Arthur Quiller-Couch, comp. The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse. 1922.
By Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (18631944)
TWELVE years ago, when editing The Oxford Book of English Verseto which the public has been kind beyond expectationI was forced by exigencies of space to cut out many modern lyrics. The Delegates of the University Press now give me opportunity to make amends to conscience by repairing these omissions, and to include a number of beautiful poems written since 1900.
Within new limits I have followed my old rule of choosing what seems to me the best, and for that sole reason. It had been possibleindeed easyto rule out all lyrics printed in the earlier selection and yet make a portly, presentable volume of Victorian Verse; and some advisers have urged on me that the anthologist does his best service in recapturing fugitive, half-forgotten poemsfrail things that by one chance or another cheated of their day have passed down to Limbo. I dare say he does; and admit that in these hundred years innumerable poems have deserved better than fate allowed. Yet the most of them (I think) will be found on examination to miss being first-rate
Nec vero hae sine sorte datae, sine judice, sedes.
At all events they must await another rescuer. The reader will allow me to pursue my old rule to the end; and when he re-greets in this volume many a poem that adorned the former one, he will understand that by excluding these I should have condemned myself to anthologizing the second-rate and clearing the ground for an Oxford Book of the Worst Poetrywhich, by the way, might be a not unentertaining work.
Of the difficulties that waylay a Victorian anthologist two are obvious. Where is he to begin?Where to end? The first has proved less formidable than it looked, and the second scarcely formidable at all. Though Wordsworth happened to be the first Laureate of Queen Victorias reign, no one will argue that he belongs to it. His valediction to the older bards, his glorious contemporaries, in his lines On the Death of James Hogg (written late in 1835), contained his own Nunc dimittis
Like clouds that rake the mountain-summits,
Or waves that own no curbing hand,
How fast has brother followed brother
From sunshine to the sunless land!
Yet I, whose lids from infant slumber
Were earliest raised, remain to hear
A timid voice that asks in whispers
Who next will drop and disappear?
Just there, with the breaking of that voice, comes the interval; but with Landor left to launch us on a wave from the true deeps, which do not failTanagra! think not I forget For the close: as we reckon Drummond of Hawthornden, Herrick, even Shirley, among the Elizabethans, and choose to forget how much of Shakespeares best or of Ben Jonsons is later than Elizabeth, so I have thought it no insult to include any English poet, born in our time, under the great name Victorian; a title the present misprision of which will no less surely go its way as a flippancy of fashion than it will be succeeded by fresh illustration of the habit, constant in fallen Man, of belittling his contemporaries in particular and the age next before his own in the gross. For my part, after many months spent in close study of Victorian versere-reading old favourites and eagerly making acquaintance with much that was new to meI rise from the task in reverence and wonder not only at the mass (not easily sized) of poetry written with ardour in these less-than-a-hundred years, but at the amount of it which is excellent, and the height of some of that excellence; in some exultation too, as I step aside anddrawing difficult breath!gaze after the stream of young runners with their torches.
All this is not to deny or extenuate the real difficulty of my task, which is less of a difficulty than an impossibility: since he who attempts on his contemporaries such assaying as these pages imply, attempts what no man can do. Yes, the business is not only laboriousas the late Mr. Palgrave confessed that his second Golden Treasury had cost him thrice the labour of his first, the most famous anthology in our language: it cannot be done. Yet it is so well worth doing!
To find out what you cannot do,
And then to go and do it;
There lies the golden rule
and there (if the reader will forgive the levity) lies a great part of the fun. My one doubt is that the attempt ought not to have taken for shield in this second book the name of a University which has ever with such lovely rightness chosen to await and teach perfection, ignoring clamours of the moment and the market. Yet, and though the judgements in this book be superseded, the pains spent on them may help to clear the ground and advance by so much the business of criticism, if not of poetry: and to that extent may be subsidiary to the great service Oxford is ever performing.