November 27, 2005

Q is for Quiller-Couch

Resuming the poetry series after Thanksgiving, I'm departing from poets to address instead a teacher, critic, and anthologist of poetry:

is for Arthur Quiller-Couch.

Helene Hanff wrote an entire book, Q's Legacy, describing how a man she never met educated her and changed her life. I can't say that he's had quite the effect on me that he did on Hanff or on his students, but the effect is definitely there. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, M.A., King Edward Proessor of Literature in the University of Cambridge, was the first editor of the Oxford Book of English Verse, the Oxford Anthology of English Prose, some collections of fairy tales and the collections of his lectures titled On the Art of Writing (my copy of which is doubly dear for having been given to me by Mechaieh) and On the Art of Reading. The Oxford anthologies, especially, have had a large impact on many later anthologies; the selection in the Norton Anthology of English Poetry shows it clearly. Q wouldn't have minded, I don't think; in the Preface to his anthology he acknowledged his debt to earlier anthologists, writing, "Having my heart set on choosing the best, I resolved not to be dissuaded by common objections against anthologies - that they repeat one another until the proverb [something in Greek that an Oxford or Cambridge student of his time would surely have understood, but that I don't] loses all application - or perturbed if my judgement should often agree with that of good critics. The best is the best, though a hundred judges have declared it so."

His anthology isn't only meant for scholarly readers, either; the Preface continues, "My wish is that the reader should in his own pleasure quite forget the editor's labour, which too has been pleasant: that, standing aside, I may believe this book has made the Muses access easier when, in the right hour, they come to him to uplift or console."

Though possessed of the sort of scholarship which this series makes it evident I don't have, Quiller-Couch shared my belief that poetry is not only to be studied, that it also needs to live in the life of its readers. His words resounded especially for me when I first read On the Art of Writing at roughly the same time I read Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World, the latter of which hit me even harder because I'd just come back from Antarctica. Quiller-Couch delivered his second lecture the day the news came back of the death of Captain Scott's party. That fact forwarded his belief that great poetry could not be allowed to become a dead husk breathing only of the dead past:

"I hold ‘gymnastic’ to be necessary as ‘music’ (using both words in the Greek sense) for the training of such youths as we desire to send forth from Cambridge. But I plead that they should be balanced, as they were in the perfect young knight with whose words I will conclude to-day:—

Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance
Guided so well that I obtained the prize,
Both by the judgment of the English eyes
And of some sent by that sweet enemy France;
Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance,
Town-folk my strength, a daintier judge applies
His praise to sleight which from good use doth rise;
Some lucky wits impute it but to chance;
Others, because of both sides I do take
My blood from them who did excel in this,
Think Nature me a man-at-arms did make.
How far they shot awry! the true cause is,
Stella looked on; and from her heavenly face
Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

‘Untrue,’ you say? Well, there is truth of emotion as well as of fact; and who is there among you but would fain be able not only to win such a guerdon but to lay it in such wise at your lady’s feet?

That then was Philip Sidney, called the peerless one of his age; and perhaps no Englishman ever lived more graciously or, having used life, made a better end. But you have seen this morning’s newspaper: you have read of Captain Scott and his comrades, and in particular of the death of Captain Oates; and you know that the breed of Sidney is not extinct. Gentlemen, let us keep our language noble: for we still have heroes to commemorate! "

Posted by dichroic at November 27, 2005 04:14 PM
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