time, refusing to admit any living poets, even Tennyson, to whom the book was dedicated. But John Press, the editor of the new edition, has covered the last 150 years of British poetry in two new sections, beginning with Walter Savage Landor and ending with Simon Armitage (born in 1963). Still more surprising, he has made the book matter again, showing how Palgrave poetry survived the earthquake of Modernism and continued to thrive up to our own time.

The first four books, Palgrave’s original anthology, remain just as they were. On its own terms, it remains a good selection, picking out many of the best lyric poems of the English language. One could get a far worse education in English poetry than by reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, Milton’s “Lycidas” and “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” Dryden’s “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” and Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.” Today, as in 1861, these are keystones of English poetry, and some of the most beautiful poems ever written.

Today, however, no editor would be content with Palgrave’s narrow focus on the lyric form. It falsifies our very idea of what poetry can do, as we can see by some of the glaring omissions: not a single song, sonnet, or satire by John Donne; only one meager lyric by Alexander Pope and none of his verse essays or epistles; nothing by William Blake; no passages from glorious long poems like The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, The Rape of the Lock, The Prelude, or Don Juan. In his quest for music and feeling, Palgrave ignored the fact that poetry can also be a medium of thought. A major part of the Modernist revolution in poetry was restoring the taste for the 17th-century poets, like Donne, Herbert, and Marvell, who are mostly missing from Palgrave.

The real surprise in the new Palgrave, however, is not the gaps in his idea of poetry, which we’ve come to expect and make allowances for. Instead, it is the continued vitality of what might be called the Palgrave tradition, which is shown to great effect in John Press’ extension. Press finds descriptions of nature, meditations on sorrow and death, and love lyrics in the 20th century as in the 16th. Matthew Arnold’s “A Dream” lovingly evokes a rural landscape that we find 50 years later in Edward Thomas’ “As the Team’s Head-Brass,” and another 50 years later in Charles Tomlinson’s “The Hesitation.” Even T.S. Eliot—an honorary Englishman—is represented by a seascape like “Marina,” rather than the urban nightmare of “The Waste Land.” The bleakness of Sir Francis Bacon’s “Life” reappears, 400 years later, in Philip Larkin’s “Aubade.” Modernism comes to seem less like the revolution Pound planned than one of many evolutions in the history of English poetry.

Of course, it would be easy to assemble a different kind of anthology, one that would showcase the massive dislocations of English poetry in the 20th century. And Press’ selection from living poets seems mediocre, a sign that Palgrave was wise in refusing “to anticipate the verdict of the future on our contemporaries.” But after decades in which the Modernist ideal has held sway—especially in the colleges where most people are introduced to poetry—it is surprising and reassuring to find that Palgrave poetry continues to thrive. If the book has even a fraction of the same authority in the 21st century that it enjoyed in the 19th, both readers and writers of English poetry will be better off.