Friday, January 17, 2020

'Happy, Courageous, and Honourable Thought'

“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.”

It’s reassuring to recall a time when children were still respected, when their emotional and intellectual capacities weren’t patronized or ignored by adults. The very notion of titling a poetry anthology for young people The School of Poetry is admirable and wouldn’t be tolerated today. Its editor is Alice Meynell (1847-1922), a once-popular English poet and mother of eight. The collection was published in 1923, shortly after Meynell’s death at age seventy-five. She continues in her introduction:

“I have taken some poems for their happy, courageous, and honourable thought, some for the very poetry of poetry. . . . The size of the book was, of course, limited; there would have been matter, from the stores of past and present, for fifty such books.”

The chronologically arranged anthology contains not a trace of “children’s poetry,” the cute, treacly stuff that fills volumes today. Nor is Modernism represented. In its first forty pages we find Drayton, Shakespeare, Dekker, Jonson and Herbert. She includes Herrick’s “A Thanksgiving to God, for his House,” with these charming lines:

“Lord, I confess too, when I dine,
         The pulse is Thine,
And all those other bits, that be
         There plac’d by Thee;
The worts, the purslain, and the mess
         Of water-cress,
Which of Thy kindness Thou hast sent;
         And my content
Makes those, and my beloved beet,
         To be more sweet.”

Meynell provides no trigger-warnings for Milton’s “On His Blindness,” Cowper’s “On the Loss of the Royal George” or Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen.” Introducing the Binyon, she writes: “These grave lines sound as though they had cost tears, and our tears answer them. Nothing simpler could be written, and nothing greater.” Meynell is not afraid of rousers or barn-burners. Here a lines from a poem by Allan Cunningham I had never heard before:

“And white waves heaving high, my lads,
  The good ship tight and free—    
The world of waters is our home,
  And merry men are we.”

I’m surprised Meynell includes only one of Kipling’s poems, the mandatory “Recessional” (“Lest we forget—lest we forget!”). Of it she writes:

“A recessional hymn is one that is used after a ceremony—it is the sequel to a processional hymn. Rudyard Kipling, the soldier’s poet, has written many an inspiring and inspiriting processional poem, but nothing finer than this poem, hymn, and prayer—this afterthought of a patriot. Surely, while unhappily there is war in the world, every patriot, every soldier, should have an afterthought like this.”

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