Where to begin? The first challenge of a chronological anthology. Where Palgrave runs from (approximately) Shakespeare to Shelley, Gardner’s sweep is broader: from Anon (in a mediaeval prelude to Chaucer) to Fern Hill, written a couple of months after WWII. The poem by Anon is, appropriately, called ‘Cuckoo Song’ (also known by its first line: Summer is y-comen in’). All poems in anthologies are sorts of cuckoos: not only in their marking of time, their mechanical chimes jolting out between periods of silence and omissions; but also in their encroachment, their competition for place. All poems could not have happened, so their presence, in a summation of what did happen, carries a trace of that accident. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin’, in Eliot’s words from The Waste Land (included whole). But it’s also a particular version: for every poem that’s in, there’s one that has been pushed from the nest.
That joyful shout ‘summer is y-comen in!’ is an uplifiting place to start. Or, in the version of this poem, which is also called the ‘Reading Rota’ and is mounted on the walls of the ruined abbey in my home town: ‘sumer is icomen in’. There are variant reading (mis-Readings?) even where we start. But of course, this isn’t really the start. To summarise English verse without Angle-isch verse is itself a mis-reading: where is Beowulf, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Ruin? Lost at sea, perhaps… Too difficult? (See also the domesticated, truncated. modernised version of Chaucer, the eight line chunk of Langland). Anon continues to be prolific, in fits and starts: a mediaeval burst, some renaissance songs and then a late flourish to round out this strange career of C17th and C18th ballads. Everything after that is known and labelled (and, with eight brief exceptions, male).
Such anthologies serve some writers better than others, even amongst those that are included (we could note that English seems nationally or ethnically drawn, rather than based on the language, although we could then note the presence of Welsh and Scottish interlopers. Perhaps it should say ‘British’ – but how then to justify Joyce and Yeats’ inclusion? or the troublesome pair of Eliot and Pound?). Poetry that relates to an English poetic world, perhaps. In this, at least, it seems the Angles are here in force, along with the Anglicans represented in the middle of the volume. The selections are most unusual and quixotic in Gardner’s own areas of specialism: not just Eliot, but metaphysical poets. Aurelian Townshend makes an appearance. But later on, the list of names on the honour-boards are more predictable.
Most of Keats’, Coleridge’s and, later, Dylan Thomas’ best work is included. This format suits those who are only exceptionally exceptional, with careers cut short by death, addictions or both. The prominence Keats’ short career achieves in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury is surely one reason for his high reputation today (and indeed, the shape of our whole conception of the English canon: in wide-ranging lyric anthologies, minor lyricists and brief careers loom large).
More difficult to represent are the poets with longer, more complex poetic projects, such as Chaucer, Wordsworth, Pound. Although all are represented – sometimes at length – their work is cut down for size. The Prelude is delivered in two sections that are shorter than the (startlingly) absent ‘Tintern Abbey’. A page of Canto 81, unlabelled other than ‘from the Pisan Cantos’ gives no wider sense of its location (either within the cage in the detention centre at Pisa, or as part of a decades-long set of over a hundred long works). As the quoted section ends: ‘Here error is all in the not done, / all in the diffidence that faltered’. We are left with the climax without the build-up; and cathedrals shown at the same scale as cottages.
The balancing of scale in a historical anthology is always going to be difficult: the Victorian era (Tennyson, Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti aside) is perhaps not the high point, but there are plenty of ‘significant’ figures who need to be included (although one could question having seven pages of George Meredith and none of David Jones, or Charlotte Smith). In a poem, the form can follow the content: in a chronological anthology there are times when there are verses, or periods, that need to be filled.