Tuesday, February 23, 2021

'For Health, Wealth and Beauty, Wit, Learning and Sense'

“In making this selection we have had two main objects before us—the first, to provide poems which boys might reasonably be expected to like, and the second (which is not unconnected with the first) to awaken or encourage their metrical sense.” 

That is the first sentence of the preface to An Eton Poetry Book (Macmillan and Co., 1925), edited by Cyril Alington and George Lyttleton, both of Eton College. Some readers will know The Lyttelton/Hart-Davis Letters, published in six volumes between 1978 and 1984. Lyttleton (1883-1962) was a longtime housemaster and English teacher at Eton. Rupert Hart-Davis (1907-1999) was a publisher and editor, probably best remembered for editing the Collected Letters of Oscar Wilde (1962). Hart-Davis had been Lyttleton’s student at Eton in 1925-26. The men met again at a dinner party in 1955, and started a regular correspondence that continued until Lyttleton’s death in 1962. The letters are sheer pleasure for readers. Alington was headmaster at Eton from 1917 to 1933.


People in the past, including parents and teachers, often had a higher opinion of children than is common today. They respected them enough to expect them not only to read poetry but to memorize it, scan it and, God forbid, enjoy it and incorporate it into their lives. In the next paragraph of the preface, the editors write: “There is, as we hope this volume will show, a great deal of poetry which is likely to win instantaneous acceptance from any reasonably intelligent boy.”


The book is organized according to meter and form. Chapters are devoted to the heroic couplet, the octosyllabic couplet, the sonnet, trochaic meter, and so forth. The poet represented with the most poems is Keats, with six, followed by Browning and Wordsworth, with five each. Several of the poets included are unknown to me, including Thomas Jordan (1612-1685), whom the editors describe as “an unblushing plagiarist, or thief of other men’s writings. His contribution is Coronemus nos Rosisantequam marcescant (“Let us drink and be merry”). Here is the final stanza:


“Then why should we turmoil in cares and in fears,     

Turn all our tranquill’ty to sighs and to tears?  

Let’s eat, drink, and play till the worms do corrupt us,

      ’Tis certain, Post mortem

      Nulla voluptas.  

For health, wealth and beauty, wit, learning and sense,          

Must all come to nothing a hundred years hence.”


The Latin tag: “After death / No pleasure remains.” The “corrupt us” / “voluptas” rhyme is priceless. The editors are right: a thirteen-year-old boy would love this.


I’ve always enjoyed and relied on good anthologies, beginning with the collections edited by Oscar Williams when I was kid. With a few edits and perhaps some updating of the contents after almost a century, I can see incorporating A Eton Poetry Book into every school curriculum.

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