Monday 18 March 2019

The Stuffed Owl

Lately I've been trying to cut down on my book-buying; I've already got too many books piling up waiting to be read. So, the other day, I really should have stopped myself walking into the most book-rich of all my local charity shops. There on the shelf was a copy of The Stuffed Owl, the classic anthology of 'good bad verse', which I've been aware of for years but have never owned. Needless to say, I was unable to resist, especially as it was an as-new reprint (NYRB) of the second edition, complete with the most entertaining Subject Index ever compiled – of that, more later...
  The Stuffed Owl is edited by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee and was first published in 1930. Wyndham Lewis – no relation of the other one – was, among other things, a very successful newspaper columnist ('Beach Comber' in the Express). As an introductory note puts it, 'he intended to pursue the legal profession, but, after having suffered two bouts of shell shock and one of malaria, he set his sights on journalism' (and what better preparation could there be?). Charles Lee was an all-round intellectual, prolific author, editor, composer and pianist. Both men seem to have had an extensive knowledge of and affection for seriously bad poetry – hence the anthology, which draws on the unfortunate lapses of otherwise competent, good or even great poets, from Cowley to Tennyson. No poets still alive are included, partly from delicacy and partly because by 1930 many were abandoning the kind of formal structures that show up poetical missteps so cruelly. The anthology, says its compilers, is a 'sunny optimistic book ... since it reveals the follies of our predecessors and proves by implication what splendid fellows we are now'.
 Each poet is introduced with a lively thumbnail sketch, mostly with a biographical nugget or two: Abraham Cowley, for instance, 'lived comfortably enough ... enjoyed the incense of his contemporaries, and died (according to Pope) of the consequences of spending a July night under a hedge on the return, with his genial clergyman friend Sprat, later Bishop of Rochester, from a "repast of Attick taste", with wine'. Sprat himself is represented in the anthology by a lament (On His Mistress Drowned) which 'must represent the Absolute Zero of frigidity, and it is difficult to believe that the lover's sighs shook much powder from his great full-bottomed wig'. There are poets here I had never heard of, such as John Sheffield, Duke of Buckinghamshire, whose 'verse is good stout colonel's work, and he rides Pegasus on the snaffle' – and poets everyone has heard of, including Byron, Poe and of course Wordsworth, whose poetical lapses are well known, numerous and truly dire: 'Spade! With which Wilkinson has tilled his lands',  'The piteous news so much it shocked her, / She quite forgot to send the doctor', 'A fly that up and down himself does shove', etc. Henry Vaughan contributes the immortal line 'How brave a prospect is a bright backside!'
 As much fun as the anthology itself is the lovingly compiled Subject Index, which is full of entries such as 'Adam, his internal fluids', 'Beaux, Irish, their grovelling minds', 'Christians, liable to leak', 'Gases, goings-on of',  'Monster, grim, awful behaviour of', 'Clutterbuck & Co, their services requisitioned'. This last leads to George Crabbe's deadly lines 'And I was ask'd and authorised to go / To seek the firm of Clutterbuck & Co.' Wordsworth's terrible Simon Lee is comprehensively indexed: 'Lee, Simon, rumoured reduction of his stature; conflicting evidence concerning his age; fore-and-aft view of his coat; his general appearance, and particularly his legs and ankles, described; location of his residence; stumped by a root.' A fine strand of associations begins with 'Sugar. See Sand.' This takes us to 'Sand. See False Gallia's sons.' Which leads to 'False Gallia's sons. See Frenchmen', and finally to 'Frenchmen, fraudful, mix sand with sugar.' Which takes us at last to a passage from The Sugar Cane by one James Grainger – 'False Gallia's sons, that hoe the ocean's isles, / Mix with their sugar loads of worthless sand, / Fraudful, their weight of sugar to increase. / Far be such guile from Britain's honest swains.' Indeed.
 I'm inclined to agree with Vita Sackwille-West that 'The Stuffed Owl ought to be in every house'.

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