Hallowed tome is feeling its age

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The Oxford Book of English Verse edited by Christopher Ricks, (Oxford University Press, £25)

The Oxford Book of English Verse edited by Christopher Ricks, (Oxford University Press, £25)

THE OXFORD Book of English Verse has been with us for almost 100 years. In October 1900, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch - "Q" to his familiars - sat down and wrote his preface to that first edition. The preface reads as if it were written in some cloistered, sun-bleached Oxbridge garden. A natural heir to Palgrave's Golden Treasury, his anthology was both generally sound in the early parts - up to the end of the 17th century, say - and a touch dilletantee-ish."Q" wanted to gather the flowers of English poetry, so the contents were largely lyrical or epigrammatic. He was a great meddler with texts and would toss whole stanzas aside if he deemed them lacking in the necessary felicities. Dramatic verse was not included at all, because it would have to be wrenched out of its context. Some of the greatest poetry ever written was excluded on a point of editorial principle.

The book began where it does now, in the 13th century, as did the 1939 edition, also by "Q", which brought it up to the end of the First World War. That anthology, such was its popularity, was still in print when a third edition was published in 1972 by the critic and scholar Dame Helen Gardner. She brought the contents up to 1950.

Now, almost 30 years on, Christopher Ricks has undertaken the task all over again. Ricks's point of departure is the same down to the very first poem - that lovely cuckoo-call which heralds the onset of summer and was written by the world's most brilliantly prolific author, Anon, in the 13th century. The book now ends in 1991 with "The Pitchfork", from Seamus Heaney's collection Seeing Things. Between, much has changed.

Dramatic poetry enters in full cry - Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Webster and the brawling, bawling rest. The change to the tone as a whole is dramatic and irreversible. It begins to read like a book written by people with voices which speak out loud, rather than a quiet complement to some bookish man's inner musings.

Another important change has to do with the texts themselves. In order to introduce us to the gorgeous blooms of English poesy, "Q" cleared away the thorns and brambles that might impede our progress through the garden, standardising the presentation of medieval poems by smoothing over grammatical or orthographical difficulties.

Ricks's heavily glossed versions of medieval poetry are often much more difficult to understand, because he sticks as closely as possible to original manuscript sources. Again, we feel ourselves in the presence of real people who may have heard, and therefore spelled,words differently.

What does this edition tell us about critical reputations? Dame Helen gave acres to the magisterial WB Yeats; Ricks has pared him back to half the space. Day-Lewis and Spender, twin darlings of the Thirties, are gone altogether. MacDiarmid comes in with a bang from nowhere, with many other Scots poets, male and female. And there are many more women than ever before.

The most difficult thing is doing justice to poets who may be a little younger than the editors. Gardner, in 1972, did not dare venture closer to the present than 1950. "Q", in 1939, told us that he did not have the pluck to pronounce upon poetry written after the First World War. Ricks stops short almost a decade ago with Heaney, a man five years his junior. Why are these scholar-critics such cowards? Do they ever own up to living in the present?

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