- The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
Oxford, 908 pp, £12.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 19 211560 X
First the bad news. They have printed the Mgr Ronald Knox limerick as above. I am not going to look at the Baring-Gould book to see if the mistake was primarily his. But surely the proper Knox version made sense, and went something like
Vol. 2 No. 3 · 21 February 1980
SIR: Richard Usborne is, of course, quite right to correct the new ODQ (LRB, 24 January): the Evangelical vicar of Mgr Knox’s limerick had the Bishop’s portrait and wanted the portable font. However, for the limerick to make sense and also to scan correctly, all that is needed is a simple transposition of the two words ‘of’ and ‘for’ in the ODQ version (eccentrically printed as prose). It then reads, as originally written:
Evangelical vicar, in want
Of a portable, second-hand font,
Would dispose, for the same,
Of a portrait, in frame,
Of the Bishop, elect, of Vermont.
The correct placing of the commas is also important, both for the rhythm and in that accumulation of significant detail which is part of the elegance of the total effect.
SIR: I assume that Richard Usborne, reviewing the ODQ, is being provocative, and knows full well the origin of the lines:
In his chamber, weak and dying,
Was the Norman Baron lying…
He is somewhat of an optimist to expect to find it in the ODQ, but I am grateful to him for reviving boyhood memories, as well as to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his repentant baron for freeing his serfs and vassals, and encouraging my growing social consciousness.
Mr Usborne may be interested to learn that my Oxford Complete Copyright Edition of Long-fellow’s poetical works (1904) includes the following note before the poem: ‘Dans les moments de la vie où la réflexion devient plus calme et plus profonde, où l’intérêt et l’avarice parlent moins haut que la raison, dans les instants de chagrin domestique, de maladie, et de péril de mort, les nobles se repentirent de posséder des serfs, comme d’une chose peu agréable à Dieu, qui avait créé tous les hommes à son image.’ – Thierry, Conquête de l’Angleterre.
D. Kenwin Harris