Books I Own but have not Read: 2

Second in a series on the unread books on my teeming shelves.

The Cambridge Book of Lesser Poets (1927) is probably the least auspicious title on my small shelf of clothbound anthologies.
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And deliberately so. Its editor J. C. Squire deliberately contrasts it with Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse or Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Those were the Norton Anthologies of their day: the canon of recognized poetic genius and all that, the most widely admired and recited poems.

Squire’s purpose was to collect of “the better achievements of men who were not among the greatest,” in order “to show how luxuriant is the English undergrowth.” These are “the lovely that are not beloved,” or at least widely anthologized authors: the Edward de Veres and the John Clares. It’s an anthology to be read from start to finished, arranged chronologically without a table of contents – just an index of authors and first lines at the end.

2015-01-04 09.51.43One of the curious things about Squire’s choices is how some of these authors’ reputations have risen since 1927; John Clare is widely recognized as a rural poet to rival Wordsworth, and his selected poems are among the Penguin Classics. (Clare’s editors deserve a medal: the impoverished poet wrote on acidic ink on scraps of newsprint-thin paper, so many of his manuscripts are in shreds.)

And there are glimmers among these lesser lights, like Richard Barnefield’s praise of his beloved using the terms of his contemporaries Dowland (the composer) and Spenser (the poet).

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“Lesser poets” is a category that poets would arguably be least enthused to join. But Squire’s choices prove otherwise, that they are ‘lesser’ only in reputation. A sign that it pays to look beyond the spines and titles of things, to let their contents speak to their qualities.

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