Even the title is insulting and delightful: The Cambridge Book of Lesser Poets. Imagine such a thing today, the outrage it would spark. But let’s face it: “lesser” is tactfully kind when it comes to most of the poetry written in any era. The editor of the volume, published in 1927, was J.C. Squire, an industrious English critic, poet and anthologist of the interwar years. Squire intended his collection as a supplement to such established volumes as Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury (1861) and Quiller-Couch’s The Oxford Book of English Verse (1900). He tells us he acquired the first edition of the latter at age sixteen, soon after publication, and still owned it twenty-seven years later.
Squire’s aim is salvage, not disparagement. Many worthy poets, he argues, “could not possibly get a fair show” in an enterprise like Q’s. The inarguable inclusions – Chaucer and Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden, Keats and Tennyson – left him “pressed for space,” thus obliging him to be “cursory in his survey of the better achievements of men who were not among the greatest.” This is the perennial lament of anthologists. Squire resolved to assemble what he calls an “Anthology of the Minors.” The culling process he describes is ruthless: “I made a hundred omissions: and even then I had to make more.” Here’s how he frames it:
“. . . the reader is asked to imagine my saying to myself `Suppose that whilst still keeping a high standard one were to ignore those writers who have frequently reached a high standard: would it not be worth while to show how luxuriant is the English undergrowth?’”
Squire’s anthology, organized chronologically, is rich in names otherwise unknown to me, from Anthony Munday (1553-1633) to John Todhunter (1839-1916). To be understood, some of his inclusions must be put into historical context. He collects three poems by Lord Brooke, better known as Fulke Greville, now accepted as a major poet, but he was working long before Greville was championed by Yvor Winters, Thom Gunn and others. There’s a minor poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, but Robert Bridges had arranged for the posthumous publication of his Collected Poems just nine years earlier. To his credit, Squire includes three poems by Herman Melville, though the great Melville Revival was hardly a decade old, and four lines from “Cooper Hill” by Sir John Denham (1615-1704):
“O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear: though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage, without o’erflowing full.”
I could argue that Melville is one of the major American poets of the nineteenth century, and that Squire includes none of his best poems, and likewise that Denham is too good to be included, but I was happy to read them again. A poet rightfully included, given the recent over-inflation of his reputation, is John Clare, with six poems. A slightly creepy inclusion is “A Cricket Bowler” by Edward Cracroft Lefroy (1855-1891). And a witty epigram by Abel Evans (1679-1737), “On a Fat Man”:
“When Tadlow walks the streets, the paviours cry,
`God bless you, sir!’ and lay their rammers by.”
A “paviour,” the OED tells us, is “a person who lays paving.” A “rammer” is one of his tools: “an instrument for ramming or beating down earth by force, or setting paving stones, etc., in the ground.” In other words, Tadlow does the job for the paviours.
[The Greville poems, as titled by Squire, are “Vast Superstition,” “Chorus of Priests” and “Man, dream no more of curious mysteries.” The Melville poems are “Marlena,” “Crossing the Tropics” and “Pipe Song.”]