Rhymes that recall past times

The Faber Book of English History in Verse, edited by Kenneth Baker. London and Boston: Faber & Faber. 448 pp. 12.95; $25. In one marvelous sentence, A.E. Housman describes the effect poetry had on him: ``Experience has taught me when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.''

Imagine what an anthology we would have if every poem included in it was so effective. Of course, Kenneth Baker's couldn't be expected to meet that standard - finding appropriate material to fulfill the promise of the title is triumph enough.

Still, there is at least one selection here that does make my skin bristle. Glorious words, tolling like a bell, so that the meaning hardly matters at all. Its sense of mystery would hold up any man's morning shave:

The Northmen came about our land A Christless chivalry: Who knew not of the arch or pen, Great, beautiful half-witted men From the sunrise and the sea.

Kenneth Baker's plan for his book is clear from its title: to use selected poetry to record the main events in English history. Where no poem seemed to exist, he would fill in the blanks with his own notes. I tried to catch him out, using a short English history book to see if he left any significant event unrecorded. He comes out with high marks, though perhaps he should have recorded the effect of the Spanish Civil War on young English intellectuals.

The choice of poems is harder to judge (one man's Macaulay is another man's Shakespeare, and next to Shakespeare Macaulay proves a convenient gap-filler).

All the same, the game of searching out omissions is irresistible.

Baker nearly always wins. Nursery rhyme ... Has he forgotten the clues in nursery rhymes? ``Ring-a-ring o'roses'' turns up in a note about the plague. ``Mary, Mary, quite contrary'' in a comment about Mary, Queen of Scots.

There's comedy, too. E.C. Bentley's ``George the Third/Ought never to have occurred'' is included. Epitaphs include Sir Walter Raleigh's remarkably free-from-self-pity lines written on the eve of his execution:

But from this earth, this grave, this dust The Lord shall raise me up, I trust!

I miss the resilient Vicar of Bray, who switched his religion to accommodate five reigns so ``That whatsoever king shall reign,/ I shall still be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!''

Now while I am being ungrateful over what isn't in this excellent book, I may as well go the whole hog and complain that there is no index of poets. Worse, since the poems aren't dated, we can't always tell how much time elapsed between the happening and the writing.

Another thought: Will the history and the poetry cling together in our memory? From my school days I remember Robert Browning's angry ``The Lost Leader'' but have forgotten who the faithless leader was. So perhaps we will learn the poetry from this book and forget the history, just as we tend to remember (to our dismay) the commercial jingles on radio but forget (to our relief) the advertised product.

But it doesn't matter all that much, for this is a book worth reading for its own sake and if it imprints on our memory even a little about English history or poetry, then so much the better.

The Right Hon. Kenneth Baker is Britain's secretary of state for education. His book is on the best-seller list in Britain.

Pamela Marsh is a free-lance book reviewer.

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