The Treasuries: Poetry Anthologies and the Making of British Culture 
by Clare Bucknell.
Head of Zeus, 344 pp., £27.99, February, 978 1 80024 144 2
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When​ I was young I thought poetry and poetry anthologies could change the world. ‘If a man were permitted to make all the ballads,’ Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun wrote, ‘he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.’ But nationality still mattered: Seamus Heaney’s reaction to his inclusion in Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s 1982 Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry was ‘My passport’s green.’ Heaney, preoccupied with ‘the government of the tongue’, was drawn into the arguments about cultural identity, language, gender and inclusiveness stirred up by the 1991 Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, which covered 1500 years of work in Latin, Norman French, Gaelic and English. Les Murray’s New Oxford Book of Australian Verse and Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry included traditional work translated from Aboriginal languages as well as modern verse in English by poets from a range of racial and linguistic backgrounds. Growing up in Scotland, I took it for granted that linguistic diversity was integral to a national culture: Burns and MacDiarmid in Scots and English, Sorley MacLean in Gaelic – and Edwin Morgan veering into Loch Ness Monsterese and Mercurian.

In this spirit, I edited or co-edited four anthologies during my thirties. All contained work in English, Scots and Gaelic. The two largest – The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945 (co-edited with Simon Armitage) and The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (co-edited with Mick Imlah) – included Welsh. The early section of the Scottish Verse anthology also pulled in medieval Latin, Old Norse, Old English and Old French. American academic anthologists acted similarly. Since 1962, the Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by M.H. Abrams and others, had held that ‘the medieval period in English literature extends for more than 800 years’ and included Old English as well as Middle English poetry. By the late 1990s, the Norton Anthology had seen off the rival Oxford Anthology, produced by heavyweight academics including Frank Kermode and Harold Bloom, and the deep histories of English and British culture were being re-scripted. A revised edition of the Norton Anthology commissioned a translation of Beowulf from Heaney, and David Damrosch’s Longman Anthology of British Literature advocated a linguistically complicated idea of what ‘British’ meant. Sean Shesgreen’s ‘Short History of The Norton Anthology of English Literature’, published in Critical Inquiry in 2009, quotes Stephen Greenblatt’s emails to his Norton co-editors, telling them that Damrosch aimed to include ‘many texts by Welsh, Irish and Scottish writers, to show that multiculturalism, as it were, begins at home’.

But in England itself it was too often taken for granted that ‘English’ was a straightforward term, and that poets in ‘minority languages’ would not be included in ‘English’ or ‘British’ anthologies. My favourite example involves the British anthology The Terrible Rain: The War Poets 1939-45, edited by Brian Gardner and published in 1966; not only did it exclude Gaelic work, but its sole mention of Sorley MacLean (who lived until 1996) occurs when Gardner lists him among poets killed in action during the Second World War. As the end of the 20th century brought political devolution to the United Kingdom, and the arguments that would lead to Brexit simmered, I wanted to edit an anthology called The Poetry of England. This would have included verse in Middle English, Latin, Old French and Old English as well as the language of Robert Browning (‘Oh, to be in England’), Linton Kwesi Johnson (‘Inglan is a Bitch’) and T.S. Eliot (‘History is now and England’). I had got as far as setting out the rationale for such a book in a lecture at the British Academy when the Penguin and Oxford anthologies of English verse edited respectively by Paul Keegan and Christopher Ricks appeared. Like their predecessors, they exclude most of the Middle Ages; feature no work (even in translation) from Latin, Old English or French; and co-opt Irish, Scottish, Welsh and American verse as ‘English’. Since the appearance of these anthologies, no other major British publisher has challenged their dominance.

What does Clare Bucknell mean by ‘British culture’? The first chapter of The Treasuries: Poetry Anthologies and the Making of British Culture covers a four-volume series of anthologies, Poems on Affairs of State, published from 1689 until 1707. The editors included poems addressing wars, taxes, the court and government, but also those that took aim at individuals, particularly Charles II and the ‘pimps, priests, buffoons’ and other corrupt characters that surrounded him. It’s an odd starting point and the material is dry, but Bucknell does a decent job of spicing it up, starting with an account of a hanging and quartering in the prison yard at Oxford Castle and citing some of the more puerile satirists, including one who succeeded in rhyming ‘true English Heart’ with ‘a Fart’. More pertinent to her subtitle, she asks ‘What happened to Poems on Affairs of State after 1707?’ but says nothing about the crucial nature of the date ‘1707’ to British culture. The 1707 Act of Union marked the birth of the new British Parliament and involved riots and pamphlet wars; eventually, it led to such songs and poems as James Thomson’s ‘Rule, Britannia’ and Robert Burns’s ‘A Parcel of Rogues’. A digital search shows that the words ‘Scots’ and ‘Scotland’ occur nowhere in the London-published 1707 Affairs of State. This tells us something more important about ‘British culture’ at the time than jokes about the duchess of York’s asparagus breath, and Bucknell might have asked why it was so.

