That J.V. Cunningham and Stevie Smith are among the most enjoyable, memorable and rereadable poets of the last century is to me beyond argument. Is either “major?” If we define “major” in the conventional sense – influential, popular (especially with critics and the professors), resonant with the times – probably not. Both were too idiosyncratic, too contrary, too immune to the fickle fashions of their day. Both came to their mature styles early – a sure sign of seriousness of intent – and neither radically changed the way they wrote. Each was a poet’s poet, though not in the sense of flattering an exclusive coterie of readers and critics. Both wrote as though their audience included their influential forebears. Each created his or her own precursors, in the sense described by Borges.
In “I’m Not Dante or Milton, but Won’t You Remember Me, Too?” David Wheatley salvages a curious anthology compiled in 1927 by J.C. Squire, The Cambridge Book of Lesser Poets. Wheatley lays on the whimsy a little heavily for my taste, but Squire’s book is worthy of rediscovery on its own terms (some of the poems he chooses are excellent, which suggests that a minor poet can leave us a major poem or two), and as a healthy reminder that art is not democratic or egalitarian, and never fair. In his preface, Squire says his collection is assembled as a “supplement” to the canon-forming anthologies that ruled his day – Francis Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (1861) and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s The Oxford Book of English Verse (1900). Among his reasons for collecting “lesser” poets, Squire says, is that “certainly the vast riches of our English poetry would be illustrated if a book of almost equivalent size were made from which all the greater writers should be omitted.” Also, he wisely leaves out poets still alive as of 1927.
Of William Somerville (1675-1742), Dr. Johnson writes in Lives of the Eminent English Poets: “Somervile has tried many modes of poetry; and though perhaps he has not in any reached such excellence as to raise much envy, it may commonly be said at least, that `he writes very well for a gentleman’ . . . His subjects are commonly such as require no great depth of thought or energy of expression. His fables are generally stale and therefore excite no curiosity.” Hardly a hearty endorsement, but Squire includes one poem by Somerville, “Address to His Elbow-Chair, New Clothed.” If William Cowper can sing of his sofa, Somerville can praise his reupholstered chair:
“True, thou art spruce and fine, a very beau;
But what are trappings and external show?
To real worth alone I make my court;
Knaves are my scorn, and coxcombs are my sport.”
No one will confuse this with the work of Pope, the major English poet among Somerville’s contemporaries, but the poem is amusing and reminds us how form can lend interest to fluff. Quibbles are inevitable and Squire sometimes falters. He includes three poems by Dr. Johnson, including at least one “major” work, the poignant “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet.” He also, rather early in the “Melville Revival,” includes four poems by Herman Melville (with Dickinson, one of the two indisputably major American poets of the nineteenth century). In The Uses of Pessimism (Oxford University Press, 2010), Roger Scruton offers a pertinent reminder: “A dose of pessimism reminds us that great art is not easy to come by, that there is no formula for producing it, and that creativity makes sense only if there are also the rules that constrain it.” Any moron can yawp barbarically, and most can slavishly follow a formula. It’s the balance of those two unseemly extremes that results in something interesting, something that has a chance of surviving its time. An attentive reading of Squire’s anthology leads the reader to an inevitable conclusion: much of yesterday’s “minor” poetry is superior to most of today’s “major” work. Wheatley’s concluding sentence is his best:
“Read a minor poem today and save someone’s memory from oblivion.”