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Wordsworth, one of the poets downgraded by the ODQ, and newcomer Marilyn Monroe 

It's tempting to dismiss dictionaries of quotations as a typical modern short cut, a mega bluffer's guide. In fact, they are almost the oldest type of book we know of (second only to account books). Some poets and philosophers of the ancient world are known to us only through quotations in anthologies. Picking other men's flowers comes naturally. The only difference is that, while the Greeks and the Romans believed that the tags they were collecting represented wisdom that would endure, for us dictionaries of quotes are more like catalogues of mental furniture, destined to change with time and fashion, ornate brown wood giving way to minimalist white, massive mahogany tallboys being replaced by flat packs from IKEA.

Which is what gives each new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations its peculiar fascination. In the seventh edition, edited by the OUP's Elizabeth Knowles (as was the sixth in 2004), we find huge chunks that were also in the first edition of 1941, along with the original introduction by Bernard Darwin, the Goncourt of golf-writers, who dashed it off as a favour in a great hurry. But since the book's size is only larger by about a tenth, a lot has had to be consigned to oblivion to make room for new items. 

And most of what has gone is verse: Shakespeare is down to 43 pages from 65, Wordsworth down from ten to five, Tennyson keeps only 8 ½ of the 14 pages he had in 1941, Milton 7 ½ of his 13. Nor has the shortfall been made up by the most quotable modern poets. Eliot, Larkin and Betjeman between them clock up only half-a-dozen pages, with some notable omissions, too-nothing at all from "Aubade", for example, not even "That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die".

Among the lines from the dusty old poets that have bitten the dust with them are Browning's "A castle, precipice-encurled/ In a gash of the wind-grieved Apennine", picked out by Stephen Potter in Lifemanship as the ideal piece of Quotationship, and more recently borrowed by A. S. Byatt for the title of her short story "Precipice-Encurled". From "In Memoriam" we lose "I do but sing because I must/And pipe but as the linnets sing", lines used in a Thurber sketch, presumably in the expectation that a fair slice of the audience would recognise it. Another favourite quotation of Thurber's, W. E. Henley's "The blackbird plays but a boxwood flute/But I love him best of all", never made it into even the first edition, though it still crops up frequently on the internet.


Obama in; Milton out 

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