Each of The Treasuries’ eight chapters considers a particular anthology or group of anthologies; together they cover 300 years, arriving at the present day. Bucknell doesn’t claim that her book is anything other than highly selective – her focus is those anthologies popular enough to be considered ‘literary equivalents of public museums or galleries’ – but nonetheless it’s a shame to find its contents almost exclusively centred on England. Irish poetry is occasionally alluded to (Yeats is mentioned twice; Heaney in a footnote). Welsh poetry fares even worse. There is no discussion of Hugh MacDiarmid, whose 1940 Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry broke the mould by treating Gaelic and Latin as part of a national body of verse. When she does mention Scottish anthologists, editors and publishers – John Bell (The Poets of Great Britain), Robert Anderson (Complete Edition of the Poets of Great Britain) and Thomas Campbell (Specimens of the British Poets) – Bucknell doesn’t comment on the way they promoted through their works’ titles a ‘British’ culture, rather than one badged as ‘English’. In the wake of Yeats’s Book of Irish Verse (first published in 1895, a decade before the founding of Sinn Féin) and R.L. Mackie’s Book of Scottish Verse (published in 1934, the year the Scottish National Party was founded), major English publishers including Oxford, Penguin and Faber increasingly published anthologies of Scottish, Welsh and Irish verse, complicating the notion of what an ‘English’ or ‘British’ verse anthology might be, and strengthening the notion that British culture and English culture were different entities. These books, like MacDiarmid’s Golden Treasury, were often bound up with nationalist energies, and encouraged the climate of Irish independence and British devolution.

At the heart of Bucknell’s book is an examination of Francis Turner Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language (1861), which Ezra Pound denounced three-quarters of a century later as a ‘stinking sugar teat’, but which sold very well from the outset and, as Bucknell points out, ‘became a model for the heavyweight collections that came after it, household fixtures such as The Oxford Book of English Verse (1900) and The Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936)’. In his 1991 edition of The Golden Treasury, Christopher Ricks called it ‘the best-known and the best-selling anthology of English poetry ever’, adding: ‘It is the best, too.’ Bucknell contends that Palgrave’s anthology was ‘as British as the poetic landscapes between its covers’, which included those of Shakespeare, Thomas Gray, Wordsworth and the Border ballads. But it was British in a determinedly monolingual way (Palgrave even worried about including Burns’s Scottish dialect). He included nothing medieval (none of his poets was born before the 1550s), and, after a minor tussle with Tennyson, excluded anyone who was still alive in 1861. There were no Americans or other writers from outside the British Isles. Formally, he narrowed things down, too. Though its sense of what constituted a song or lyrical poem was elastic, ‘The Golden Treasury has been profoundly effective,’ as Ricks writes, ‘just because it at once ministers to and mitigates the ordinary reader’s belief that essentially poetry is the lyric.’

Giving a useful biographical sketch of Palgrave (an Oxford pal of Matthew Arnold and Arthur Hugh Clough, and an admirer of Tennyson), Bucknell relates his professional work in English adult education to a growing passion for ‘England’s native literature … English history and the values of the English people’. After all, ‘England’s literature, its poetry in particular, was considered one of the characteristic achievements that had made the country what it was.’ Bucknell makes Palgrave seem in some ways more Anglocentric than he was. The Golden Treasury includes as many poems by Scott as by Keats, and more than 10 per cent of the poets it includes are Scottish. Though it contains few Victorian writers, the anthology certainly indicates aspects of Victorian taste: oodles of Robert Herrick, but only one poem attributed to John Donne; seven poems by William Drummond, but just one by George Herbert; more than ninety men, but just five women (three of them Scots); far more poems by Wordsworth than by anybody else.

