The Golden Treasury of Poetry; Louis Untermeyer, 1959

by juno on April 30, 2013

Before we leave National Poetry Month behind for another year—though in our hearts every month may be poetry month—I want to express my gratitude to my parents for bringing poetry into my life from an early age, for reading poems aloud to me—from A. A. Milne to the fella referred to in an infamous student bibliography as “James, King,” “author” of The Bible—and for giving me, on my un-birthday (my sister’s birthday) the year I was five, one of my favorite books, The Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer with illustrations by Joan Walsh Anglund.

If you had only this one collection of poems as a child, you would have a rich inheritance. It’s a big book, originally published in 1959, with poems by a wide range of English and American poets, many remembered still today, some less familiar now. Even those you know may surprise you. Did you know that Wordsworth wrote about kittens, that Rossetti compared City Mouse and Garden Mouse, that Roethke considered “The Bat,” Cowper, “The Squirrel,” and Tennyson, “The Eagle”?

The organization of the book has a lovely shape, commencing with a section called “In the Beginning” (“When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,/And the dimpling stream runs laughing by…”) and ending with “Sweet and Low” and “Guiding Stars.” In between we encounter “Creatures of Every Kind,” people, “Unforgettable Stories,” laughter, “Good Things in Small Packages,” the “Wide, Wonderful World” and every season.

I spent hours and days with this book, and the sounds and images within its pages colored my childhood, the characters in the story-poems populated my imagination. Even Untermeyer himself, maybe on account of his name, was an imaginary character in my life, a little man, perhaps almost a leprechaun, a bristle-haired impresario with the magic power to corral all these poems into one place, and to put his own poems in as well. In fact he was an interesting man, no indication that he was particularly small, with a notable marital history—four wives, one that he married twice, with another in between, but the last one made it until death did them part—and a prolific career both as a poet and an anthologist. We owe him much.

I learned early life lessons, reading these poems. How many days each month contains, always pick up a pin, we don’t always love everyone we meet (thank you, Dr. Fell), and April showers…well, you know. I loved that I could turn to a page and read several poems about horses, or foxes, or hens—or winter, or April, “showy, blowy April, / In frowsy blowsy April”—all by different poets, all so different. “in Just— / spring            when the world is mud— / luscious…,” cummings begins, and now I see eddieandbill, bettyandisbel, and especially, I see the goat-footed baloonman.

Whitman turns up, speaking of miracles, hearing America singing. Dickinson professes her faith, and expresses it by noticing the small details around her, by imaging her way into the life of a bee, a hummingbird. And then there are the story-poems, the ballads, in which we learn of Paul Revere and Pocahontas, the Pied Piper and Lady Clare, Robin Hood and La Belle Dame Sans Merci. And above all, “The Highwayman,” “probably the most popular story-poem of the last half-century,” Untermeyer says, and its appeal has not faded in the more than a half-century since he said it.

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

Look what a child is faced with, already in the first stanza. Seeing the wind not just as darkness, but a rushing river of it. The moon as a boat. This “ribbon of moonlight” pouring across the land. And then the beginning of the relentless repetition, riding, riding, riding, warning us that once events begin to unfold, we may be powerless to stop them. And we haven’t even met his love yet, or learned what she is willing to do to protect her man.

Icing the cake are the charming drawings by Anglund, whose illustrations are more diverse than you might think if you’ve only seen her books for very little children. Nothing bobble-headed in her illustration of “the landlord’s black-eyed daughter, / Bess, the landlord’s daughter” trussed up with a gun to her breast, and the Village Blacksmith is all man. She does animals beautifully, too—horses rearing, birds in flight, kittens caught in every stage of exploration. Her drawings range from fanciful to serious, as in the picture of a man leaning over a fence gazing down at his farmstead as winter winds begin to blow. This illustrates Robert Frost’s “Good-bye and Keep Cold,” and one of Untermeyer’s own, “Last Words Before Winter.” Four of this poems seven stanzas (2, 3, 5 and 6) hung in the tiny bathroom by the porch at my great-uncle and aunt’s house, typed on a piece of paper without title or attribution, framed, and hung just at eye height right beside the toilet.

They hang there still. “Yard, hutch, and house, farewell. / It is for you to tell / How you withstood the great white wolf, whose fell / Is softer than a lambkin’s / But whose breath / Is death.” I have read the abbreviated version so many times for so many years that its rhymes and rhythms live in me, but how else, without this book, would I have known there was more of the poem, would I have gotten to wonder who typed up the version in the bathroom, and why he or she choose some verses and left aside others?  My aunt and uncle left that house each autumn, left it alone, empty and cold, until spring, so the words of the poem became tangled with the place in which I read it. We stayed through the winter, just down the road, facing the metaphor, facing the wolf. From that one poem, multiple connections, of the many that form as we read, as we inhabit words and worlds through our childhood reading and on into adulthood. Great gratitude for this—thank you, parents.

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