Tuesday 6 September 2016

'I have followed my own tastes as they are now and as they were in my childhood...'

The other day, at a local fair, Mrs Nige spotted a slender volume with the unpromising title Favourite Verse. Equally unpromising was the dust-jacket photograph of a clump of primroses - but under the title was the very much more promising line 'Edited by Stevie Smith'.
 The book has a curious history, having originally been published (in 1970, the year before Stevie Smith's death) as The Batsford Book of Children's Verse. As such, it would have constituted one of the most eccentric children's anthologies ever. The title of the reissue, Favourite Verse, is very much more descriptive. As the Bard of Palmers Green says in her preface, 'In selecting verses for this book I have followed my own tastes as they are now and as they were in my childhood.' So it is a highly personal, not entirely child-oriented selection - and a fascinating one.
 A good many old favourites - mostly from Shakespeare and the Romantic poets - are there, but Stevie Smith casts her net wide, including traditional ballads and passages from the Old Testament among her selections. She is happy, too, to include five of her own poems (The Old Sweet Dove of Wiveton, The Frog Prince, Hymn to the Seal, So to Fatness Come and The Occasional Yarrow). There is a good sprinkling of American poets, from Longfellow to Robert Frost (Acquainted with the Night), with a bit of Whitman ('I think I could turn and live with animals...') - but, oddly, not a line of Emily Dickinson.
 Purchasers of The Batsford Book of Children's Verse must have been startled to find, on the very first page, these red-blooded lines from Matthew Arnold's The Strayed Reveller -

These things, Ulysses,
The wise Bards also
Behold and sing.
But oh, what labour!
O Prince, what pain!
They too can see
Tiresias:--but the Gods,
Who give them vision,
Added this law:
That they should bear too
His groping blindness,
His dark foreboding,
His scorn'd white hairs;
Bear Hera's anger
Through a life lengthen'd
To seven ages.
They see the Centaurs
On Pelion:--then they feel,
They too, the maddening wine
Swell their large veins to bursting: in wild pain
They feel the biting spears
Of the grim Lapithae, and Theseus, drive,
Drive crashing through their bones: they feel
High on a jutting rock in the red stream
Alcmena's dreadful son
Ply his bow:--such a price
The Gods exact for song;
To become what we sing.

Within the next few pages, we find Coleridge's Catullan Hendecasyllables (of all things), a passage from Shelley's The Masque of Anarchy (the first of two), and Robert Southwell's The Burning Babe. There's even some Crashaw later on (an excerpt from The Office of the Holy Cross) - and Hardy is represented by the wonderfully sardonic The Ruined Maid. Yes, this is very much Stevie Smith's Favourite Verse.
 In her preface, she tell us that the first poem she ever learnt by heart was Shelley's Arethusa (the poem woozily quoted by Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday). That was perhaps a strange place to start, but then Stevie was clearly an unusual child:
'Childhood thoughts can cut deep [she writes]. I remember when I was about eight, for instance, thinking the road ahead might be rather too long, and being cheered by the thought, at that moment first occurring to me, that life lay in our hands. Many poems have been inspired by this thought, at least many of mine have.'

Footnote: Stevie Smith fulfilled another commission for Batsford in 1959, supplying the introduction and picture captions for a volume called Cats in Colour. I'll keep an eye open for that - though I don't suppose it will be quite as rewarding as her Favourite Verse.

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