Palgrave assembled his anthology while working in London as a civil servant at the Education Office. Bucknell speculates that for him as well as for his readers, putting the word ‘golden’ in front of ‘treasury’ was a way of evoking ‘a vision of glittering riches, a metaphorical version of the real Treasury in London where the nation’s wealth was safeguarded’. Yet the title – crucial both to Palgrave’s book and to Bucknell’s own – has further resonances. Palgrave’s anthology was designed, as Emily Tennyson put it, ‘to beat’ the Irish poet-anthologist William Allingham’s 1860 Nightingale Valley, subtitled ‘A Collection, including a Great Number of the Choicest Lyrics and Short Poems in the English Language’. Allingham, who came from the north of Ireland, included living and American poets in his anthology, whose introduction presents its contents as ‘a jewel’, creations that serve, in Allingham’s Emersonian phrase, ‘to brighten the sunshine’. Palgrave’s ‘golden treasury’ seeks to outshine Allingham’s jewel in its promise of abundant riches: ‘Poetry gives treasures “more golden than gold”,’ he wrote in his 1861 preface, ‘leading us in higher and healthier ways than those of the world, and interpreting to us the lessons of Nature.’ The phrase he quotes – ‘more golden than gold’ – is attributed to Sappho by the rhetorician Demetrius in his treatise On Style, and Palgrave’s use of it is a nod to a classically educated elite among his readers.

Palgrave’s sense of the golden had more to it even than that, however. This is because, as David Latané and others have pointed out (though neither Ricks nor Bucknell mentions it), the book’s title seems to have been lifted (either by Palgrave or by his publisher, Macmillan) from Karl Heinrich von Bogatzky’s early 18th-century Güldenes Schatzkästlein der Kinder Gottes. Translated into English in 1754 as A Golden Treasury for the Children of God, this anthology of religious texts sold well throughout the 19th century. An 1856 article in the Times states that ‘Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Bogatzky’s Golden Treasury always find a ready sale.’ Published five years later, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury was an attempt to wrest this title away from Bogatzky’s religious anthology and attach it instead to secular English lyric poetry – and it succeeded, thanks not least to Macmillan’s marketing. Within months of launching Palgrave’s volume, Macmillan announced that, ‘uniform with the Golden Treasury’, it was about to publish The Children’s Garland, a selection ‘from the best Poets’ edited by Coventry Patmore. Soon, Macmillan was advertising a ‘GOLDEN TREASURY SERIES’ of volumes. This story is not just a piece of publishing history, but part of the shift from sacred to secular culture in 19th-century Britain, aligning with Matthew Arnold’s sense that poetry was coming to replace religion.

Entering the 20th century, Bucknell surveys what she calls ‘the battle of the anthologies’, showing, among other things, that Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse (1900), as Paul Fussell put it, all but ‘preside[d] over the Great War’. With a sharp eye and a sense of wit, Bucknell picks out items others might have missed, such as a 1917 Daily Mail article declaring ‘A Serious Outbreak of Poets’ (‘it is at least a possibility that Germany and England may have to “stop the war” in order to stop the poets’). One modern bibliography lists 2225 men and women who published verse during the Great War; much of it found its way into newspapers and anthologies with titles such as Songs and Sonnets for England in War Time, Poems of the Great War, Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men and The Muse at Arms, which was, Bucknell tells us, ‘the largest collection of soldier poetry produced during the war’. She is alert to the way the ground for such anthologies was prepared not just by Quiller-Couch’s selection, but also by W.E. Henley’s 1891 popular collection for boys, Lyra Heroica, which bolstered notions of ‘the glory of battle and adventure’, ‘the sacred quality of patriotism’ and ‘the beauty and the blessedness of death’. There was also J.W. Mackail’s Greek Anthology – a text used at Eton and elsewhere – which was full of praise for the young noble dead.

Conscious that the term ‘anthology’ brings together the Greek for ‘flower’ and ‘word’, Bucknell is good on the way ‘the act of dying’ could be seen as something that ‘made England flower too’. She might have drawn our attention to the attempts of 20th-century publishers to fuse their own imprint with the noble contents of poetic tradition. Victorian poetry anthology publishers usually kept their imprint out of their books’ titles, which is why we still speak about Palgrave’s Golden Treasury rather than Macmillan’s. But The Oxford Book of English Verse was followed by many other ‘Oxford Books’, and spurred numerous anthologies branded with their publishers’ names. One of the most noteworthy was The Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936), edited by Michael Roberts. In 1932, Roberts, a contributor to the Criterion, had edited for the Woolfs at the Hogarth Press a poetry anthology called New Signatures – a symptom of an international rush towards the ‘new’. Geoffrey Grigson’s magazine New Verse appeared in 1933, the same year as Roberts’s manifesto-like book on literature and politics, New Country, and the year after F.R. Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry. A.R. Orage’s long-running magazine the New Age and Ezra Pound’s injunction (filched from lettering on a Chinese emperor’s bathtub) to ‘Make It New’ might be to blame, or perhaps The New Poetry, an Anthology of 20th-Century Verse in English, edited by Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson for Macmillan in New York in 1917, spurred this eagerness for newness in poetry anthologies in particular. Eliot had set out his own ideas about ‘the new (the really new) work of art’ in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, and the use of the word ‘modern’ rather than ‘new’ in the title of The Faber Book of Modern Verse made it sound just a little different and also avoided the word ‘modernist’, which Eliot disliked in the context of poetry, yet still suggested a distinctive up-to-dateness. In his American youth Eliot had also been suspicious of the word ‘modern’. ‘Cousin Nancy’, a poem from his first collection, juxtaposed the 19th-century classics keeping watch from ‘glazen shelves’ with the suspect behaviour of someone the poet refers to as ‘Cousin Nancy’:

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
But they knew that it was modern.

