“The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250–1900” is an anthology of English poetry — edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch and published in 1919 — that had a very substantial influence on popular taste and perception of poetry for at least several generations. Interestingly, it was carried widely around the British Empire and was seen as a near essential ‘knapsack book.’ Quiller-Couch dedicated it to Trinity College, Oxford calling it, “a house of learning; ancient, liberal, humane, and [his] most kindly nurse.” In the preface, penned in 1900, he wrote, inter alia, “To be sure, [one] must come to such a task as [the compiling of this anthology] haunted by their youth and the favourites they loved in days when they had much enthusiasm but little reading.” This work is worth having at hand when considering “A Defence of Poetry” — an essay by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, written in 1821 and first published posthumously in 1840 (see too, Shelley’s: “Love’s Philosophy”). That essay was written in response to his friend Thomas Love Peacock’s article “The Four Ages of Poetry,” which had been published in 1820 (see too, Peacock’s: “The Grave of Love”). Both of these are a continuation of the arguments made by Philip Sidney in his 1595 “Apology for Poetry.”
For this Anthology I have tried to range over the whole field of English Verse from the beginning, or from the Thirteenth Century to this closing year of the Nineteenth, and to choose the best. Nor have I sought in these Islands only, but wheresoever the Muse has followed the tongue which among living tongues she most delights to honour. To bring home and render so great a spoil compendiously has been my capital difficulty. It is for the reader to judge if I have so managed it as to serve those who already love poetry and to implant that love in some young minds not yet initiated.
My scheme is simple. I have arranged the poets as nearly as possible in order of birth, with such groupings of anonymous pieces as seemed convenient. For convenience, too, as well as to avoid a dispute-royal, I have gathered the most of the Ballads into the middle of the Seventeenth Century; where they fill a languid interval between two winds of inspiration—the Italian dying down with Milton and the French following at the heels of the restored Royalists. For convenience, again, I have set myself certain rules of spelling. In the very earliest poems inflection and spelling are structural, and to modernize is to destroy. But as old inflections fade into modern the old spelling becomes less and less vital, and has been brought (not, I hope, too abruptly) into line with that sanctioned by use and familiar. To do this seemed wiser than to discourage many readers for the sake of diverting others by a scent of antiquity which—to be essential—should breathe of something rarer than an odd arrangement of type. But there are scholars whom I cannot expect to agree with me; and to conciliate them I have excepted Spenser and Milton from the rule.
Glosses of archaic and otherwise difficult words are given at the foot of the page: but the text has not been disfigured with reference-marks. And rather than make the book unwieldy I have eschewed notes—reluctantly when some obscure passage or allusion seemed to ask for a timely word; with more equanimity when the temptation was to criticize or ‘appreciate.’ For the function of the anthologist includes criticizing in silence.
Care has been taken with the texts. But I have sometimes thought it consistent with the aim of the book to prefer the more beautiful to the better attested reading. I have often excised weak or superfluous stanzas when sure that excision would improve; and have not hesitated to extract a few stanzas from a long poem when persuaded that they could stand alone as a lyric. The apology for such experiments can only lie in their success: but the risk is one which, in my judgement, the anthologist ought to take. A few small corrections have been made, but only when they were quite obvious.
The numbers chosen are either lyrical or epigrammatic. Indeed I am mistaken if a single epigram included fails to preserve at least some faint thrill of the emotion through which it had to pass before the Muse’s lips let it fall, with however exquisite deliberation. But the lyrical spirit is volatile and notoriously hard to bind with definitions; and seems to grow wilder with the years. With the anthologist—as with the fisherman who knows the fish at the end of his sea-line—the gift, if he have it, comes by sense, improved by practice. The definition, if he be clever enough to frame one, comes by after-thought. I don’t know that it helps, and am sure that it may easily mislead.
Having set my heart on choosing the best, I resolved not to be dissuaded by common objections against anthologies—that they repeat one another until the proverb loses all application—or perturbed if my judgement should often agree with that of good critics. The best is the best, though a hundred judges have declared it so; nor had it been any feat to search out and insert the second-rate merely because it happened to be recondite. To be sure, a man must come to such a task as mine haunted by his youth and the favourites he loved in days when he had much enthusiasm but little reading.
❝ A deeper import
Lurks in the legend told my infant years
Than lies upon that truth we live to learn. ❞
— Arthur Quiller-Couch (1900)
Few of my contemporaries can erase—or would wish to erase—the dye their minds took from the late Mr. Palgrave’s Golden Treasury: and he who has returned to it again and again with an affection born of companionship on many journeys must remember not only what the Golden Treasury includes, but the moment when this or that poem appealed to him, and even how it lies on the page. To Mr. Bullen’s Lyrics from the Elizabethan Song Books and his other treasuries I own a more advised debt. Nor am I free of obligation to anthologies even more recent—to Archbishop Trench’s Household Book of Poetry, Mr. Locker-Lampson’s Lyra Elegantiarum, Mr. Miles’ Poets and Poetry of the Century, Mr. Beeching’s Paradise of English Poetry, Mr. Henley’s English Lyrics, Mrs. Sharp’s Lyra Celtica, Mr. Yeats’ Book of Irish Verse, and Mr. Churton Collins’ Treasury of Minor British Poetry: though my rule has been to consult these after making my own choice. Yet I can claim that the help derived from them—though gratefully owned—bears but a trifling proportion to the labour, special and desultory, which has gone to the making of my book.
For the anthologist’s is not quite the dilettante business for which it is too often and ignorantly derided. I say this, and immediately repent; since my wish is that the reader should in his own pleasure quite forget the editor’s labour, which too has been pleasant: that, standing aside, I may believe this book has made the Muses’ access easier when, in the right hour, they come to him to uplift or to console.