Tuesday, May 26, 2015

More from Penelope Fitzgerald's Charlotte Mew and Her Friends

No time to offer much in the way of commentary today, but I thought you'd at least enjoy the following passage from Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of poet Charlotte Mew. Noting that the years just before World War I was a period of proliferating, successful poetry anthologies, Fitzgerald writes:
It was the great time for small, thin-paper, verse anthologies, with a ribbon for a bookmark, which went easily into the side-pocket, and were taken for long tramps in the fresh air, returning with grass and pressed flowers between the pages. The Golden Treasury (1897) was one of the first of these, and there was no sign of their running out. It was true that these little volumes, even when they were by the newer poets, were often not very demanding. John Drinkwater, for example, in Poems of Love and Earth (1912) thanks God for (1) sleep; (2) clear day through the little leaded panes; (3) shining well water; (4) warm golden light; (5) rain and wind (apparently at the same time) as (2); (6) swallows; (7) wallflowers, tulips, primroses and "crowded orchard boughs"; (8) good bread; (9) honey-comb; (10) brown-shelled eggs; (11) strong-thewed young men; (13) an old man bent over his scythe; (14) the great glad earth and "heaven's trackless ways." There was a great deal of this kind of thing at the lower and easier end of the repertoire, where eggs were always brown, the women always kind, and the earth always glad.
One of Fitzgerald's greatest qualities as a fiction writer, one she carries over to biography, is her sympathy with well-meaning folly and silliness. She takes an amused stance, but one that never leads to dismissal or condemnation. Looking back from a hundred years on, we see much that was silly about the Edwardians, but we have to admit that there is much to admire as well.

Fitzgerald's appreciation for good intentions gives the last lines of that paragraph special poignancy:
The poetry was meant to give pleasure and it was, after all, the last body of English poetry to be actually read, by ordinary people, for pleasure.
The Golden Treasury remains available today; I had a gilt-edged version when I was a boy, with, yes, a ribbon.

1 comment:

  1. Strangely enough, I've just been reading about Charlotte Mew in Michael Schmidt's 'The Lives of The Poets'. She was, apparently quite a favourite of Thomas Hardy. And her death was reported in the papers, 'Charlotte New, said to be a writer."

    ReplyDelete