Tuesday, November 14, 2017

'My Never-Failing Friends They Are'

The title sounds like New Age malarkey: The Quiet Spirit. The subtitle clarifies things: An Anthology of Poems Old and New (1946). The editor is Frank Eyre (1910-1988), an English-born editor at Oxford University Press who lived the latter half of his life in Australia. Eyre divides his collection into five sections: “Verse: and the Quiet Mind,” “The Green Shade,” “Ideal Love,” “Night and Sleep” and “The Final Quiet.” We’re still in New Age territory, it seems, but Eyre has a novel premise for his anthology. His selections are printed without title or author. There’s an index at the back that provides that information. In his foreword he says the 175 poems and excerpts are meant to be read consecutively as if the collection were not an anthology but a single autonomous work in which “a continuous thread of poetic thought is sustained throughout.” Playing Eyre’s game and reading the poems cold reminds me of the Blindfold Test in Down Beat magazine (see the late Walter Becker’s). Here’s one I recognized:

“Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise.
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby:
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

“Care is heavy, therefore sleep you;
You are care, and care must keep you.
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby:
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.”

That’s Thomas Dekker’s “Cradle Song” from his 1603 comedy Patient Grissel, later reworked by The Beatles. As poem or song, it’s a lovely piece of work. Eyre’s tastes are evident. He favors gentle verse and nature poetry, whether Shelley or Edward Thomas. He seems to have had no taste for satire or light verse, shies away from humor in general, and includes no Dryden, Pope, Swift or Dr. Johnson. A good poem I didn’t recognize, though I placed it in the right century, is by a poet much admired by Yvor Winters:

“If thou sit here to view this pleasant garden place,      
Think thus—At last will come a frost and all these flowers deface:    
But if thou sit at ease to rest thy weary bones,   
Remember death brings final rest to all our grievous groans;
So whether for delight, or here thou sit for ease,
Think still upon the latter day: so shalt thou God best please.”

That’s George Gascoigne’s “Lines Written on a Garden Seat.” Finally, another poem that stumped me. Here is the first stanza. Only slowly did I realize the poem is a sort of riddle:

“My days among the Dead are past;         
  Around me I behold,        
Where'er these casual eyes are cast,        
  The mighty minds of old:
My never-failing friends are they,
With whom I converse day by day.”

The title gives it away: “His Books,” by Robert Southey.

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