Magazine article The Spectator

Moods, Hopes, Horrors and Humours of Our Age

Magazine article The Spectator

Moods, Hopes, Horrors and Humours of Our Age

Article excerpt


edited by Peter Forbes

Viking L20, pp. 596

This is an amazing book, in the sense that it tries to do something which, as far as I know, has never been done before. It is not an attempt by an editor to choose the best expressed poems of a period; it is a choice of poems that seems best to express that period itself - the 20th century, in all its moods, hopes, horrors and humours, as suggested in verse by poets - and versifiers. These are mostly European and North American, though there are also South Americans, Japanese and Antipodeans.

In order to give this new idea some sort of shape, the book is divided into sections, some of them pretty crude, as they would have to be - `The Jazz Age', `Low Dishonest Decade: The Thirties', `The Cold War', and so on. This has a curious and encouragingly predictable effect, but more of that later. First it is necessary to say what a bumpily good read it is, and valuable, because it puts into their significant place some of the genuinely great poems of this time (W. H. Auden's `The Shield of Achilles', for example) and rescues good poets (Bernard Spencer). It also contains some stinkers, but all anthologies do, and this one is more likely to do so than most, because, while looking for quality, it has more than half an eye on historical relevance.

Which brings us to the effect on poems of being crammed under specific headings. It is always the better poets who struggle and itch inside their imposed uniforms, while the less good ones, because they are nearer to journalism, wear them with a more self-satisfied air.

It becomes clear that the dominant voices of the century - apart from W. B. Yeats, who is sui generis - are W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice. They, in their different ways, sang their political and social unease most clearly (and tunefully). However, MacNeice's brilliant, jazzy Autumn Journal is a perfect example of the awkwardness and distortion which is caused by cramming bits of a good poem under a general headline - in this case `Prelude to a War: Fascism v. Communism'. He does talk of such matters, but from the extract here you derive little sense of the variety, the change of pace and tone (and subject) which make the Journal so lively. Thus trapped, even MacNeice comes across as a monotone bore. …

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