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.

But one may object that is not so interesting or original in its wording as to be worth anthologising. Eric Partridge, who was diversely interesting and original, is not well served by a slew of 23 dedications which includes such flat entireties as these:

– For F. Chesney Horwood, scholar and friend.

– For Essie and Diana Browning, with affection.

The other side of this warm welcome by Room is his compensatory need to give his guests the cold shoulder. He keeps up a sour commentary for the run of the book. Though his chosen dedications are too often held to be interesting or original, his cast of troupers is held up to patronising scorn. Sir Edwin Arnold is granted audience as a dedicator:

               TO MY DAUGHTER
Because I know my verse shall henceforth live
 On lips to be, on hearts as yet unbeating ...

This, so that Room can fleer: ‘But his verse hardly lingers on the lips today.’ Philip James Bailey is allowed the dedication to his Festus, and is then snibbed: ‘Today he is not only unread, but virtually unreadable.’ Robert Buchanan: ‘These samples of Buchanan’s work co-incidentally illustrate why he is now mostly unread.’ Newman’s novel Loss and Gain is ‘now virtually unread’. Sometimes these uncalled-for disparagements spill over to the dedications themselves, which he stigmatises variously as stilted, contrived, saccharinic, sentimental, servile, pretentious, obsequious, unkind, mawkish, ego-boosting and (again) pedantic. He rather relishes pointing out the occasions when a dedication got overtaken by events like divorce and re-marriage. Beverley Nichols, the wastrel, is said to have gone in for ‘sniping’.

If you want a good book on dedications, look out for a second-hand copy of Henry B. Wheatley’s The Dedication of Books to Patron and Friend: A Chapter of Literary History (1887). Room lists it in his brief bibliography, so in plundering it he could be accused of plagiarism only by those who believe that there is such a thing as plagiarism with acknowledgments. To see how closely Room hews to his excellent Victorian predecessor, just compare their all-but-identical dealings with Vernon Lee’s book as a whole. And to register some of the odd consequences of a 1990 book which battens on an 1887 one, consider the ironical dedication by Byron to the renegade Southey. It made cultural sense for Wheatley, in a Victorian world endemically hostile to verse satire, to judge that Byron’s brilliantly scathing dedication of Don Juan was ‘discreditable’: ‘It does no credit to the poet.’ But in our world? Room (making no mention of Wheatley and giving no arguments): ‘It still does its writer little credit.’ ‘Still’ is cool in the circumstances.

Omissions? This is a less fair game, but I feel the want of William Empson’s dedication of The Structure of Complex Words:

                 For
           I.A. RICHARDS
    Who is the source of all ideas in
this book, even the minor ones arrived
      at by disagreeing with him

And I should have wished that the amazing F.R. Leavis/Q.D. Leavis selves-congratulations, happily here, might have enjoyed the company of its predecessor from the 1890s.

F.R. Leavis and Q.D. Leavis, Dickens the Novelist
We dedicate this book to each other as proof, along with Scrutiny (of which for twenty-one years we sustained the main burden and the responsibility), of forty years and more of daily collaboration in living, university teaching, discussion of literature and the social and cultural context from which literature is born, and above all, devotion to the fostering of that true respect for creative writing, creative minds and, English literature being in question, the English tradition, without which literary criticism can have no validity and no life.

Eugene Lee-Hamilton and his wife, Forest-Notes 1899:

       We Dedicate this Book
                TO
         EACH OTHER
              AND TO
The little velvet-coated Creatures
            of the Woods.

A botch, this book. But it is somehow reassuring that the figure whom it is de rigueur to invoke at any intellectual or cultural occasion in present-day Britain duly puts in a guest-appearance: Mrs Thatcher.

