Elegant Extracts

Leah Price

  • The Oxford Book of English Verse edited by Christopher Ricks
    Oxford, 690 pp, £25.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 19 214182 1
  • The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume One edited by M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt
    Norton, 2974 pp, £22.50, December 1999, ISBN 0 393 97487 1
  • The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume Two edited by M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt
    Norton, 2963 pp, £22.50, February 2000, ISBN 0 393 97491 X
  • The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume One edited by David Damrosch
    Longman, 2963 pp, US $53.00, July 1999, ISBN 0 321 01173 2
  • The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume Two edited by David Damrosch
    Longman, 2982 pp, US $53.00, July 1999, ISBN 0 321 01174 0
  • Night & Horses & The Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature edited by Robert Irwin
    Allen Lane, 480 pp, £25.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9153 4
  • News that Stays News: The 20th Century in Poems edited by Simon Rae
    Faber, 189 pp, £9.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 571 20060 5
  • Time’s Tidings: Greeting the 21st Century by Carol Ann Duffy
    Anvil, 157 pp, £7.95, November 1999, ISBN 0 85646 313 2
  • Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the 20th Century in Poetry edited by Peter Forbes
    Penguin, 640 pp, £12.99, February 1999, ISBN 0 14 058899 X

Anthologies attract good haters. In the 1790s, the reformer Hannah More blamed their editors for the decay of morals: to let people assume that you had read the entire work from which an anthology piece was excerpted, she warned girls, was no better than lying outright. In the 1840s, less predictably, Engels took time out from The Condition of the Working Class in England to sneer at the anthologies littering the sofa tables of the Manchester bourgeosie. In the 1980s, the American poet David Antin charged that ‘anthologies are to poets as the zoo is to animals.’ More recently, Marjorie Perloff called for undergraduates to swear off Evian, in the hope that tap-water drinkers could afford unabridged books rather than hackneyed fragments.

Nobody seems to be listening. Last year set records: even without counting the millennial gift books already piling up on remainder tables, 1999 marked the appearance of Christopher Ricks’s successor to Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse, published a hundred years ago, revised in 1939, and followed in 1972 by Helen Gardner’s New Oxford Book; of the Longman Anthology of British Literature, a brashly devolutionary challenger to the Norton Anthology of English Literature’s supremacy in the American textbook market; and, in the last month of the last century, of the Norton’s own radically overhauled seventh edition, which opens with a new translation of Beowulf commissioned from Seamus Heaney for the occasion (also available as a freestanding volume). These anthologies are making literary history, not just reporting it.

The original Norton Anthology of English Literature might have disclaimed that aspiration. Few buyers of the 1962 edition could have predicted how many variations its formula would inspire: the Norton Anthology of American Literature, of African American Literature, of Literature by Women and of World Masterpieces, to name just a few. Nor could they have foreseen its success on the export market. The Norton, on whose readers the sun never sets, has a longer reach than the Longman, which for copyright reasons is not yet available outside North America. Yet, like Heaney’s subtly ‘Hiberno-English’ translation of Beowulf, the Norton has never abandoned its roots. The footnotes translating ‘rounders’ as ‘baseball’ might once have limited the anthology’s sphere of influence, but baseball, too, has spread around the globe. In an essay in the latest edition, Geoffrey Nunberg notes that ‘it is rare to find a single page of an English-language novel or newspaper that does not reveal what nation it was written in,’ and although the Norton does not include a single text from its own country of publication – unless you count the editorial apparatus – his point could be applied just as well to the anthology itself. But the expansion of American higher education has never accounted for more than a part of the Norton’s sales, and its table of contents sets pedagogical agendas in India, Ireland, even Britain.

This is the kind of response that other publishers dream of. Until last year, however, few did more than dream. The most authoritative competitor, the Oxford Anthology of English Literature (1973), was no match for the Norton either in its ability to mould its raw materials into an unstated argument, or in its editors’ willingness to reinvent their project in edition after edition. But a captive audience makes for high stakes – both cultural and commercial. In a country where publishers compete to have their textbooks assigned in university courses as fiercely as Coke and Pepsi vie for contracts to stock campus vending machines, it seems less surprising that Longman has challenged Norton’s near-monopoly than that no one did so before. In 1993, when scare stories about ethnic quotas on syllabuses were invading the otherwise unliterary pages of the Wall Street Journal, the last edition of the Norton took pains to deny that ‘the editors of the anthology simply reproduce, or even help establish, the traditional “canon” of English literature,’ The new edition’s more nuanced preface points out that the anglophone world has never had an Academy. Within the limits of the free market, though, the Norton has earned the authority of an Académie Française combined with that of an Index librorum prohibitorum.

