Richard Usborne

  • 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

Evangelical vicar in want
Of a second-hand portable font,
  Would exchange for the same
  A portrait (in frame)
Of the Bishop-Elect of Vermont.

All right. Had it been a classified advertisement in, say, the Church Times, it might have run its lines on. But the vicar wanted the font, not the portrait. He had the portrait already and was prepared to do a swap and see the last of it.

Wasn’t it Confucius who said that it was always a pleasure to see one’s best friend fall off his roof? Let’s look Confucius up. No. No Confucius at all. Well, well.

Anyway, this is where I at last track down the verses I was made to learn as a boy, for recitation, and my non-location of which has now been irritating me for weeks. From a little blue book, about a Norman baron dying. I only remember bits, and probably misremember those:

In his chamber, weak and dying,
Was a Norman baron lying …

I couldn’t find this in Scott (school prize), nor in Kipling’s Collected Verse. I have had it offered to the best brains at the Savage Club bar, without success. Could it be Macaulay? I do not possess Macaulay’s verse other than the Lays of Ancient Rome. Can the ODQ, 1935 or 1979, help me? It’ll be in the Index under Norman, or baron, or turret? No? No. Foiled again.

All the rest is good news. Rarely (well, never before), as a buyer, have I felt that a book priced over £10 was good value. But this new ODQ at £12.50 seems to me a thoroughly good buy. Nine hundred-plus pages and thirty-plus quotations per page (Winston Churchill’s entries include ‘It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations’; also ‘Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash!’).

The first issue of the ODQ was in 1941, the second in 1953. The prefaces to this new third edition include ‘The Compilers to the Readers’ of 1941. The first two editions were dictionaries of familiar quotations. This new one is more of an anthology. The familiar stuff is still here, but they’ve put in a lot of good stuff that no crossword-puzzle setter would expect you to know, or find, unless or until this 1979 edition becomes an accepted and required source for elucidation of crossword clues. With the earlier editions one was, so to speak, hunting up scent-lines. With the new ODQ one can be more of a truffle-hound, finding totally new felicities as well as confirming old ones. But let us raise the hat again to Charles Fletcher who, the 1953 Preface tells us, supplied the first, 1941, book with all its selections from Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Tennyson and Dryden.

Of course the quarter-century gap between the second and third editions has brought in new names. Four hundred and forty to be exact. Berlin then was Irving (1888-  ), represented by ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. Now Berlin is Sir Isaiah (1909-  ), with three sentences from one of his Four Essays on Liberty. Poor Berlin (Irving) is dropped. Betjeman (1906-  ) goes up from 0 in 1953 to 54 in 1979. Auden (1907-1973) goes from 0 to 70, Pound from 0 to 36. And on the single page, 907, given to a Greek Index, comprising about 1,200 words, among the HOMER, ANON, SAPP, SOPH, EURI, NICI, AESC, PIND, ARIS, PERI (the Funeral Oration given to PERI, not THUC), ascriptions are four to POUND. Final detail, the earlier editions had those rather sombre blue-grey typographical dust-wrappers, didn’t they? The new issue has a daffodil-coloured, megalopygic, copper-nobbed, saffron-robed, pre-Raphaelite stunner walking barefoot through brambles following a handsome lion and his lioness, and admired by a handsome, barefoot … who? Ah, yes. Here’s an annotation: ‘Jacket illustration: the goddess Venus, detail from “Venus and Anchises” by W.B. Richmond … See under Virgil 557:16.’ Turn to page 557, Virgil (70-19 BC). Ah yes. They give the Latin first, then English: ‘bright glimpse of the rosy glow of her neck, and from her ambrosial head of hair a heavenly fragrance wafted: her dress flowed down right to her feet and in her walk it showed, she was in truth a goddess.’ ‘Et vera incessu patuit dea.’ You remember that from Rep in the Sixth, surely. There are 90 items from Virgil, Latin followed by English.

Bernard Darwin, a great quotesman, who larded his golf reports in the Times with Dickens and supplied all the Dickens quotes for the 1941 ODQ, wrote an introduction to that edition, and they repeat it in the 1979 one. He instanced Churchill’s broadcast quotation of Clough to Roosevelt after Roosevelt had quoted Longfellow to Churchill:

When the Prime Minister said that there were some lines that he deemed appropriate, we sat up rigid, waiting in mingled pleasure and apprehension. How agreeable it would be if we were acquainted with them and approved the choice! How flat and disappointing should they be unknown to us! A moment later we heard ‘For while the tired waves, vainly breaking’ and sank back in a pleasant agony of relief. We whispered the lines affectionately to ourselves, following the speaker, or even kept a word or two ahead of him in order to show our familiarity with the text. We were if possible even more sure than ever that Mr Churchill was the man for our money. He had given his ultimate proofs by flattering our vanity. He had chosen what we knew and what, if we had thought of it, we could have quoted ourselves. This innocent vanity …

Page by page the new edition pleases the eye more than the old editions – themselves nothing to be ashamed of. Linotron setting of the Times bodyface (it was previously letterpress) has condensed the lines, given a blacker look to the type-mass and more white space on the page. The middle rule, north/south, has gone and the old-look – for example, ‘Ib.vol.cxii, p.142.1902’ – annotation has gone from right to left of the column. Running-heads are now in sans capitals, Univers; the numbers, page (without brackets) and down the page, are bigger, an expanded Univers bold. The paper is lighter, looks whiter and gives minimal show-through. The Index occupies 310 of the total 908 pages. The Index of the 1953 edition was 414 pages of a total of 1,003.

Shakespeare is top scorer with 1,951 entries, the Bible next with 1,341. At random: Browning gets 265, Kipling 202, Housman 97, Marx (Karl) 11, Marx (Groucho) one. Mandy Rice-Davies (1944-  ) gets one with ‘He would, wouldn’t he?’ when, at the trial of Stephen Ward, June 1963, she was told that Lord X (Astor) had denied her allegations. And Lord Coleridge (1820-1907) gets one: ‘I speak not of this college or that, but of the University as a whole: and, gentleman, what a whole Oxford is!’

Congratulations to the Press of the said University. Their first printing of this book is 160,000, and that doesn’t include the needs of the USA.