By the mid-1930s, however, Eliot the publisher, who had by then become what Geoffrey Faber called, with a glint of English nationalism, ‘an English subject’, could see the value of bringing out a Faber Book of Modern Verse. Roberts shared his interest in Elizabethan literature but was also linked to the ‘new’ poets and had just become engaged to the anthologist Janet Adam Smith, a former assistant editor of the Listener, a magazine associated with that newfangled thing, radio. He was just the person to do the job.

Bucknell tracks Roberts’s trajectory from left to right and situates him in a milieu where ‘style wasn’t just style, it was politics.’ She connects his work as an anthologist with Auden’s poetry and his 1930s anthologies The Poet’s Tongue (co-edited with John Garrett) and The Oxford Book of Light Verse, and discusses such projects as Charles Madge’s ‘Oxford Collective Poem’ – an experiment in collaborative authorship. Roberts’s published correspondence with Eliot over The Faber Book of Modern Verse shows the way the anthology complicated notions of ‘British culture’ by proposing not only the inclusion of some Americans (Pound, Marianne Moore, John Crowe Ransom, though not William Carlos Williams) but also of the greatest working-class modernist poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. He was part of Roberts’s original core of poets; Roberts was less sure about Stevens, Yeats and Hopkins. But Stevens, Yeats and Hopkins ended up in the book and MacDiarmid was left out. How involved was Eliot in that decision? While Roberts was working on the book, Eliot turned down MacDiarmid’s long poem ‘Mature Art’. By having Faber agree to include the whole of The Waste Land (something denied to all other anthologists), Eliot helped ensure the significance of Roberts’s anthology, as well as his own centrality within it.

Bucknell’sdiscussion of the world of The Mersey Sound (published by Penguin in 1967) lets her escape Oxford and London. She is interested in anthologies that were bestsellers, and The Mersey Sound, which contained work by the performance poets Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri, was certainly that, selling more than half a million copies. But, shared by just three poets, it was not an anthology in the usual sense. Rather, it was Volume 10 in the Penguin Modern Poets series, launched in 1962. Bucknell considers it alongside The Liverpool Scene, Edward Lucie-Smith’s short 1967 small-press anthology of ‘pop poems and interviews recorded live along the Mersey Beat’ and other works of performance verse. In retrospect, few would argue that the Mersey beat of these poets was better than the Mersey beat of the Beatles, and some might agree with Lucie-Smith that this was ‘essentially oral poetry’, better suited to gigs than to the page. Bucknell discusses the way the poets were encouraged by Tony Richardson, their editor at Penguin, to piggyback on the Beatles’ success, using a ‘sales pitch’ that transposed the notion of a ‘Mersey sound’ from pop music to poetry, and cites a number of critics who pointed out that the Liverpool poets’ dalliance with the language of consumer culture risked (as Roy Fuller put it) ‘junketing with the very forces designed to limit the imagination’. It would have been worth saying more about Lucie-Smith (who compiled several Penguin anthologies, including British Poetry since 1945), not least because he was the first person from the Caribbean to edit major British anthologies. It would have been good, too, to hear a little more about the women who edited British poetry anthologies: Janet Adam Smith, Anne Ridler and Helen Gardner. Who were the first British female anthologists? Why didn’t they have the success of American anthologists such as Amy Lowell and Harriet Monroe?

Allingham claimed in the preface to Nightingale Valley that poetry had the power to ‘soothe grief’. Some modern champions of ecopoetry may feel something similar, and the idea of poetry as a soothing, healing form of achieved attunement – Allingham called it a ‘mystic relation with the Universe’ – has a long history. Bucknell presents Robert Graves’s early 20th-century contention that ‘a well-chosen anthology’ functions as ‘a complete dispensary of medicine for the more common mental disorders’ as an example of this way of thinking. She makes an excursion into American anthologies to discuss the now forgotten musician and poet Robert Haven Schauffler’s 1925 anthology The Poetry Cure: A Pocket Medicine Chest of Verse. Schauffler claimed that he had long ‘studied, collected and tried the effects of various sorts of verse on patients in my poetic clinic’, and Bucknell positions his anthology as a fore-runner of a range of modern popular anthologies, which Andrew O’Hagan, writing in the LRB of 4 November 2004, saw as very different from what he called ‘the old “Treasuries”’.

