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Something Unambiguously Good from 2016

January 2, 2017


How about the appearance in final physical form of the Jack Lynch edited Oxford Handbook of British Poetry, 1660-1800?  Many have died but this was born, and she’s beautiful.

The term “handbook” may have an off-putting aspect for some, suggesting some sort of remedial resource for nervous first year undergraduates.  This handbook is nothing of the sort.  It’s an assemblage of textual and contextual scholarship of a very high order.  There’s nobody who can’t learn from this collection, nobody who won’t emerge from it with a heightened and more suggestively coloured vision of what poetry actually is and how it does the things that it does.

Having received my copy during a busy teaching term, the actual reading of this tome proved a Christmas present experience, snatched from posting cards and slicing carrots.  Its final pages were consumed on a train heading into Toronto  on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve.  Of course, it’s not a book that logically demands to be read from cover to cover.  Treating it sequentially is particularly rewarding, however, and you receive a remarkable sense of different authors circumambulating the same concerns.  As a Cowperian I was delighted to see so much Cowper.  As a ThomasSheridonian I was delighted (and rather more surprised) to see so much Thomas Sheridan.

It was also rather validating to see John Denham’s most famous quatrain quoted over and over again…

Oh could I flow like thee, and make thy stream

My great example, as it is my theme!

Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull.

Strong without rage, without ore-flowing full.

Donna Landry’s remarkable chapter on topographical poetry returns again and again to these lines, recognising their centrality within any eighteenth-century discussion of what verse can and should perform.   Landry’s is a chapter that makes fascinating reading alongside J. Paul Hunter’s chapter on couplets.  Nobody writes more accessibly yet probingly about the peculiar satisfactions of couplet verse than J. Paul Hunter.   I have, as it happens, my own theory about heroic couplet formation that draws on the work of both Landry and Hunter.

You can’t have such a low opinion of me as to suppose I would first showcase this theory in a blog.

As for all the other chapters that crowd this disappointingly brief 800 page survey of all that’s most distinctive about versification in the long eighteenth-century… I could pick out four or five outstanding essays and then change my mind tomorrow.  Moira Haslett restores the social and sociable context of so much poetic production.  I did love Rivka Swenson on “The Poet as Man of Feeling” as well as Pat Rogers on “Poems on Science and Philosophy” (noting in particular Rogers’ perceptive high regard for Matthew Prior).  Rodney Stenning Edgecombe’s essay on “Stanzas” is one of the most eloquent and startling works of critical prose I’ve read since… well I don’t know when, and Richard Bradford’s work on so-called “free verse” is a timely reminder that the very distinction between blank verse, free verse and “not verse at all” has always been unstable.

Ashley Marshall is suitably pointed and relevant on satire.  Nobody writes about Georgic like David Fairer.  Emma Mason’s work on devotional poetry brought something akin to a pious tear to my eye.

But it’s such a distinguished selection that one’s joy is partially mitigated by a nagging insecurity about one’s own inclusion in the volume.  Of course, I know these people – all of them by reputation, most of them by conference banter, and a fair few of them as people I can actually break bread with and (more importantly) drink with.  But there’s a difference between quaffing with them and actually sharing such a fine book with them.   Because I’m here with them when they’re all their very best – the very top of their game.  Sometimes, dipping into this magnificent volume, I feel like someone who’s gatecrashed a glitzy function that is patently intended for my betters (not quite Eyes Wide Shut but you get the idea), and I’m still awaiting the liveried flunkey whose perfectly modulated voice will intone the all too familiar phrase…

“I’m sorry sir, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”


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