BOOK REVIEW / More hers than hymns: The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse: edited by Jerome J McGann, pounds 25

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THERE was once an Oxford Book of English Regency Verse, but of course the dates couldn't be made to fit; Romantic Period Verse, though much less elegant, is certainly less of a fudge. But we should ask, as apparently the Oxford editors haven't, why in any case the period in question should have an anthology devoted to it. There have been Oxford Books of 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century verse; why not simply proceed to the 19th? But no; 19th-century verse, by established convention, deserves two anthologies set end to end. Was our 19th century, then, so rich in English poetry? Naturally, that century thought so; but why should we fall in with Victorian prejudice? In fact many voices over the years have been raised to contend that the so-called Romantic Period, far from seeing a flowering of our poetry, drastically constricted - and in many ways debased - the poetic tradition it inherited.

Verse-translation, for instance, though it persists (Cary's blank-verse Divine Comedy came between 1805 and 1812, though Jerome McGann ignores it), is suddenly demoted from poetry proper about 1800. No place in the anthology for:

Praise the Lord] ye heavens adore him;

Praise him, angels in the height;

Sun and moon, rejoice before him;

Praise him all ye stars and light . . .

So begins an anonymous poem of 1796, known to any English-speaker who has attended church or chapel, though few will have recognised the hymn as a translation of Psalm 148. Or again:

Hail to the Lord's Anointed;

Great David's greater Son]

Hail, in the time appointed,

His reign on earth begun]

This, too, is a translation - of Psalm 72. It is by James Montgomery (1771-1854), who indeed figures in the New Oxford Book, as the author of 26 heroic couplets from an unread, and in bulk unreadable, poem, 'The Bramin'. Jerome McGann, given a choice, will always pass over a poem that has been accepted into the popular consciousness in favour of one not known nor available outside scholarly libraries. I don't think of myself as a populist, but when it comes to hymns like Montgomery's a populist is what I am, and I object to the way this anthology is consistently elitist.

This is masked here and there. McGann gives us, for instance, 'Jone o' Grinfilt', in Lancashire dialect, attributed to Joseph Lees (1748-1824). This poem was new to me, and I'm grateful for it, but for obvious reasons it can never have been widely known outside Lancashire, so it's in a quite different class from poems and psalm-translations known to all churchgoers. McGann in fact, despite the transatlantic distance that he might have profited by but doesn't, seems to accept the British take-over of the Romantic period by the Foots (Michael and Paul), which presents the period as emblematised by Shelley; therefore revolutionary, republican and atheist. The common people are let in, but only when they voice sentiments overtly or implicitly subversive.

Particularly poignant in this connection are the cases of John Clare (1793-1864), and Robert Bloomfield (1766-1823), whom Clare considered as in many ways his master. Both were rural proletarians, and both were ruined by the commercialism of publishers and booksellers, but neither of them articulated his subsequent despair and bewilderment in ways that modern times regard as politically correct. Accordingly, in this anthology Bloomfield gets no representation at all, and Clare is allocated just one poem, weak and unrepresentative, whereas Mrs Hemans, for example, gets 11 poems, and Laetitia Elizabeth Landon eight.

The work done on John Clare over the last half-century by J W and Anne Tibble, Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield (to name no others) is so considerable that one is tempted to think McGann's perfunctory representation of him deliberately provocative; but alas, the likelier reasons are simple ignorance and insensitivity. As for Robert Bloomfield, he wrote, in 'The Widow to her Hour-Glass' (1802), lines which the more vaunted poets of this anthology - Byron, Shelley, Keats - can surpass no more in technical dexterity than in humane feeling:

I've often watch'd thy streaming sand

And seen the growing Mountain rise,

And often found Life's hopes to stand

On props as weak in Wisdom's eyes:

Its conic crown

Still sliding down,

Again heap'd up, then down again;

The sand above more hollow grew,

Like days and years still filt'ring through,

And mingling joy and pain.

George Crabbe is never so graceful. Only Wordsworth in his youth, and very infrequently Coleridge, can better Bloomfield at this kind of thing. And it is a very important kind of thing - not in the least 'visionary' (that ambition which regularly wrecked the diction of so many Romantic poets, and bemuses their admirers to this day), but true to the grit and grain of common experience. Such lines are at once true and beautiful, as are some poems by Hardy or Philip Larkin. But McGann prefers to Bloomfield lines by Hannah Cowley, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Anne Radcliffe, Charlotte Dacre, Mary Tighe, Jane Taylor and several other women.

The time was ripe for a clear-sighted revision of what we understand as the Romantic period, for it should be clear that giving John Clare his due is not a matter of improving his standing among his peers, but of altering our sense of the slice of our history which he inhabited. What this anthology gives us is the mixture as often before, tricked out with concessions at the edges. No concessions to Christians, however.