An Anthology of Verse
to Our Time
John S. Major
Over 1,600 poems from all time and all the world. There'll be complaints, but in general, it's a worthy anthology. We have to applaud the fact that they have tried to plumb the ages, from the Iron Age, (giving us the Cycle of Inanna, the world's first love poem, and the gorgeous Epic of Gilgamesh), ending with the youngest of poets, by the name of Yen Chen --- and including, throughout, every place imaginable --- the Pacific Islands, Africa, Portugal, Greece, China, among others. Most of these are listed as "Poetry in Non-European Languages." Choosing at random in that section, we find four poems in Urdu, two in Marathi, three in Hindi, three in Bengali, one in Tamil, among others. Whew.
So what is there to complain about? We won't gainsay them this fine rounded selection of verse from all over the world, and from all the ages, with some dandy translators (Kenneth Rexroth, Arthur Waley, Robert Lowell, William Butler Yeats, Vladimir Nabokov). But...and this is a not-too-large but...when it comes to western verse, we have to criticise of the very standardness of their selections. For example, if you are going to pull from the poetry of Chaucer, how about giving something so different that people will want to come back to him again, instead of the standard ho-hum I've-heard-this-a-million-times Troilus and Creseyde? For instance, how about the glorious lamentation from the Wife of Bath --- that wonderful lusty old lady --- about the ache and pain of getting old?
But, Lord Crist! whan that it remembreth me[But Lord God, when I remember my youth, and the fun of it, it tickles me to the depths of my heart: to this very day it gives my heart a boot that I had my world as in my time. But age, alas, that poisons everything, has robbed me of my beauty, and my spice. Ah, let go, farewell --- the hell with it! There is nothing else to say: They've taken away the flour --- now I'll sell the bran as best I can, and be happy while I'm about it. Now let me tell you about my fourth husband...]
Upon my youthe, and on my jolitee,
It tikleth me aboute myn herte rote.
Unto this day it doth myn herte bote
That I have had my world as in my tyme.
But age, allas! that al wol envenyme,
Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith;
Lat go, farewel, the Devil go therwith!
The flour is goon, ther is namore to telle,
The bren, as I best can, now moste I selle;
But yet to be right mery wol I fonde.
Now wol I tellen of my fourthe housbonde...
Or, take Keats. Every anthology under the sun will do "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" (just the right size for an anthology, right? But so very antique, very dry.) How about being brave anthologists: show Keats for the revolutionary, lusty (and angry) young man he really was, for, after all, he was dying, slowly, of The Wasting Disease, and he knew it (in those days, 175 years ago, there was nothing to be done for it, for the "spectre-thin" youth):
O, for draught of the vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stainéd mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim.
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret,
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan.
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies...
Forgive our small complaints, this is a nice bedside volume. It could have used a big table of contents at the beginning --- but who can complain about a book that introduces us, for the first time, to Feng Meng-lung (1574 - 1645)?
My old man's small, shriveled and shrunk;
When a crummy horse has no bridle, who enjoys the ride?
The river swells, the boat rides high,
Too bad his pole is short.
How will he ever touch bottom?
I itched inside and caught my lover's eye,
But once he came to me he wouldn't leave me alone.
From the prow down to the cabin, the deck began to burn;
Luckily my lover put out the fire in my stern.
--- P. J. Weise