Let's get one thing straight. Christopher Ricks' 1999 version of The Oxford Book of English Verse
contains some of the finest poetry the world has ever seen. Judiciously selected and beautifully produced, this anthology will reward both poetry virgins and over-versed roués with its canny and sometimes inspired pairing of lines familiar and obscure, and its original inclusion of translated and dramatic verse (which allows in some of the Bard's great lines). From the 13th-century "Sumer is icumen in" through to Seamus Heaney's "The Pitchfork", Ricks selects 822 poems from more than 200 writers--Shakespeare comes out on top, but there are strong showings from Wyatt, Sidney, Jonson, Milton, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Hardy, alongside memorable nursery rhymes, and some under-anthologised women writers, such as Mary Robinson, Jane Taylor and Frances Cornford.
Anyone who cares about literature in the English language will want this on their shelf. But anyone who cares about literature in the English language will also have serious reservations about what Ricks has done with this most revered of institutions. When Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote his preface to the first edition in October 1900, his agenda was quite clear. He had "tried to range over the whole field of English Verse from the beginning, or from the Thirteeth Century to this closing year of the Nineteenth, and to choose the best. Nor I have I sought in these Islands only, but wheresoever the Muse has followed the tongue which among living tongues she most delights to honour. To bring home and render so great a spoil compendiously has been my capital difficulty." The metaphors of imperial colonialism spoke confusedly as the Muse followed the English tongue throughout the world and the anthologist brought back the rewards it wrought and wreaked. A century later, and the project of "English verse" has lost its imperial certainty. Ricks states categorically that his "does not seek to be a book of Anglophone verse, of verse in the English language whatever its provenance." This leads to some anomalies. He takes American verse only to the 1770s, but is happy to include verse from the Republic of Ireland. As for verse from the Commonwealth (pre-independence)--"I judged reluctantly that pre-independence poetry had not achieved poetic independence (freedom from diluted fashion), had not given to the world such poetic accomplishments as would constitute a claim to the pages of an anthology of the best in English poetry." Discuss.
And so Ricks' "English verse" is, with a few exceptions, "verse from England", and fairly senior verse at that--the juniors here are Thom Gunn, Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney. Ricks admits that "most of us are not good at appreciating the poetry of those appreciably younger than we are." That's a shame, because it denies The Oxford Book of English Verse a proactive role in disseminating the work of young poets (and we're talking under 60 here) from a diversity of backgrounds using the English language. What he has undoubtedly produced, however, is an invaluable record of the past glories of English poetry which will continue to inspire readers and poets, whatever their age, wherever they are. --Alan Stewart
Ricks has an exceptionally sharp but benevolent eye for what is canonical, and also for what might shine, were the dust blown off it ... his selection is reliable and enterprising ... although authoritative, his book has about it a satisfying openness and variety. (Andrew Motion, Financial Times, 9/10/99
Ricks, I am pleased to see, has included no weak poems as concessions to "diversity," the poems in his Oxford Book of English Verse are almost uniformly worth reading, and the ones that fall below the usual level are included for a reason (for example, "Twinkle, twinkle little star") ... Gardner had a taste for the high and the holy. Ricks is more skeptical and more wide-ranging. He has a better sense of humor and he includes more light verse ... Ricks has an unmatched range of knowledge about English poetry ... it remains true that anthologies are the route by which young people find poets, and that this one is full of good introductions to good poets. (Helen Vendler, The New Republic, 15/11/99
The event to celebrate is the marvellous new edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse ... a treasure-house laid up in deliberate succession to Palgrave's Treasury ... it could not have been better done. Here are poems to remember, poems to make part of one's being, the movement of one's own mind. (David Sexton, Evening Standard, 7/10/99
Ricks has steered a canny course between tradition and innovation ... Someone had to take on the enormous - and political - job of deciding what is pestilence and what is poetry, what is worth keeping and what worth forgetting ... Ricks has performed that Herculean task splendidly. (Robert MacFarlane, Independent on Sunday, 3/10/99
hefty and handsome volume ... Ricks shows that, although his tastes are much more catholic, he has as sharp an ear as "Q" for the particular pleasure of lyric ... His is the first Oxford Book adequately to mark out the relations between English and Scottish poetry, and the generosity of his selection from Anglo-Welsh changes the twentieth-century picture ... his selection of poems is rewardingly the work of an exceptional critic. (John Kerrigan, TLS 15/10/99