Fuess and Stearns, comps. The Little Book of Society Verse. 1922.
IT has been our object to gather in one small volume some of the best examples in the English tongue of that poetical genre usually known as vers de société, or Society Verse. In doing this, we ought at once to disclaim any ambition to make our collection either authoritative or all-embracing. As a literary type, Society Verse is so elusive and its limits so vaguely defined that it is impossible to please everybodys critical taste. There are, of course, certain poems concerning the inclusion of which no intelligent reader will be likely to have a doubt; but there are numerous others which are more difficult to classify, and about which opinions will inevitably differ.
Our own standard has certainly not been too high or too exacting. With Brander Matthews, we have recognized that Society Verse, whatever else its virtues, must have the qualities of brevity, brilliancy, and buoyancy. Like Locker-Lampson, we have conceived of it as treating, for the most part, of that charmed circle of uncertain limits known conventionally as good societya circle governed by a code of artificial manners and in constant subjugation to Mrs. Grundy. At its best, Society Verse has lightness and delicacy of touch, gracefulness of phrasing, and an appearance of spontaneity combined with a hint of artifice. The feeling expressed must never be crude or exuberant. The style must not be too elevated nor the thoughts too profound. Robert Browning once said that he did not intend his poetry to be a substitute for a cigar. These versifierswriters like Prior and Gay, Praed and Locker-Lampson, Holmes and Dobsonhave had, on the contrary, no other aim than to give delight. If they relapse into seriousness, it is only for an interval. If they dally with love, it is in the mood of Orlando, not of Romeo. As one of them once put it,
When wisdom halts, I humbly try
To make the most of folly:
If Pallas be unwilling, I
Prefer to flirt with Polly.
Theirs is essentially the poetry of men of the world, urbane and unruffled, untainted by anything coarse or commonplace. They are often satirical, but never ill-tempered; although they are playful, they are seldom contemptuous. The pattern for them all is the Roman Horace, the well-bred and cultivated gentleman.
Society Verse, then, must be considered as one of the products of civilized social conditions. Born of the drawing room and the club, it is fostered in a sophisticated period and can flourish only under the protection of the fashionable. These poets sing, not of wild life in the open, but of the closed and lighted reception-hall; not of battle or adventure, but of the dance and the card-table; not of stormy passions, but of sentiment, mild flirtation, and the nuances of small talk. Self-control, politeness, conventionalitythese are the marks of Society Verse.
No less characteristic is a pervasive humor, rarely degenerating into farce or burlesque, but subtle, and brought out by suggestion rather than by more obvious methods. No mood should be long maintained. From grave to gay, from shadow to sunbeam, the poet turns and changes, now playing momentarily with a clever idea, and then shifting into equally transitory merriment. Passion merges imperceptibly into persiflage; pathos stops short on the verge of tragedy.
In Society Verse technical skill is almost indispensable. Unable to rely for his effect on the force of any powerful emotion, the writer must trust to polished phrasing, smooth and melodious versification, and unaccustomed rhyme schemes. Felicity of diction must go hand in hand with wit. No matter how trifling the thought, it must have a perfect setting.
The serious-minded and the irrevocably Puritanical will be inclined to dismiss these versifiers as mere triflers, and to scorn their stanzas as artificial. But poetry cannot always be concerned with mighty issues any more than architecture can be forever designing cathedrals. Many of them are frankly among the humbler poets, who are content to sit among the jesters, to wear motley even, if only they achieve perfection in their own restricted field of art. Such as these can endure the reproach of worldliness, knowing that they have at least avoided the ponderous and the dull. Others are men of lofty poetical genius, who have not disdained to spend some care-free hours experimenting in lighter vein. On the shelves of those who love them, the volumes of Society Verse are worn by much handling, and the pages open as if by instinct to the well-known lines.
In making a selection, then, from the immense body of literature available, we have given a liberal interpretation to the term Society Verse. We have even included poems like Holmess The Last Leaf and Saxes My Familiar, which, while placed in similar anthologies, do not, in spite of their popularity, exactly meet the requirements outlined in the preceding paragraphs. It is quite apparent that the range between such a bit of banter as Calverleys Companions and such an exquisitely formed lyric as Swinburnes An Interludeboth of which we have chosenis very great. Hoping to make the collection representative, we have limited ourselves to no particular period or section, but have tried to cull the best, whether old or new, British or American. Nor have we hesitated to allow our own preferences to be a deciding factor, for which reason several poems not altogether conforming to even recognized standards may, perhaps, be found. The choice, in any case, as we began by saying, will probably be entirely pleasing to no one, least of all to ourselves.
A word or two about the plan of arrangement may not be amiss. The traditional chronological or alphabetical systems seemed to have little in their favor, and the temptation to abandon both was irresistible. We have, therefore, attempted a grouping by subject-matter, a method which has its obvious weakness; but which we cannot help believing is the one best adapted to this kind of anthology.