The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English by Ian Hamilton (ed) - review by Robert Nye

Robert Nye

Will Three Survive?

The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English


Oxford University Press 618pp £25 order from our bookshop

Looking about the Cheshire Cheese public house at the assembled members of the Rhymers’ Club, Yeats is reported to have said, ‘We are too many.’ The same thought occurred to me on first looking into The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. Here are 1500 writers of all sorts of verse, from 1900 to the present, ranked in alphabetical order, plus 100 entries on topics such as Rhyme, Traditional Forms, Verse Drama, Syllabics, Concrete Poetry, and so forth. The result is at once a reference book and a sort of map of critical opinion regarding the current verse trade. It should prove useful to public libraries, and the odd individual reader might get pleasure or instruction from the odd individual entry. All the same, a Companion running from Abercrombie, Lascelles, to Zwicky, Fay, and taking in The New Criticism, The New Formalism and The New York School along the way, might be found to be altogether too companionable for company. Swift reckoned that Britain was lucky if it ever boasted three real poets living at the same time – ‘Our chilling climate hardly bears/ A sprig of bays in fifty years’. This is not a view which can recommend itself to the editor of an encyclopaedia, alas.

That editor, though, is Ian Hamilton, sometime scourge of his poetical contemporaries when he masterminded a magazine called The Review (1962-72), ‘widely recalled’ (as the Companion tells us) ‘as a forum for rigorous and sometimes ferocious critical writing’. For all its air of catholicity, something of the same rigour informs the present book, and not to its detriment. There is even the occasional welcome touch of ferocity, though mostly this comes with such ironical neatness that if the reader is merely skimming he or she might miss it. Thus we are told of Peter Levi that ‘his abundant verse … has not yet been widely studied’; of T S Eliot that he was ‘nowhere more American than in his Europeanism’; and of Douglas Dunn that ‘many lines, quoted and praised by critics for their graphic qualities, dourly described such things as “Old men’s long underwear/ (Dripping)” and (most notably) frozen dogshit, as well as other appurtenances of working-class Hull.’

These are sharper sayings than companions are commonly obliged to offer, and they make perusal of the volume an intermittent joy. Also enjoyable is the way it can be read as a compendium of bizarre trivia, such as the fact that Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath shared the same birthday, that A S J Tessimond spent half his inheritance ‘on various psychoanalysts, the rest on his night-life’, and that John Riley was perhaps the first poet since Cinna to be killed by muggers. In this Trivial Pursuit vein, Hamilton kindly tells us at the outset that twenty-seven of his “‘ chosen poets had nervous breakdowns, that fifteen committed suicide, and that fifteen were/ are diagnosed as alcoholic (this last figure certainly a modest underestimate) . It is perhaps a pity that the entry on Malcolm Lowry does not mention that while his first biographer thought that he died by choking on his false teeth, his second more recently suggested that the poor chap was murdered by his wife.

To the nitty-gritty of evaluation…It seems to me that W H Auden is overrated here in a way which will look ludicrous in, say, another fifty years. Auden was certainly an excellent anthologist, but his own poems were themselves his best anthology, ie a discriminating compilation of the choicest twentieth-century ‘influences’ rather than anything heartfelt. Another of Hamilton’s giants who is already shrinking is Robert Lowell, cousin of cigar-smoking Amy, empress of Imagism, also included, both of them related to James Russell Lowell (1819-91), author of the immortal lines, ‘A marciful Providunce fashioned us holler,/ 0′ purpose thet we might our principles swaller’. Perhaps every age gets the Lowell it deserves?

On the positive side, there are excellent appraisals of Robert Graves, Hart Crane, Norman Cameron, and Wilfred Owen, though in the last case one of his best lines is misquoted (it should read ‘The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall’, not ‘bows’). The first line of the first poem in Dylan Thomas’s first book is also wrongly given, and the entry for Laura Riding contains several mistakes of fact as well as an incorrect tide for one of her books. Future editions should also put right the date of Martin Seymour Smith’s biography of Graves – 1982, not 1956. And it ought to be Aram Saroyan, not Adam.

Everyone is free to play the game of scolding Ian Hamilton for his omissions. Suffice it to say that the most important one I can think of is Charles Doughty (1843-1926), author of The Dawn in Britain, and much other verse (and prose) of interest. The fact that The Dawn in Britain is an epic of some 30,000 lines, couched in old-fashioned English, has earned it the reputation of being unreadable, of course. Yet it is certainly more arresting, prosodically, than Robert Bridges’s The Testament of Beauty, granted respectful mention here, and linguistically it is much more vital than that frigid work. That this Oxford book finds room for such fry as Alfred Austin but not for Doughty will look strange if epics ever come into fashion again.

Mention of Austin brings me back to the 1890s, and Yeats counting heads in the Cheshire Cheese. How many members of the Rhymers’ Club are read at all nowadays, and how much? Ernest Dowson, I think, whose ‘Cynara’ is as moving as any love lyric in the language; perhaps Lionel Johnson, for a few lines; Yeats himself, for rather more. That’s three from the crowd, a century on. As for the three from this book, Time (a decent critic) will have to tell.

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