Friday, November 06, 2015

`Manly and Tender Words of Respect'

During her lifetime (1847-1922), Alice Meynell was best-known as a writer of conventional late-Romantic and Edwardian poetry, admired by Tennyson, Ruskin and Chesterton, though Meynell believed she excelled as an essayist. In front of me I have a first edition of her Essays (Burns & Oates, 1914), and I wish I could say it was an unjustly forgotten treasure but Time has been merciful to readers. Her prose is as brittle and earnest as many  of her sentiments. In the ironically titled “Laughter” she writes: “Assuredly it would be a pity if laughter should ever become, like rhetoric and the arts, a habit. And it is in some sort a habit when it is not inevitable. If we ask ourselves why we laugh, we must confess that we laugh oftenest because—being amused—we intend to show that we are amused,” and so on. Any writer taking as her subject laughter and its cousins – jokes, humor, comedy – is probably doomed to Bergsonian humorlessness. The biopsy kills the patient, though Max Beerbohm succeeded, as usual, with his own "Laughter" (And Even Now, 1920).

More successful is Meynell the anthologist. I pulled out The School of Poetry: An Anthology, Chosen for Young Readers (W. Collins Sons & Co., 1923) after writing Thursday’s post on poetry recitation by children. In her brief introduction, Meynell writes:

“The ages suggested for the Scholars of this little School were ten to fourteen. These are long, long years of youth, equal to ten of the older, twenty of the aged: not only in effectiveness, but also in the sensation of time. Therefore it was not easy to choose the all-appropriate from our great and various literature.”

What impresses me in Meynell’s selection is its uncompromising seriousness. She wasn’t cutting kids any poetic slack. Her anthology could readily have been marketed to adults (of the nineteen-twenties, not today). There’s no Jack Perlutsky-style goofiness or condescension. Shakespeare, Blake and Wordsworth are represented by seven poems each, Tennyson by eight, Henry Vaughan by four and Cowper by two. A name unknown to me, John Banister Tabb, shows up with five poems. He seems to be the only American in the book, and was a Roman Catholic priest.  This may have influenced Meynell’s decision to include him, as she was also a serious Catholic. Clearly it wasn’t for any poetic merit his work possessed. Preceding a poem with the Al Jolson-like title “`Mammy,’” Meynell appends a note:

“The negro nurse of American children born in the Southern states of the Union had the pet name of `Mammy.’ The poet (a Catholic priest) was blind for some years before his death. He, an American, writes of his nurse’s black face; and, as usual, puts much fine meaning and imagination into a very few beautiful lines.”

Meynell also includes one poem by a sadly undervalued writer, Edmund Blunden, best known for his World War I memoir Undertones of War (1928). He served for two years on the Western Front. Here is the third stanza of “Forefathers,” a lineal descendent of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (not included in her anthology by Meynell – nor is Pope, Johnson or any other eighteenth-century poet):

“Names are vanished, save the few
In the old brown Bible scrawled;
These were men of pith and thew,
Whom the city never called;
Scarce could read or hold a quill,
Built the barn, the forge, the mill.”

Meynell writes in her note to the poem: “It is good to read manly and tender words of respect for the unknown villagers who did their work and went to their rest leaving no name or record. We inherit their good building, their thick walls, their steady roofs, and the example of their duty and dignity, without knowing to whom we are in debt.”      

No comments: