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New Excursions into English Poetry
[ Stories )
Our Librarian, Jane Holt looks at the series New Excursions into English Poetry published by Frederick Muller Ltd. between 1944 and 1947, and featured in our Print Room exhibition, Undercover: The Art of the Book Jacket.
New Excursions into English Poetry arrived on the publishing scene in 1944, towards the end of the Second World War. As the blurb on the dust jacket explains, the series was intended as:
‘…something of an experiment and demands original work from the anthologer and the artist, who have worked in collaboration, though there has been no attempt to give literal and pictorial illustrations to the actual poems’.
Between 1944 and 1947, seven volumes of New Excursions into English Poetry were published. Through poetry from across the centuries and with original lithographs and jackets by contemporary artists, the series, found a keen audience who wanted distraction from the trials and tribulations of war. It was part of a boom in publications, including Penguin New Writing, Horizon, and Poetry London, that met the wartime appetite for art, literature, poetry and critical writing.
New Excursions into English Poetry series was edited by the poet Sheila Dunbar Shannon (1913-2002), and W.J.R. Turner (1889-1946). Turner was a poet, drama, literary and music critic, and literary editor of the Spectator (1942-1946). He was also editor-in-chief of the series Britain in Pictures (1941-1948). Many contributors to New Excursions into English Poetry were also writing and illustrating many of the other wartime publications, and often members of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC).
The first volume published was English Scottish and Welsh Landscape 1700-c.1860 (1944) with poems chosen by John Betjeman and Geoffrey Taylor and lithographs and cover by John Piper. In the introduction entitled ‘Apology’, Betjeman and Taylor discuss how they came to choose the poems ‘We demanded that the poet should have obviously looked at and loved what he described’. They also decided to choose from what they thought of as the most prolific period of British landscape poetry, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Piper’s lithographs give a sense of place with different landscapes in tones of black, white, grey and yellow.
The Poet’s Eye (1944) had works chosen by Geoffrey Grigson, who in his introduction, entitled ‘Explanation’ explains why he describes the collection as being of ‘visionary poems’ and why he includes prose in his selection. Discussing his contribution to this volume, John Craxton described his lithographs as ‘…”decorations” rather than illustrations…’ ‘… only one drawing was actually related to a poem, which was the one by W. H. Auden.’ (Simon Martin in conversation with John Craxton (2007).
Also published in 1944, Sea Poems was chosen by Myfanwy Piper (1911-1997) and illustrated by Mona Moore (1917-2000). Piper was editor of Axis before the War, and worked closely with her husband John Piper. She also wrote opera libretti for Benjamin Britten. Moore was a painter and illustrator, working for Recording Britain and WAAC during the war and for numerous magazines after the war. In her introduction Piper says ‘… these are the best poems or parts of poems I know that describe the sea’ and she ‘… shall not apologise for leaving out The Ancient Mariner..’. Moore’s lithographs use yellows and sea-blues to highlight the soft markings of her drawings.
In Soldiers Verse (1945) chosen by Patric Dickinson (who was married to Sheila Shannon) William Scott creates dark, angular brooding images which mirror what Dickinson, in his introduction, calls ‘The Total War of 1939-45’ . For Dickinson this war ‘…has produced very little War-poetry’ unlike the Great 1914-18 War ‘… in which poetry has been written on the subject of war, and moreover on behalf of the soldiers who wage it.’. In the same year, Poems of Death (1945) came out. Chosen by Phoebe Pool, a reviewer on the Spectator who later became an art historian. Michael Ayrton’s sombre lithographs again reflect the profound effects of the War so recently over.
Travellers’ Verse (1946) chosen by literary scholar, Mary Gwyneth (M. G.) Lloyd Thomas with lithographs by Edward Bawden, feels almost like fairy-tale. Lloyd Thomas, in her introduction which she calls ‘Guide’, writes ‘Travellers’ Verse is verse by those who have travelled in fancy or in fact, or in both’ , intended for the reader ‘…whose travels may or may not have taken him across actual seas…’ but travels in his mind. Bawden’s subtly coloured drawings show amazing lands and wondrous peoples.
The last volume published was Poems of Sleep and Dream (1947) chosen by Carol Stewart with lithographs by Robert Colquhoun. The strange figures in dream landscapes Colquhoun has drawn create a feeling of weird other-worldliness verging on the nightmare, again perhaps harking back to the horrors so recently experienced!