The Ironised Maiden is in evidence, too, in Kenneth Baker’s anthology of verse parodies, Unauthorised Versions. But then Mr Baker is a Conservative politician, mainstream, main chance. Politically these are authorised versions. One of the entries, by Roger Woddis, sings of ‘The Church of Kenneth Baker’. If his church recalls the characterisation of the C of E as the Tory Party on its knees, it is Our Lady of Chequers upon whom the genuflecting is bent. Her Government’s victory with the Poll Tax (‘Community Charge’ to the loyal Baker), or rather her securing the necessary Parliamentary majorities, occasions Mr Baker’s merriment and pleasure. Elsewhere his pride, seconded by his amour propre, assures us that the Government’s replacing of O-Level and CSE exams by the new GCSE ‘proved a great success’. Jeffrey Archer makes it, but is held at a prophylactic distance.

The SDP/Liberal Alliance is judged to have ‘foundered on the pique of David Steel and the pride of David Owen’: it is not clear why a note to this effect had to be appended to this other parody of Woddis’s, for the parody itself implies as much. Or as little, since there are those of us who believe that though pique and pride, like original sin, were no doubt knocking about, what the Alliance foundered on was the collusion of the two entrenched beneficiaries, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, in resisting any reform of the inequities endemic in the ‘First past the post’ system, a system which inordinately rewards those undesirable things, conurbated party-ghettoes, and which effectively disenfranchised those millions of voters who supported an alliance which did not offer coagulation by locality. Meanwhile Baker’s parodies roll rightmindedly by: Harold Wilson and the trade unions get theirs, and so of course do Kinnock and the nuclear fudgers. Fair enough, or rather not quite enough, since it is only Baker’s party pris which deems right-wing mendacious folly to be a protected species.

Anyway these politickings are Baker’s only contribution to the genre of the parody-anthology. I don’t quite want to say to Simon Brett that he should come back because all is forgiven, but at least his Faber Book of Parodies (1984) wasn’t a breath of fresh air.

The field is still held by Dwight Macdonald’s Parodies, first published here in 1961 and going stronger than Baker. Baker has the decency to garland it as ‘Dwight Macdonald’s classic anthology’, and he takes leaves out of its book by including, as Brett did not, the originals (too often truncated by Baker) which the parodist takes up, takes on, takes off, or takes down a peg or two. But Baker doesn’t have Macdonald’s taste or learning, or as interesting a combination of convictions as Macdonald had, and he includes no prose-parodies, so that his book is much less happily various.

And like Room’s Dictionary of Dedications, it is lazy. The introduction is null to the point of making one wonder whether such is the point: is this a parody of how unidea’d and banally retentive a compiler can be? The annotation is chattily unhelpful most of the time. Here a title goes wrong (Smart’s poem is not called ‘Jubilate Deo’), and there a wording: Henry Carey’s mincing meeting with Ambrose Philips, Namby-Pamby, did not lisp out the words ‘Cracking-packing like a lady’, but ‘Cacking-packing’. But Mr Baker – more than politely, politicly – averts his eyes from the excremental vision, preferring to canvass the pubman’s toast. Here’s mud in your eye.

‘Thatcherites’ are bantered in Baker’s book. It is in Tom Paulin’s anthology, though, that the identity of the arch-Thatcherite is unmasked, ‘a Thatcherite before Thatcher’. Ted Hughes, none other. The argument for this judgment does not enforce conviction: ‘His reaction against the civil decencies of Movement verse and identification with what he elsewhere terms “the iron blood of Calvin” make him a Thatcherite before Thatcher.’ Ah, reaction: and iron blood – of course, iron maiden: if that’s not cogency, I’d like to know what is.

Paulin’s previous anthology, The Faber Book of Political Verse, was a fascinating absurdity. True, it had plenty of unexpected items, provocations and challenges, and Paulin knows a good poem when he hears one. (Seeing one he is less good at.) But the enterprise made no sense, in that Paulin’s politics are of such a kind as to be incompatible with the idea that there could ever be non-political verse. A man of the Left, in his own iron-blooded way, Paulin resists the tendency of the Right to claim that there are many things other than politics – for instance, the laws of God or the laws of nature. He resists this by hastening to the other extreme, and as a critic and anthologist (his poems often know better, as they well should), he writes as if there were no such thing as the need to hold in tension both this understanding that, viewed under one aspect, everything is political, and the counter-understanding that politics must also be judged an element in life, a constituent of life, an activity and allegiance to be distinguished from other activities and allegiances.

