Now you can look into Chapman's Homer

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The Oxford Book of English Verse, ed Christopher Ricks (Oxford £20)

The Oxford Book of English Verse, ed Christopher Ricks (Oxford £20)

One of the symptoms of pre-millennial tension is the desire to reckon up, and in literary terms this means two things: first, relentless list-making - the greatest books of the Nineties, of the century, of Waterstone's customers, ever - and second, anthologies. Harvill's recently published Twentieth-Century Poetry in English joins a crowd of similarly titled young pretenders. And if Faber continue to bring out their anthologies of writing on science, lists, beasts, booze, and so forth, we'll soon need an anthology of anthologies.

The granddaddy of them all is The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited first by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1900 and subsequently by Dame Helen Gardner in 1972. Now Christopher Ricks, the Warren Professor of Humanities at Boston University, has made that brace of esteemed editors a triumvirate, and has added 50 years and a flurry of new poems to the anthology in the process.

Ricks's selection is, for much of its extensive territory, wholly predictable. That is just how it should be - the Oxford Books are expected to put stabilisers on an unsteady canon. This is not to say, however, that the new edition is without surprises, for Ricks has steered a canny course between tradition and innovation. Beyond the inevitable cosmetic changes - same poet, different poem - there are some significant differences from the 1972 version; the majority of these are pleasant, a few are less appealing.

The most conspicuous among them, and the one which will undoubtedly attract most comment, is the influx of female poets. There were only nine in Gardner's volume, but there are 29 (out of 217) in Ricks's. Eighteen appear for the first time, including Charlotte Bronte, Caroline Oliphant and Mary Herbert (one of the best translators of the psalms into English). Ricks claims to have used a meritocratic system of selection, paying no heed to gender agendas. He has turned up a number of good poems by little-known women, and the odd outstanding find. "Glass" by Anne Finch (1661-1720) is one such discovery. It opens magnificently: "O Man! what Inspiration was thy Guide, / ... / T'extract from Embers by a strange Device, / Then polish fair these Flakes of solid Ice; / Which silver'd o'er, redouble all in place, / And give thee back thy well or ill-complexion'd Face."

Ricks has made three major deviations from previous editorial protocol. He has admitted excerpts from verse plays, translations, and a gaggle of shorter forms - limericks, clerihews, nursery rhymes. Such a liberal immigration policy is an excellent departure from precedent. His first lenience means that the Renaissance section of the anthology is immeasurably stronger than before - Faustus's final speech appears, as does the Duchess of Malfi's address to her executioners ("I know death hath ten thousand severall doores / for men to take their Exits: and 'tis found / They go on such strange geometricall hinges, / You may open them both ways"). Most importantly, Shakespeare is at last represented in his full resplendence. Marvellous though the songs, sonnets and dramatic poems are, when segregated from the plays they cannot demonstrate the full scope of Shakespeare's poetic achievement.

The presence of translations lends a feel of affable cosmopolitanism to the volume. This may seem counter to its status as the book of English Verse - should foreigners really be allowed in, even in native garb? - but, as Ricks quite rightly points out, a translation can be as great a poem as an original, and these versions have each gained classic status in their own right. Thus we can for the first time look into Chapman's Homer, Golding's Ovid, Dryden's Juvenal, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sonnets from the Portuguese", even Arthur Waley's translations from classical Chinese.

The shorter forms are a delightful addition. There is the occasional damp squib, but most are sparkling combinations of brevity and wit. Edmund Clerihew Bentley is present, sharpening his pen on an unfortunate monarch: "George the Third / Ought never to have occurred. / One can only wonder / At so grotesque a blunder." Ricks also includes en bloc 19 anonymous nursery rhymes, beginning with "Baa, baa, black sheep", and ending with "Who killed Cock Robin". It is good to have these childhood lyrics set down in print, both for children who want to learn them and adults who want a quick nostalgia trip.

There are other, less programmatic changes. New recruits have been drafted in to swell the ranks of the Irish (James Henry, Austin Clarke, J M Synge), the Scots (Henryson - at last - and MacDiarmid) and the Welsh (R S Thomas). On the principle that pre-independence America was importantly caught up in the evolution of English literature, the 18th-century Americans Edward Taylor and Anne Bradstreet are also included. However, Ezra Pound - in many ways the forger of British literary modernism - does not make the cut, although he was in the 1972 edition. Some of the language's great longer poems appear in their entirety - Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market", Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" and Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", Eliot's "The Waste Land" (of which only two sections appear in the Harvill anthology). Ricks has done well to make space for these works in their uncut form - while some long poems can support cropping (Pope's natural pithiness and the sententious nature of the couplet form are ideally suited to excerpting, for example), to prune back a poem like "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is to harm it immensely.

The most questionable section of the anthology is the 20th century, but this is hardly surprising. Canon-making in the recent past will always be awkward, because one does not have the formidable ally of Posterity to help in the choosing. This said, Ricks has made some decidedly controversial decisions. Stephen Spender is left out in the cold entirely, while Anthony Thwaite is welcomed in with five poems. John Betjeman is inexplicably given only two short poems, neither of which are among his best, while William Empson gets seven, as does Geoffrey Hill (a friend and colleague of Ricks at Boston). This all seems rather disproportionate, particularly given the meagre selection from Ted Hughes - four animal poems, all from Lupercal (1960). The collection's "generous limit" (Ricks's words) is Heaney's "The Pitchfork", published in 1991, so why not something from Crow, or Moortown? It seems a shame that Hughes, one of the most important and varied poetic voices of this century, should be enshrined merely as a frequenter of zoos and farmyards.

"The Oxford Book of English Verse speaks for itself; as all great poetry is best left to do," announce the advertisements. That's not quite the case - true, there are no mini-biographies, no notes, in fact no scholarly apparatus at all, save the odd obscure Middle English or Scots word translated in a footer - but there is Ricks's introduction which seems to attempt a "mixture of gravity and waggery" (to quote Christopher Smart) and achieves something much less well blended. This is presumably a volume for all- comers, and one might expect the introduction to lay out a welcome mat on which all might wipe their feet. Not so. It takes as its structure the pronouncements of a dynasty of English poet-critics - Jonson, Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, Eliot - on what makes great poetry great. This eminently sensible approach, however, is too often spoiled by Ricks's glitzy rhetoric - clarity and explanation are sacrificed at the altar of brio. This anthology has got to survive the day of its giving and speak volumes for decades to come, and while the poems undoubtedly do just that - testifying in the most eloquent way possible to the variety and depth of our poetry - Ricks's cloudy introduction does not.

Reviewing an anthology called The Book of the Poets in 1842, Elizabeth Barrett (not yet Browning) observed that "There is a plague of poems in the land apart from poetry." Someone has to take on the enormous - and political - job of deciding what is pestilence and what is poetry, what is worth keeping and what worth forgetting. Despite the occasional glitch, Ricks has performed that Herculean task splendidly.

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