What was T.S. Eliot’s favourite colour? Which season – summer, autumn, winter, spring – would you expect to feature most often in the works of Philip Larkin? And which of these two poets would you reckon was the more self-centred, fond of flowers, susceptible to hyphens, keen on using the word mother?
Such are the questions that can spin off from too many hours spent browsing in the realms of the Concordance. It so happens that both Larkin and Eliot have lately had their works ‘concorded’[*] – that’s to say, worked over with a scanner in order that the world might know how many and which words each of them used, how often, when and where. Don’t ask me why. A concordance is, I think, meant to assist us in the checking of quotations, the remembering of half-forgotten lines. In my hands, it becomes a kind of toy.
But then, I love such toys. I love compiling lists. A few years ago, when I was editing an Oxford Companion to 20th-century poetry, one of the rare pleasures of the job was in trying to work out how many of my poets had done what – apart, that is, from writing verse. How many had been policemen, say, or boxers, or management consultants? How many had played hockey for their country, been murdered, died in battle? How many had served time in jail? Who cares? you will retort, and I’d agree. Back then, though, for a day or two, I had to know these things. Again, don’t ask me why.
With some of my lists, I tried to kid myself that I was not just playing games. For instance: surely it was worth knowing how many modern poets died young, were alcoholic, or went mad? In these areas, it must be said, the lists I ended up with revealed little that could not have easily been guessed. And yet this hardly seemed to matter. Thanks to me, guesswork had been hardened into fact, statisticised. From now on, I could say, it was a matter of official record that the majority of modern poets had been not only sane and sober but also, survival-wise, extremely shrewd. Most of them, my final list disclosed, had spent their lives in universities and, come pension-time, been good for at least one further decade of ‘productive work’.
And this list, I need hardly say, led to another list, a list-within-a-list. Now and then, during the course of my labours, some churlish friend would remind me that only a small handful of my listed poets was, had ever been, could ever be, well, ‘any good’. Was it statistically correct to call these people poets, ‘just because they said they were’? In retaliation, I took to totting up the century’s ‘real talents’, as decreed by me. And this list, when I finally got through with it, ran to about two dozen names – from a total of something like a thousand. Disconcertingly, about a third of these real talents had, alas, gone mad, been alcoholic, and/or died at a (statistically) young age.
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[*] A Concordance to the Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot, edited by J.L. Dawson, P.D. Holland and D.J. McKitterick (Faber, 1236 pp., £55, 21 January, 0 571 11967 0). A Concordance to the Poetry of Philip Larkin, edited by R.J.C. Watt (Olms-Weidmann, 660 pp., DM258, May 1995, 3 487 09801 6).