Umpteens

Christopher Ricks

  • Bloomsbury Dictionary of Dedications edited by Adrian Room
    Bloomsbury, 354 pp, £17.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0521 7
  • Unauthorised Versions: Poems and their Parodies edited by Kenneth Baker
    Faber, 446 pp, £14.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 571 14122 6
  • The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse edited by Tom Paulin
    Faber, 407 pp, £14.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 571 14470 5

Adrian Room has garnered umpteen dedications, and some of them are of interest, but what is the point of unrolling them alphabetically as something purporting to be a dictionary? Abbott opens, and Zangwill closes, yet the book is not a work of reference. It is an anthology. A lazy piece of work, or of relaxation, and not just because its compiler has declined the effort of an imaginative ordering and has instead fallen back on A to zzzz.

For a start, there are too many slips, some of them likely to be mere errors of the press (Menken for Mencken, Fagler for Fagles), some likely to be Room’s own (Lyttleton for Lyttelton. Wharton for Warton, and the lése-majesté of misquoting ‘They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace’). The translations from the French are slovenly: in a dedication an English woman should not write and an English-speaking French woman would not write, ‘To my husband, who I would love even if he were not my husband’ – Who whom? Would should? Howard Spring’s Heaven lies about us is subjected to a parenthetical tutting: ‘A childhood autobiography, as the title implies (although, to be pedantic, the original Wordsworth quotation was “Heaven lies around us in our infancy”)’. Pedantic, yes. True, no.

Room goes in for a lot of roguish commenting but not for annotation when it is needed.

James McConnell, The Benedictine Commando, 1981
– For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.

Room: ‘The dedication suggests a quotation.’ And that’s true too. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, actually. An editor ought to rise to an occasional session of sweet silent thought, or even to the consulting of a concordance.

Robert Browning, Luria, 1846

– I dedicate this last attempt for the present at Dramatic Poetry to a Great Dramatic Poet: ‘Wishing what I write may be read by his light’: if a phrase originally addressed, by not the least worthy of his contemporaries, to Shakespeare, may be applied here, by one whose sole privilege is in a grateful admiration, to Walter Savage Landor.

A reader would do well to trade in Room’s thumbnail-Landor (‘colourful’, ‘apparently ungovernable temper’, ‘irascible’) and ask instead please for what Room does not supply, a simple identification of the praiser of Shakespeare, upon whose words the whole dedication turns: John Webster, in the note ‘To the Reader’ before The White Devil. Browning’s Elizabethanised play has its affinities with Webster: moreover, it was canny of him to emend Webster’s prefatory words so as to reduce them to a single-minded praise of Shakespeare (and then of Landor). For these are not the very words of Webster, who had praised rather ‘the right happy and copious industry of Master Shakespeare, Master Dekker, and Master Heywood, wishing what I write may be read by their light’. Room’s indifference to such things (he lets fall a note only when he happens to know) means that a reader is given no help in reading Browning’s dedication by this light.

Once it dawned on Room that space-saving would demand that all such dedications as these be printed in a mangled form as run-on sequences and not as what they truly are, a form of inscription, he ought to have reconsidered his whole enterprise and either dropped it or limited it to such instances as he could do right by. Browning’s original shaping does not just look different: it means something different, since the inscription, lapidary in its way, proffers to our eyes a series of provisional sense-units and of suspensions, this constituting a third realm, distinct from the movement and effect of both prose and verse. Browning’s staunch dedication may not be a supreme instance of the art, but it deserves not to be rendered, rendered down, as syntactically banal.

The main criterion for inclusion was that a dedication’s ‘wording should be interesting or original’. Often this criterion has not been met, especially when Room makes things even easier than usual for himself by including a run of dedications by the same hand. Agatha Christie is an interesting writer and an even more interesting phenomenon, but is the wording of her dedications interesting or original? ‘To Margaret Rutherford, in admiration’: I share the admiration for Margaret Rutherford, but not the admiration for this as a dedication.

There can be no intrinsic objection to such a dedication as Thomas Moore’s, of Lalla Rookh:

– To Samuel Rogers, Esq., this Eastern Romance is inscribed by his very grateful and affectionate friend, Thomas Moore.

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