O’Hagan wrote about recent ‘popular anthologies’ that ‘seemed to be focused not on poems but on readers: they presented poetry as a species of self-help, a tool of personal growth like any other, valuable as a plumbable well of advice, reassurance and emotional uplift.’ Bucknell says that O’Hagan, along with other critics including Robert Potts and Mark Ford, saw this phenomenon as part of the ‘rebranding [of] poetry as a “lifestyle accessory” for the worried middle classes’ – a sort of ‘lavender bath oil’ and ‘state of the art therapy’. Several of these anthologies were edited by Daisy Goodwin – 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life (1999), 101 Poems to Get You through the Day (and Night) (2000) and 101 Poems to Keep You Sane (2001) – and, as Bucknell shows, a plethora of similarly titled collections followed. She relates these anthologies to the Victorian fashion for books about self-improvement and places 21st-century ‘poetry pharmacies’ alongside ‘bibliotherapy – the practice of connecting literature and healthcare by encouraging people to read books to improve their well-being’. She points out that almost a century earlier, Schauffler dedicated The Poetry Cure to ‘the noble army of CREATIVE LIBRARIANS, PRACTITIONERS ALL … OF THE POETRY CURE’. Drawing on recent work by Leah Price, Bucknell looks more widely at ways in which poetry and literature have become medicalised in recent years. Books can be prescribed, poetry taken not just as a spoonful of sugar but as the medicine itself.

‘Medicinal verse,’ Bucknell writes, ‘requires dosage instructions.’ Jonathan Bate, Paula Byrne, Sophie Ratcliffe and Andrew Schuman urge the reader of their Stressed Unstressed anthology to ‘make yourself comfortable,’ and go on to say that ‘by entering into the harmonised world of the poem, you have momentarily escaped your own world of stress and worry.’ This is not so far from Allingham. We can snigger at the language used by Allingham or by the editors of Stressed Unstressed, but both are alert to poetry’s work of attunement. As Bucknell explains, ‘the question poetry therapy asks, in other words, isn’t “What do you think it means?” but “What does it mean for you?”’ This risks an interpretative solipsism, even if ‘curative reading’ is meant to be ‘a collaborative process’, and Bucknell ends with a glance towards ‘online technologies’ and ‘personal anthologies’ culled from the web in acts of ‘self-curation.’ Other books, such as Can Poetry Save the Earth?, Earth Shattering: Ecopoems, 101 Poems to Save the Earth, The Ecopoetry Anthology, Poems for the Planet and Earth Songs direct attention away from self-help and self-curation towards global environmental issues. I admit to hankering after the older ‘treasury’ model – anthologies that claim, as Palgrave did, to present ‘the best’ poems. But they seem to be in eclipse. The most recent ‘golden treasury’ to be published was the polylingual Golden Treasury of Scottish Verse edited by Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson and Peter Mackay in 2021. As far as I can see, it got no print reviews at all.

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Vol. 45 No. 17 · 7 September 2023

Robert Crawford, in his survey of British poetry anthologies, doesn’t mention one particularly contentious selection (LRB, 15 June). W.B. Yeats’s Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935 (1936) omits all the Great War poets – Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon, Blunden and their comrades – on the dubious grounds that ‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.’ In his introduction Yeats acknowledges that these poets ‘were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity’, but his contempt, especially for Owen, is betrayed in a letter of 26 December 1936, in which Owen is dismissed as ‘all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick – he calls poets “bards”, a girl a “maid” & talks about “Titanic wars”. There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him.’ A bit rich, coming from the author of ‘The Song of the Happy Shepherd’, ‘A Faery Song’ and ‘The Secret Rose’.

Sharon Footerman
London NW4

Vol. 45 No. 16 · 10 August 2023

Robert Crawford ends his piece on poetry anthologies with mention of the polylingual Golden Treasury of Scottish Verse from 2021 (LRB, 15 June). Also published that year was Swirl of Words/Swirl of Worlds, a collection of poems selected by Stephen Watts, commissioned and published by PEER. This is an anthology of 116 poems in 94 different languages (Crawford will be pleased to see this includes Scottish and Irish Gaelic), all spoken in Hackney where PEER is based. English gets a look-in too.

Anna Rayne

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