The upshot of Paulin’s sense of politics was that any Faber Book of Political Verse ought to have disappeared into a Faber Book of Verse. In the event, Paulin left the matter as it stood or rather collapsed, and instead offered an anthology which chose poems, not by whether they were political or not (this wasn’t a distinction which his own terms permitted him), but by whether or not they ministered to a particular political tradition. The poems didn’t have to support this tradition explicitly – Paulin knows better than that – but they had to clarify it: he included the occasional poem which supported what he opposes, and at least he had come up with some way of dealing with the intractabilities of his position.

His new anthology, The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse, is much better, full of unexpected things, imaginative collocations, resistances to his own predilections, and judgments which at first arouse suspicion and then arrive at persuasion. The 19 sections go at their matter in diverse ways: groupings by impulse (‘Celebrations’, ‘Complaints’), by creatures (‘Birds, Beasties, Bugs’), by kinds of poem (‘Hickamore Hackamore’), by delightful delighters (‘Bairns and Wains’), by things to be enjoyed (‘Trees and Plants and Rivers’), and by things to be quizzed (‘Work’, ‘Graffiti’, and yes, ‘Politiks’). The selecting lends itself to no easy disparagement of the ‘canon’, since so many of its best poems are from Byron, Hardy, Donne, Eliot. It is particularly bold in its ways with those poets whose standing, at once recognised and minimised, has been such as to bring home the inadequacy of the term ‘canon’, with its misleading insistence that a poet must be either in the canon or not in it – poets such as John Clare, Thomas Hood, Richard Corbett, Henry Carey, and pre-eminently Christina Rossetti. Paulin has some inspired choices from her, alive to her inspiration in such very different poems as ‘I caught a little ladybird’ and ‘The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children’. This last, a 16-page poem I had never registered though I know myself to be a lover of her poems, would in itself be worth the price of admission to Paulin’s celebration.

I hate when people come:
The women speak and stare
And mean to be so civil.
This one will stroke my hair,
That one will pat my cheek
And praise my Lady’s kindness,
Expecting me to speak;
I like the proud ones best
Who sit as struck with blindness,
As if I wasn’t there.
But if any gentleman
Is staying at the Hall
(Tho’ few come prying here),
My Lady seems to fear
Some downright dreadful evil,
And makes me keep my room
As closely as she can:
So I hate when people come,
It is so troublesome.
In spite of all her care,
Sometimes to keep alive
I sometimes do contrive
To get out in the grounds
For a whiff of wholesome air,
Under the rose, you know:
It’s charming to break bounds,
Stolen waters are sweet,
And what’s the good of feet
If for days they mustn’t go?
Give me a longer tether,
Or I may break from it.

Occasionally the book has verses which may be judged slight, or cute, or arch. Often there are poems here which could be judged to be vernacular only by an indiscriminately capacious sense of what ‘vernacular’ means. Paulin vacillates in his claims in order that he not have to meet the responsibilities of arguing any of them out. Sometimes the speaking voice; sometimes the voice of the oppressed, the powerless, the marginalised (there is a lot of this idiom in the introduction); sometimes regional speech. Mostly Paulin’s conception of the vernacular is nothing more than an excuse for him to assemble his loved things while assuring himself that he has not broken faith with his political agenda and its delenda est Carthago.

Yet there is a great deal of not only loveliness but love in the book. This makes it all the more of a pity that the introduction is so unthinking about power (the powerful versus the powerless, as simply divisible as that), so full of unjust denigration of all the alternatives to its own chosen poetry (Establishment types, plummy people, ‘uptight’, ‘authoritarian’, you know), and so full of undifferentiated hatred, not (as Paulin would prefer to think) vigilant anger. If you wish to enjoy this anthology as it should be enjoyed, you should ignore the self-serving introduction, with its unconvincing protestations. ‘I have no wish to sentimentalise orality, only to ...’ Really, no wish? Quite sure you don’t have just a teeny such wish? But then a good anthology is more magnanimous and wise than anything which an introduction can concoct to say about it.