You are reading: The oxford anthology of english literature volume ii: 1800
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Normal books, ho hum, are retailed one by, one: 10,000 copies, 10,000 decisions to buy. It’s coaxing 10,000 Americans to do the same thing that drives sales departments to drink. But the college text, that’s a sexier proposition. Impress one (1) instructor, fast‐talk him, blizzard him with leaflets, even give him a free copy if that helps, and you get an “adoption,” which 4s like getting a centipede’s shoe account: automatic sales of 30, 50, perhaps 500, a year. Multiply by all the instructors you can hope to impress, reflect that once they’ve dittoed syllabi they’ll shrink from switching to a different book next fall; project, therefore, a growing list of adoptions into a long vista of years, and you have a way to run a business. So we find Oxford University Press deep in a fantastically expensive venture in bookmaking, yet confident it will be amortized by megacarloadsoaf sales.
Out front they have Prof. Frank Kermode, an old hand at orchestrating projects, and Prof. John Hollander, poet and Jonsonian, at the head of a platoon recruited from Yale, Columbia and the Warburg Institute: Profs. Harold Bloom, Martin Price, Lionel Trilling and J. B. Trapp. These six with the help of the O.U.P. production staff have brought forth “The Oxford Anthology of English Literature,” two huge volumes with about the combined weight of a husky newborn baby and about the bulk (246 cubic inches) of two and a half adult brains. Conversion to metric measure I leave as an exercise to the reader, as also the verification of my finding that at 0.878 grams per cubic centimeter the stuff of this artifact is compacted somewhat more densely than that of the planet Saturn, though considerably less than that of a common brick.
Bricks are pertinent because peddlers of smaller packages used to call such books “doorstoppers.” Twenty years ago, when they were plentiful, they drew on a more primitive technology, packing perhaps 600 pages into an inch of thickness. The new “Oxford’s” packing density achieves 1,000 pages per inch, at negligible cost in opacity. It will still stop doors somewhat less well than a brick, being apt to slide on polished floors. It is also unlike‐ a brick in containing misprints.
Thus a student plodding through “The Rape of the Lock” in Oxford’s first printing will experience a poem somewhat more surreal than Pope’s, all the words on pages 1874–7 of Volume I having gotten interchanged with those on pages 1878–81. Random checking discloses Milton on page 1255 of the same volume being made to sneeze a phrase of “Lycidas,” “that blows frof off.” On page .2087 the absence of the promised note on the word “ambush” is made up by a garbled duplicate of the note on Catherine Sedley; which asserts that she was “mistress to the Duke through avowed sincerity.” A note on page 1947 contains three different efforts, none of them successful, to spell the same Greek word. Volume II seems cleaner, though Remy de Gourmont has been accorded an accent aigu on page 2023, and Basil Bunting’s, “Briggflatts” a superfluous sibilant on page xxxi.
No one with experience of how books are put together will blame such mishaps on the editors. They bespeak the mayhem that seems to occur in print shops just after the last set of proofs has been returned. No, the editing has been almost oppressively competent. The ignorances that disfigure too many textbooks patched together by young sparks with a way to make are not in evidence here. The Messrs. Kermode, Hollander, Bloom, Price, Trapp and Frilling are scholars of distinction, and when Prospero’s “dark backward and abysm of time” is glossed “dark abyss of time past,” or when scanning the phrase “such stuff as dreams are made on” we are advised that “on” means “of,” we rely on the information. Oxford fielded a first team, and whatever blemishes disfigure the inisal printing must be blamed on Oxford’s haste to get the examination copies into the pipelines in plenty of time for last fall’s adoption lists.
The blowtorch at Oxford’s seat was “The Norton Anthology of English Literature,” another two‐volume doorstopper whose fantastic sales in the past 11 years have reversed the rumor that doorstoppers are passé and spurred the conferences in every textbook house in the country, most of all at Oxford where the Standard Compendious Book has been a house specialty since the first days of “The Oxford Book of Verse.” Not N.B.C.’s lust for counter to “All in the Family” matches Oxford’s need of something to head off “the Norton.”
The Norton, too, was a first‐team effort: Professors E. Talbot Donaldson, Hallett Smith, Robert M. Adams, Samuel Holt Monk, George H. Ford and David Daiches, working under the general editorship of Cornell’s genial M. H. Abrams. “The result of two decades of experimentation with the indispensable course that introduces students to the greatness and variety of English literature,” it set the pattern from which the ambitious Oxford challenge doesn’t really deviate: large slices of everything from “Beowulf” on, copious notes on whatever might vex a sophomore, frequent introductory essays, diverse lore, all on clean white paper with no double‐column impaction.
The Norton package is smaller (4 lbs. 11 oz., 134 cubic inches), with fewer pages (xliv +3967 as against li +4614+ 192 pp. of plates), fewer lines per page (46 against 48) and fewer characters per line (about 66 compared to about 80). As salesmen will be quick to point out, the Oxford, viewed purely as a storage mechanism, has nearly 50 per cent more capacity, though the verse pages profit from this fact barely at all. It’s in prose that the extra‐long Oxford line pays bonuses, packing page by page some 26 per cent more words and permitting such luxuries as 12,000 words of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journali on a mere 19 pages, or the whole of “Saint Joan” back to back with the whole of “Heart of Darkness” in a slice just one‐eighth inch thick.
