More on poetry and quotation (or, One-hit wonders of the literary canon)

So I was thinking about quotation a few months ago, and then yesterday morning I was working on a reference question about a very, very obscure Victorian poet. (So obscure he doesn’t even get a mention in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and only a handful of libraries on this side of the Atlantic own any of his poems.) Said poet is one of those minor figures best known for a single often-quoted poem, or, in this poet’s case, a single line from a single poem, which is at once hard to find and strangely familiar. After a bit of sleuthing around, it occurred to me that the poem probably sounded so recognizable because it’s been anthologized to bits, and Columbia Granger’s Index to Poetry in Anthologies confirmed that it appeared in The Best-Loved Poems of the American People in 1936. I suspect it’s also cropped up in others as well, and probably in a host of quotation dictionaries, because the familiar line had that kind of “heard it a million times before” ring to it.

I’m intrigued by minor poets—or rather, intrigued by the mechanisms by which minor poets become known as minor poets, represented by a token poem here or there, or a quotation in Bartlett’s. And I’m intrigued by the afterlives they have in anthologies. In front of me is my great-grandmother’s copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, in an edition published in New York in 1888. Palgrave’s is a very Victorian sampler, heavy on Wordsworth and Shakespeare and Shelley and the more lyrical Elizabethans, with no poetry by anyone born later than Keats. But some of the lesser poets in it sound hauntingly recognizable. There’s Henry Vaughan with an extremely truncated version of “The World,” no doubt included largely for the famous first line “I saw Eternity the other night.” There’s John Lyly with “Cupid and my Campaspe play’d / At cards for kisses; Cupid paid,” an anthology favorite from an otherwise barely-remembered Elizabethan author. And I’ve finally realized that the author of the line “I am monarch of all I survey” was William Cowper, in “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk.” I’d never read the poem in its entirety, but that line (like the one I was hunting down yesterday) is one I’ve known for years and years.

It would be interesting to compare the Golden Treasury with more modern anthologies to see which minor poets are consistently represented and which ones aren’t. I’m not really interested in canon-formation so much as minor-poet canon-formation. Someday I want to do a study of poetry anthologies from a book-history perspective, looking at why editors chose the poems they do, and what kinds of audiences anthologies were intended for, and where the connections might lie between anthologizing and other practices like classroom memorization and recitation. (Some of this, I’m sure, has been done already.) Some of the poets who seem minor now were major in their day, and vice versa; it would be interesting to find out if any of them were the always-already minor figures who managed to write one well-remembered poem and then fade into obscurity.

Come to think of it, that might be a good project to pursue sooner rather than later. Time to do a little research and see what I can find to start with.

2 Responses to “More on poetry and quotation (or, One-hit wonders of the literary canon)”

  1. jim says:

    My favorite anthology is J. C. Squires’s _The Cambridge Book of Lesser Poets_.

  2. Oh, I haven’t seen that one! I’ll have to check it out.