Anthologies are rich in cruel juxtapositions. While finishing an article last year I needed to check the text of Scott's 'Coronach' as it appears in a particular edition of Palgrave's Golden Treasury. The library let me down, and with a deadline approaching I had to buy a copy on the Charing Cross road, so I ended up re-reading the whole collection. The Treasury is a superb gathering, and there is little that is not of a high standard. Nonetheless, it could have been designed to make one particular point: 'Mr Shakespeare', to use Pound's famous remark on Eliot's plays, 'retains his position.'


Specifically, the selections in the Golden Treasury show Shakespeare to great advantage in his handling of verse, with long and complex passages uninterrupted by any awkward turn of syntax. Weaker writers more often resort to relocated phrases in search of a rhyme or a convenient rhythm, but Shakespeare almost never employs such distortions or leaves the reader conscious of  an artful disposition of material. By comparison the other authors in the anthology, nearly all of them first rank writers, appear clumsy and artificial. Perhaps it is unfair to offer Milton's 'Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity' as an example, but the piece is not far off in the book and in spite of pleasant lines or shorter passages is conspicously ill at ease by comparison.


Shakespeare's quality is not facility alone, but sustained and extended performance, and he seems to have no equal. In Milton's defense it might be objected that he actually cared about what he was trying to express (hardly a sensible aim when writing in verse), and that perhaps Shakespeare did not. However, the author of the sonnets does not strike the reader as a 'tiresome fribble' who, like a barrister, can seem to mean what he is obliged to say. The simplest explanation available is likeliest; Shakespeare is pretty much all he is cracked up to be.