Islands of treasure

12th January 1996 at 00:00
THE PUFFIN BOOK OF CLASSIC VERSE. Edited by Raymond Wilson, Illustrated by Diz Wallis Viking Pounds 14.99. THE NEW OXFORD TREASURY OF CHILDREN'S POEMS. Edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark Oxford Pounds 12.99. COLLINS TREASURY OF POETRY. Selected by Stephanie Nettell, Illustrated by Penny Dann Collins Pounds 12.99.

Someone once said that if you put literature on a pedestal it is likely to end up on the shelf, and editors undertaking to produce a book of classic verse need to be enthusiastic and imaginative, suspicious of piety,alert to the full range of what is available, and generous in their definition of that reverend word which - if allowed - may seek to constrain rather than enlarge their brief.

It is therefore greatly to Raymond Wilson's credit that, in The Puffin Book of Classic Verse, he has assembled a rich and varied collection of poems which, although in the main a gathering of the familiar with its emphasis on a very English tradition, is nevertheless pleasingly diverse. In other respects, however, and despite some thoughtful planning, it is a bit of a muddle and could have done with more care taken by its publishers,particularly in the light of the fact that Raymond Wilson died before the book went to press and that it must in some ways stand as a memorial to him.

There is one classic howler in the invention of a poet called Anne Bradsheet. This would appear to be more than a misprint, since her name appears in the list of contents and the index as well as beneath her poem - the beautiful "To My Dear and Loving Husband". Rather amusingly, it turns that fine 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet - who emigrated to New England where her husband became governor of Salem - into someone who sounds as if she ought to be at the Boar's Head Tavern.

Nor is the presentation of the poems themselves always accurate or consistent. The first two quatrains of Auden's "Funeral Blues" are run together, making the poem look rather less like the cabaret-style song it began life as, and the same happens to Charles Causley's "Timothy Winters".The opening stanzas of Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence" are offered as "Morning after a Storm" with no mention of where they have been taken from, whereas in an extract from Spenser's "Prothalamion" - given the title "Two Swans" - the full work is acknowledged.

This kind of inconsistency does, I think, matter in an anthology for the young which is - as Wilson himself claims - designed to be an introduction "to what is often called the heritage of English poetry". Perhaps, though, the notion of heritage is itself part of the problem, and the whole enterprise seems an uneasy mix of the adventurous - adding some real finds,including Anne Bradstreet, to the canon, among them - and the these-we-have-loved culture of Classic FM.

As an example of the latter, this handsome book is in the first rank and,as might be expected from an editor whose earlier Poems to Compare remains one of the very best teaching anthologies, the juxtaposition and grouping of poems is admirably done. Kathleen Raine matches William Blake in the "Mystery, Dreams and Enchantments" section, while Vernon Scannell complements John Clare in a refreshingly unchalky section on "School" which opens with that marvellous ballad, "The False Knight upon the Road".

Each section is preceded by an illustration, and Diz Wallis's pen work is close enough to Ardizzone's to look like a conscious homage. None the worse for that, though, and she admirably fulfils the requirement of an illustrator laid down by Geoffrey Grigson in that best of all classic anthologies, The Cherry Tree, which is to provide illustrations which "are at once rhythmical, simple and tactful". When it comes to lavish treasuries, however, the temptation to cram every available space with artwork seems difficult for publishers to overcome, and many are the good poems doomed on the first encounter to enter a child's consciousness accompanied by entirely inappropriate pictures.

Fortunately this is not the case with either The New Oxford Treasury of Children's Poems or The Collins Treasury of Poetry. The Oxford is illustrated by 11 different illustrators (including the excellent Alan Marks) all of whom use line and colour with real sensitivity to the poems they have been allocated, and the Collins - more directly aimed at children of junior-school age - has, in Penny Dann, a witty and occasionally lyrical decorator with a sense of fun which never becomes merely silly. I laughed out loud at her depiction of the gloomy lady in Adrian Mitchell's "Not a Very Cheerful Song, I'm Afraid" ("There was a gloomy lady, With a gloomy duck and a gloomy drake") which is just one of a number of poems I had not encountered before and which go straight into my own collection of favourites.

Inevitably there is a certain amount of overlap, especially in the Anon department, and it's fascinating to note the variations when it comes to this particular attribution. Hughes Mearns' "As I was going up the stair I met a man who wasn't there", included under his name in the Collins Treasury, appears as anonymous in the Oxford where Harrison and Stuart-Clark also claim anonymity for the author of "The Common Cormorant".In fact, this delightful rhyme is by Christopher Isherwood who, in his essays, Exhumations, tells how he jotted it down only to find, later, that W H Auden had discovered it lying around, not realised it was his, and published it in an anthology. So, almost by default, it became a particularly popular Anon, and its author was happy for it to remain so.

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