England in Poetry

By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

England in Poetry


Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review


    Oh, to be in England
    Now that April's there,
    And whoever wakes in England
    Sees, some morning, unaware ...

ONCE upon a time, not so very long ago, Robert Browning's poem, Home Thoughts from Abroad, used to be part of the repertoire of every English child. It was among those learned by heart, whether at a small village school or in the most privileged of private schools. It became part of the armoury with which to confront the world, a substratum or deposit, something that, it was felt, every child was the better for having. Indeed, it--and the imagery it evoked, of the exile pining for home--became so much part of English life that the phrase, later in the poem, The first fine careless rapture became almost a cliche, used in contexts far removed from the thrush's song about which Browning wrote, like hitting a six at cricket, anything which might quicken the spirit, just as Browning's was quickened when living in Italy he thought of an English spring.

It was in exile that the baggage of accumulated poetry, like parts of the Book of Common Prayer, the English Hymnal and the Bible, proved most useful, in situations far removed from their origin. Scraps would well up from the depths of memory rather as decaying leaves at the bottom of a pond might be brought up to the surface by a flood. In the case of poetry it was most often a flood of emotion. The memory of a few lines was sometimes comforting in dire or dangerous situations since not all exiles were as agreeable as Browning's Florence. They might be imperfectly remembered and in consequence misquoted, but for a more or less brief instant they served to remind an individual of better things. They became an emollient. They also, it was said, helped to stiffen the resolve and sometimes to inspire, since the image they evoked was pure and uncontaminated.

The sources from which these poems were drawn were Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse, first published in 1900 and Palgrave's Golden Treasury, which preceded it by forty years, in 1861. They went on being revised and re-issued throughout their long lives, stopping at Eliot, Auden, Day Lewis and Spender. Quiller-Couch was replaced in the 1970s by Dame Helen Gardner and supplemented by Philip Larkin's Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. It would have been otiose to attempt the same with Palgrave: though it continued in publication until 1963 it must be doubtful whether The Golden Treasury is still found on children's bookshelves. In any case there were other books to instil young minds with the best of English poetry. The Sheldon Book of Verse and The Dragon Book of Verse were among them, both published by the Oxford University Press. They thus carried the same imprimatur as Quiller-Couch and Palgrave and much the same content.

Masefield, Kipling, R L Stevenson and Walter de la Mare wrote poetry specifically for children, still governed by the rules of metre, scanning and syntax, which aimed to imbue their readers with a taste for poetry of a recognisable genealogy. The Traveller, The Path through the Wood and the songs in Puck of Pook's Hill served for both children and their parents. The assumption that that sort of poetry would be there for good seemed so natural as to be incontestable. It went with going to church on Sundays, with respect for ones elders--and unquestionably, ones betters--and putting ones clothes away tidily before brushing ones hair and cleaning ones teeth, and saying ones prayers on getting up and going to bed. In short it was hoped that poetry would become as much a habit as the rest. For the children concerned it was undeniably a chore. Some loathed it and made up their minds to forget everything they had learned as quickly as possible. But for most it stuck, however reluctantly they might have got down to the task of learning the requisite twenty lines before breakfast. The poetry went hand in hand with the assumption that so long as the sun continued in its orbit it would never set on the British Empire. …

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