The Treasuries: Poetry Anthologies and the Making of British Culture by Clare Bucknell - review by Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines

Compile, O Muse

The Treasuries: Poetry Anthologies and the Making of British Culture


Head of Zeus 352pp £27.99

Poetry used to be a central component of national identity. Gerard Manley Hopkins likened a great poem by an Englishman to a great battle won by English soldiers. The English were ‘pre-eminently a poetical nation’, declared a 20th-century Oxford Professor of Poetry. ‘The only poetical literature which could compare with that of England was the ancient Greek.’ The supposed supremacy of English poetry, and its part in fashioning a sense of national exceptionalism, is one of the themes of Clare Bucknell’s cultural history of anthology-making.

Meleager was Europe’s first anthologist. He compiled, in the first century BC, an Anthologia, or garland, of epigrammatical verses drawn from forty-seven Greek writers. In Tudor England, literate people began to organise their book knowledge by copying striking sentences and educative paragraphs into their own private records. Entries were arranged under subject headings to facilitate easy reference. Songes and Sonettes of 1557, the first printed anthology of English poetry, also known as Tottel’s Miscellany, was drawn from manuscripts held in private hands.

Thereafter, anthologies took different forms and served different purposes. One branch specialised in nihilistic lampoons and vituperative satires of those in authority. Beginning with an angry, scurrilous series entitled Poems on Affairs of State, published between 1689 and 1707, and continuing with The Foundling Hospital of Wit (1743),

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