One innovation of the Norton editors the. Oxford team have elected not to imitate: the “Topics” which periodically group uncommon selections to ideograph a theme: “Mediaeval Attitudes to Life on Earth,” or “Industrialism: Prog gress or Decline?” or “The Unicorn: End of a Legend” (a charming notion, this last: 10 excerpts running from the third century to 1667; at the end of which we see faith in the virtues of the Unicorn’s horn expire in a climate of cool‐headed experiment). These are resourceful groupings but contain traps. The space available is really too small to document a topic at leisure, and the essay‐factories that flourish in college towns have surely by now papers in stock on every conceivable assignment the mini‐anthologies suggest.
Oxford’s counter‐ploy was brilliant: to delete “Topics” and offer pictures, nearly 300 on 192 pages, beautifully reproduced: not the usual dreary mug‐shots of eminent authors, but, for instance, eight views of Wren churches (and for Eliot students, the interior of Magnus Martyr), a haunting 1595 portrait of Donne, a miniature of an Elizabethan musing, vistas in 18th‐century formal gardens, pre‐Raphaelite paintings, a photo from Conrad’s Congo: icons to feed young imaginations.
Still, at Norton they are doubtless losing little sleep. Their Revised Version, misprints long since shaken out, is now in its seventh printing; its type, set long ago, has been selectively rearranged for a 2,600‐page Major Authors blockbuster (fourth printing, $9.50). Their adoption list runs an for pages, its stability underwritten by pedagogic inertia. Most important, such books are so crammed and replete that instructors can vary their semester menus at whim without switching to a new anthology. Though Oxford’s smorgasbord is even more varied, they start under the heavy disadvantage of wooing tastes already wedded to Norton. Why switch?
Well, perhaps for those pictures (a heavy plus); and for more space, more pages, a more open type. And Oxford has gotten rid of one artificial division by fusing “Romantic” with “Victorian,” and another by fusing “Tudor” and “Stuart,” and the Oxford “Beowulf” is in limp verse instead of in blank prose if that appeals, and (this is starting to die away faintly) here’s a bit of the general Preface:
“To have given the whole of one book—say, the First of ‘The Faerie Queene’ — would have been a solution as easy as it is, no doubt, defensible; but it is asking a great deal of students to see that portion of the poem as an epitome of the rest…”: amid the mispunctuations of which we may detect a shaft at the Norton editor who wrote, “Book of ‘The Faerie Queene’ is in a way an epitome of the whole poem, or the part of it Spenser completed.” So Norton gives Book I entire, plus The Bower of Bliss from Book II and The Garden of Adonis from Book III, whereas Oxford devotes the same number of pages to excerpts from all slat books, “with linking commentary.”
Massive wary maneuvering, as when the Stegosaurus prepared himself to take on King Kong. Norton offers 11 Shakespeare songs and 26 sonnets, plus “The Phoenix and the Turtle” and the whole of “Henry N Part 1.” Oxford counters with 11 songs and 26 sonnets also, but a different selection, “The Phoenix and the Turtle” again, scraps from “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” and the whole of “The Tempest,” plus a good deal more prefatory matter.
The basis for choice is chiefly the instructor’s whim. There is no principled solution to the question, what such anthologies ought to contain. English Literature, i.e., pages written in England, has no principle of continuity more cogent than the language on which its writers drew. Nothing but an overlapping vocabulary gets Newman’s “Apologia,” “The Ancient Mariner” and “St. Mawr” into the same field of attention, not to mention “Jabberwocky,” “The Waste Land,” and Huxley on “The Physical Basis of Life.” Survey Courses quite simply make no sense, though the student is expected to be grateful for them later. The same is true of the multiplication table.
A purely poetic anthology can hope to make internal sense, so continuously have poems drawn on earlier poems. Even this principle, however, goes by the board when compilers of something called “English Literature” come to the 20th century and commence enforcing passport regulations. No Pound, no Williams, no Stevens: just Englishmen: this in a time when English‐language poetry has grown truly international. Yeats gains admission on the dubious principle that Ireland is sort‐of‐England; Eliot is in because he turned British, and Auden because he was born British though he later turned American; Samuel Beckett, even, is British enough to get by. But “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” though it was written in London, is inadmissible apparently because its author never held a British passport.
That’s purely because “Am Lit” is a different course, and draws on a different anthology, which Oxford can supply on request, and so can Norton. The Oxford folk have less to offer an instructor in “Modern Poetry” who is unconvinced by the passport criterion. They have Philip Larkin’s “Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse,” and they will also chop off the “Modern” slab of the huge new compendium and sell it separately, but in either package all the poets are British.
Norton, though, have just played an ace; a 1,456‐page “Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry” ($9.95) that puts Yeats and Sandburg, Eliot and Charles Olson, Charles Tomlinson and Louis Zukofsky into one huge collection without regard for domicile or national origin. It has cost Richard Ellmann (Oxford) and Robert O’Clair (Manhattanville College) a staggering amount of work: annotations dense with fact and lengthy headnotes for each of 156 poets. Save for inventing (page 710) a Dublin suburb, “Rockrock,” the printer seems to have been docile.