There are three Cambridge things that may (but usually don’t) happen in May: the May Bumps, the May Balls and the May Anthologies. A hallowed Trinity of things which matter outside of work for the muscularly, socially or poetically well-endowed. The Balls and the Bumps are synonymous with tradition, and their histories quote their commencements in the nineteenth century. By contrast, if we were to put our trust in the wisdom of  Wikipedia, the May Anthologies would seem practically without history, an ‘original concept’ of 1992. As this year’s Mays puts out its call for submissions of work it seems an excellent opportunity to straighten the record and give A History of the Mays in Cambridge.

In 1913, through B. Blackwell and W. Heffers Ltd respectively but using the same London printing house, two anthologies of ‘undergraduate poetry’ appeared: ‘Cambridge Poets: 1910-1913’ and ‘Oxford Poetry: 1910-1913’. They were produced under the guidance of the Universties’ respective head men of letters, Arthur Quiller-Couch and Gilbert Murray. The collections looked very much like our modern Mays anthology—the literary cream of the university milk contributing two or three poems each, the name of the college given in brackets. The latter, spurred on by an injection of energy in the twenties— with C. Day Lewis, W.H. Auden and Charles Plumb as editors and contributors—is still going today, but as a more elite publication accepting outside contributions. The appearance of one ‘H. Graham Greene (Balliol)’ as author of an arch free verse sonnet to a “wey-faced girl” within its pages in 1923 introduces the lesser known story of that famed novelist as a failed poet. 

It is no accident that the volumes appear when they do. English Tripos did not exist until 1917, but efforts for its inauguration rode forth under the banner of Quiller-Couch’s ‘Battle for English’. Even more saliently, 1912-13 saw the twentieth-century renaissance of the anthology with the production of the Georgian Poetry collections. These, produced with the aid of Cambridge’s Rupert Brooke (still reading for his second degree at Kings) effectively established the idea of poetry as the product of a generation. The first Cambridge production was this anthology’s younger sister in more ways than one. It is compiled with Quiller-Couch’s help by the extraordinary Aelfrida Tillyard and also featured an unrivalled phalanx of other female poets twenty-eight years before women were formally admitted to read degrees. These old anthologies open onto fascinatingly untold lifes as well as the early chapters of better-known biographies. Aelfrida appeared in the collection herself without a college—she was the product of an ad hoc education by Newnham and Girton lecturers. Having declared her ambition in her diary of 1899 “to be a celebrated authoress” she would, after writing two novels of early science-fiction eventually take vows for life as Sister Placida. The anthology also included poems by the then young Sarojini Naindu, the ‘Nightingale of India,’ who would go on to become the second female president of the India National Congress and Governor of Uttar Pradesh. Aleister Crowley, later infamously ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’ for his experiments in erotic magic, had already joined the Order of the Golden Dawn whilst at Cambridge, but alongside a poem more predictably entitled ‘The Rosicrucian’ there appears the more familiar origins of spiritual rapture ‘On Garret Hostel Bridge’

Here in the evening curl white mists and wreathe in their vapour
All the gray spires of stone, all the immobile towers
Here in the twilight gloom dim trees and sleepier rivers,
Here where the bridge is thrown over the amber streams

As well as (inevitably) ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ Rupert Brooke contributes ‘In Examination.’ This poem could stand as an emblem to the feeling of the collection, as written in an exam hall he looks around at his contemporaries - writing, mediocre and studious - but suddenly transformed by an unlooked-for glory, light flooding through the window to render them fully-fledged angelic creatures…until the clouds close again

And they were but fools again, fools unknowing
Still scribbling, blear-eyed and stolid immortals.

This note of expectancy and possibility, but with the distinct awareness of the more likely outcome of grey failure, is one which their skeptical elders adopted as well. Gilbert Murray doubts whether real poetry, “a thing of the spirit, of loneliness, of longing” can root itself in a university town whose youth have it all: “an evil seed-bed for poetry […] steeped in satiety.” Quiller-Couch’s preface, presumably written from his redoubt in Cornwall, compares the flood of verse to the incoming tide, where many little wavelets must build the pressure to launch a rolling crest: middlebrow poetry carry the rest.

The tide of war would intervene as a deeply ambiguous response to that sense of expectancy. A second anthology took up the tale from 1914 to 1920, and what had been a response to the Georgians idea of themselves as a discrete generation now appears like a tribute to a ‘lost generation’. Jefferey Day (St John’s) has a star by his name in the Contents Page. ‘Flight-Commander Jefferey Day, R.N.A.S, was killed on active service before actually entering St John’s College. He had, however, been definitely accepted as a member of the college, and his name appears on a memorial tablet of the chapel.’ This is the first ghost, but the verses themselves contain many more. Day’s own poem imagines a peace-time which for him, never to come, as he stalks game at dawn, alone but for the presence in spirit of his already dead brother. A Vivian Burbury (King’s) writes to ‘The Unborn Brother’ — a kind of poetic doppelganger like the ‘other man,’ who haunts Edward Thomas — but who, by precisely by his perfection “you’d have been tortured by this world’s pains/And killed, like the rest, in this endless war.”

