Worsted by Wikipedia

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles and the Oxford Companion to English Literature edited by Dinah Birch

Wordsworth, one of the poets downgraded by the , 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 

Linnets fare badly in the seventh edition. We also lose Yeats’s “evening full of the linnet’s wings” from ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, Wordsworth’s “Come, hear the woodland linnet”, Robert Bridges’s “I heard a linnet courting”, and Lovelace’s “When (like committed linnets) I/With shriller throat shall sing”, from the same poem as “Stone walls do not a prison make”. The only survivor is also from Tennyson: “the linnet born within the cage/That never knew the summer woods.” At this rate, by the time of the eighth edition, the last crimson-breasted songster will have flown the brittle cage of memory.

Browning v. Blair 

Knowles’s method of saving space is ruthlessly to excise the barely less memorable line or stanza after the famous one. She keeps “They shut the road through the woods/ Seventy years ago.” But Kipling, still surely one of England’s most popular and by-heart-remembered poets, could not be reduced from over ten pages in the first edition to under four in this, if she had not deprived us of those horsemen in the final verse “steadily cantering through/the misty solitudes” and the shivery pay-off “But there is no road through the woods!”

I’m not really quarrelling with Knowles’s deselection technique. She is surely right in seeing ours as a prosier age in which fewer of us have long passages of poetry in our heads. And most of her new entries are exemplary. It is good, for example, to have both the Marilyn Monroe and the Princess Diana versions of “Candle in the Wind”, along with nuggets from Lord Spencer’s funeral oration. I did not know that it was his mother, rather than Prince Charles, who first coined “monstrous carbuncle”. 

This ODQ is, if anything, even more punctilious than its predecessors in tracking down different versions of the same quote; Barack Obama’s “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice” is traced back to Martin Luther King and thence to the early 19th-century Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker. I like too the section devoted to Misquotations, where wrong ‘uns such as “Crisis, what crisis?”, “Play it again, Sam” and “Hug a hoodie” are put to rights.

Here and there, Knowles’s selection tends towards the over-solemn. How many of us remember Tony Blair saying “This is not the time to falter” in the Commons debate on the Iraq war, as opposed to his saying “I’m a pretty straight sort of guy” in the Bernie Ecclestone affair? On the faltering front, surely a better candidate would be Margaret Thatcher’s “Don’t go wobbly on me, George”, to the first President Bush before the first Gulf War. What I remember of Colonel Tim Collins’s eve-of-battle address to his troops is not the passage quoted here, but the bit that came immediately after it: “Iraq is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there. You will see things that no man could pay to see.” 

At this point, though, we cannot dodge the question that keeps recurring. I looked up the whole text of Collins’s speech on Google, ditto “The Way through the Woods”, though we have a Collected Kipling upstairs. A couple of weeks ago, when I wanted to check Bagehot’s remark that “banking is a watchful but not a laborious trade”, I could not find it in any edition of the ODQ, or in any other dictionary of quotations, but found it instantly on the net, plus the entire text of Lombard Street, in which the phrase appears. Is it any coincidence that the quotation the publisher chose for the front of the dust-jacket should be “A glorious treasure house for browsers”? Browsing for pleasure rather than checking for reference does seem destined to be the future of this magnificent volume.

If the net unmistakably poses a threat to the ODQ, what does it do to the Oxford Companion to English Literature? The new Companion, edited by the literary critic and Ruskin expert Dinah Birch, is an equally sumptuous volume, worthy to stand beside Sir Paul Harvey’s first edition of 1932 and Dame Margaret Drabble’s fifth and sixth editions of 1985 and 2000. The new edition is notable for including every modern English writer that you might wish to know about and a few that you might not. Birch signals recent alterations and additions to the literary scene by prefacing her volumes with four competent and informative essays by Hermione Lee and others on the novel, black British literature, children’s literature, and cultures of reading. And she ends it with a huge chronology of literary events and publications from 1000AD to 2008. The whole enterprise is so skilfully managed that I could not really detect what had been removed to make room for all this. The entries on literary movements and technical terms are certainly not skimped. I found the entries on foreign writers and movements — always one of the Companion‘s strong points — as abundant and authoritative as ever. But again we have to ask: how do they compare with Wikipedia? Are they more accurate, fuller, better written, more insightful?

I took half-a-dozen sample entries to compare with their counterparts on Wikipedia: the Victorian periodical The Academy, Kathy Acker, J. R. Ackerley, Rodney Ackland, once known as “the English Chekhov”, Peter Ackroyd and anacoluthon. In each case, the conclusion was unmistakable: whether dealing with the now obscure Ackland, the cult figure Acker or the celebrated Ackroyd, Wikipedia provided a great deal more information of every kind: biographical details, dates, lists of works, critical verdicts etc. In the case of The Academy and of anacoluthon, the history and derivation were spelled out at far greater length than the Companion had room for. Only when it came to literary judgments did the Companion sneak back into contention. If you want facts, go to Wikipedia. If you want to know what someone’s writing is actually like, then the Companion may well be better, as well as crisper. But even this slender literary lead, will, I suspect, melt away as Wikipedia’s entries are refined and reinforced. As for the famous unreliability of Wikipedia entries, I could see little sign of it — and have not for some time now in other fields as well.

The ODQ and the Companion each weigh in at 4lbs 12oz. I am delighted to have both of them on my shelves alongside their predecessors, but how many yards will I walk to lift them up, when the answer I am looking for is more likely to lie at my fingertips?

Newcomer Diana; Kipling downgraded

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"