In this edition, too, bad poetry gets its apologia: in ‘Sestina for the Minor Poet’ the writer uses a fiendish form to mock his own futile efforts:

And we—we wonder more than anyone
Why minor poets ever strive to write.

However this edition forged in the workshop of war has the effect of demonstrating - through its undoubtedly intensely experienced poetry - that nothing is minor if meant. There is no single attitude towards the horror adopted by the writers, but every single one demands attention. J.C. Squire (St John’s), another long-forgotten contributor, gives a brilliant evocation of the unpresent-presence of war, and the strange chiaroscuro of England’s continuing normality and the knowledge, whether direct or indirect, of the front line, in his evocation of Chiswick in 1917: on a clear and peaceful summer’s evening, so calm, indeed that

Listen! Behind the twilight a deep low sound
Like the constant shutting of very distant doors.

‘On hearing Flanders Guns in Chiswick, 1917’

The next chapter of the history of the Mays in Cambridge could be called the Bloomsbury Years. In 1929 and 1930 Virginia and Leonard Woolf ‘s Hogarth Press published two volumes entitled Cambridge Poetry as Nos. 8 and 13 of their Living Poets Series. Julian Bell, the son of Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa (later killed in the Spanish Civil War) was then at King’s and his appearance at the head of the poets in the first volume makes it a very fair bet that this was the catalyst for its publication. Their ‘commercial hippogriff’ of a publishing house, originally a cottage industry in their own house was now attempting to straddle the gap between ‘art’ and ‘popular’ press. It would have been an incredible opportunity for undergraduate poets to appear behind an unconventional modernist cover, from the Press which had first produced T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in book form only three years beforehand, baptizing it as the typographic vessel of modernism.

Amongst the more surprising contributors we find Michael Redgrave (Magdalene), better known as a Shakespearean actor or from The Dam Busters, staging another talent in a poem of extraordinary tenderness about the coming of sorrow:

Once there was a stillness,
And the sun, caught in a tangle of mistle,
Tightened the hot buds

And grief, grief was not

Vastly important critical and publishing careers also show their early roots in these volumes. John Lehmann - Julian Bell’s close friend who would later join (and eventually buy) The Hogarth Press - launched New Writing and published studies of Brooke and Woolf, here makes what would have been his first appearance in commercial print. The editor, John Davenport, would go on to be the literary editor of The Observer and in 1976 would with Dylan Thomas, write a parody detective novel in which the poet laureate is murdered called The Death of the King’s Canary.
It is more than striking that there are in these exciting volumes, which include for the first time versions of modernist free forms, no female contributors. The presence of women in the first Cambridge volume of 1913 was not repeated until the 1990s. However this was Virginia Woolf’s own press in the years following her delivery, at Cambridge, of the lectures which were to make up A Room of One’s Own, the statement of the need for a radical transformation of the domestic limits placed on women, and of female creative independence. In 1931, perhaps accordingly as a piece of positive discrimination, appeared An Anthology of Cambridge Women’s Verse. Its Girton undergraduate compiler, Margaret Thomas, wrote a gutsy Woolfian preface in which she disdains most of the mere masculinity of her generation. She denigrates the prevalence of the ‘Art of Bluffing’ in their examination essays as much as in their verse, and lauds the “undergraduette’s lack of posing” before explaining their failure to appear in print before now was only the product of this disdain for the poetic scene and perhaps a certain misplaced modesty.
It took another war to kickstart the undergraduate anthology again with Poetry from Cambridge in Wartime, cementing its identification with the theme of the fragility of early promise for fulfillment. There was also a strange sense of the tenor of the poetry going back in time, tending again towards the lyrical, or sometimes with a sense of lost purpose, as in John Bayliss ‘Any Poet to Himself’

And so I sit silenced, poor echo
of answering echoes and answers,
as stuffed and mechanical parrot,
a whistle without it’s one note.

Four further volumes of Poetry from Cambridge appeared at intervals until 1958. The editor of the second volume remarked that the university anthology “serves as a valuable pointer to current trends in literature and thought’ among whose writers may be ‘the major poets of tomorrow.” This showed itself as true as ever under the fresh poetic impulse of a new ‘generation’: the undergraduate poets who would call themselves The Movement - Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, whose purity of diction and spareness of language first appeared in 1952-4. In the 1958 issue Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, two years into their white-hot relationship, were anthologised together.

Not until 1960 with Light Blue, Dark Blue: An Anthology of Cambridge Writing was it that prose and poetry, Oxford and Cambridge came together for the first time as they do in the modern Mays. However it was again the Hogarth Press that in 1952 inaugurated the prose tradition with the Cambridge Anthology, a volume introduced by no lesser light than E.M. Forster. He confessed himself, at 70, both intrigued and baffled by the contributions of this generation who operate in their stories with “the poetry of disquiet, the poetry of the sum that won’t add up” and finally finds joy that “the wheel of time, grating on its ungreased axile, brings up novelties.” With patronage by leading writers, from Arthur Quiller-Couch through Virginia Woolf to J.H. Prynne in the present day, and as a showcase for promise, whether it be realised or not, from Rupert Brooke through Ted Hughes and most recently Zadie Smith, the Mays over the last two decades has cohered the early shoots in the history of the Cambridge undergraduate anthology, grafted now together with Oxford, into a solid-oak tradition.

May it so continue!

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