Anthologies count among the world’s oldest literary forms. (As the editor of the Longman points out, it is no coincidence that these volumes are printed on Bible paper.) But the kind found in most classrooms today – delimited by nationality, arranged by chronology – dates back barely two hundred years. Until the end of the 18th century, timely miscellanies of new works outnumbered timeless gleanings from the backlist. Only in 1774 when the defeat of perpetual copyright released older English language works into the public domain, did recapitulation of a national literary history become an editors’ (and schoolchildren’s) job. A few decades later, Coleridge was already complaining that a ‘shelf or two of BEAUTIES’ and ‘ELEGANT EXTRACTS’ accounted for ‘nine-tenths of the reading of the reading public’. When, in 1928, Laura Riding and Robert Graves’s Pamphlet against Anthologies charged the genre with reducing poetry to a ‘packet-commodity’, the only alternative that they proposed revealed just how inescapable the anthology had become. The ‘full Corpus’ that could drive anthologies out of the market ‘would include all poets who had a certain recognisable minimum of credibility ... If there were any disagreement at all about whether or not a poet should be included, he would naturally be included. When it was agreed to include a poet, disagreement as to his relative merit would not matter, as each poet would be printed entire.’ Something like the Corpus imagined by Riding and Graves has now been realised in the form of Chadwyck-Healey’s English Full-Text Poetry Database, a searchable electronic archive delimited by the ‘recognisable minimum of credibility’ borrowed (with scattershot additions) from the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature. Yet both are ‘full’ only in the sense that they exclude wholesale rather than piecemeal, removing minor poets from the historical record instead of excising forgettable passages from memorable poems.

Riding and Graves might have been outraged by the Longman, in which Guilliver’s Travels shrivels to Lilliputian dimensions, Paradise Lost disintegrates into morceaux choisis, Woolf’s essays are striated with asterisks, and ‘Upon Appleton House’ goes under the knife. It would be ungrateful to fault anthologists for abridging, however, when that is what we pay them for. Truncation follows logically, not just from the material dimensions of the book itself, but also from the polite fiction that underfunded undergraduates can ‘cover’ a millennium’s worth of writing in two 13-week semesters while fitting three other classes around a part-time job. In the end, completeness becomes a question of degree rather than kind: does a sonnet make sense out of sequence any more than a chapter scissored (as in both of these anthologies) from a three-volume novel?

It is hard to predict what digitisation will mean for anthologies like the Norton and Longman. At a time when the storage capacities of CD-ROM and online databases might be expected to render the elegant extract obsolete, the continuing demand for print anthologies suggests that the need to which they respond is hermeneutic, not just logistical. The Norton and Longman provide something less than Riding and Graves’s hypothetical Corpus of authors, but also something more. By sandwiching single-author entries between thematic groupings of shorter excerpts, the Norton’s original editors ensured that the anthology was never just an accumulation of (verbally) self-contained texts which happened to be (materially) stitched together between two covers. The most obvious appeal of teaching anthologies is financial: word for word, the gold-embossed Norton costs less than the tattiest airport paperback. But the sheer miscellaneity of its ‘clusters’ also encourages a kind of exploration that unabridged paperbacks would never allow, even if students could find and afford them: a ferociously annotated selection of early modern travel writing, for example, or a cacophony of voices from the Civil War, or a gathering of Victorian light verse, or a provocative juxtaposition of religious writings, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to the Book of Common Prayer. Suggestive and rarely predictable, these cross-cuttings place even the most familiar texts in a new light.

One of the anthology’s most dense introductory essays, on the ‘small compass and tight formal constraints’ of the sonnet, could apply equally well to its own powers of compression. Rule-bound and page-limited – Simon Rae’s introduction to News that Stays News: The 20th Century in Poems compares editing an anthology to doing a crossword puzzle – the Norton’s two volumes manage to give readers ‘infinite riches in a little room’. Little, but expanding. Like its average reader, the Norton has gained weight since 1962. (Four kilos is the latest figure, according to my local greengrocer’s scales.) Designed to be read ‘anywhere – in a coffeehouse, on a bus, or under a tree’, its six thousand pages are now too hefty to prop open, let alone carry. The bloating of the seven successive editions registers the Shandean dilemma that each needs to squeeze in the literature – and literary history – produced since the last one.

This time around, the Norton has found an ingenious way to fuse these two challenges. Opening with Heaney’s powerful new translation of Beowulf and circling back to his own poetry near the end, its structure provides a subtle reminder that any anthology must bridge the gap between past and present. What comes between is rich to the point of indigestibility, crammed with two Shakespeare plays, Paradise Lost unabridged for the first time, A Room of One’s Own entire, and enough editorial apparatus to fill a dozen critical monographs with a glossary and an atlas thrown in. There are appendices geographical, cosmographical, bibliographical and ecclesiographical, not to mention historical outlines, political timelines, a chart explaining decimal currency, and a tabulated taxonomy of the peerage. More to the point, there is a useful appendix on rhythm and metre, a provocative essay on the history and geography of the English language, a series of wide-ranging chapter introductions, and a preface that prises open the question that earlier editions were too diplomatic to ask: what is the meaning of ‘English’, and of ‘literature’?

And that isn’t all. Scaled for a desert island, the Norton also encompasses (in its own words) ‘epic poems and short lyrics; love songs and satires; tragedies and comedies written for performance on the commercial stage and private meditations meant to be perused in silence; prayers, popular ballads, prophecies, ecstatic visions, erotic fantasies, sermons, short stories, letters in verse and prose, critical essays, polemical tracts, several entire novels’. The last item reveals the publisher’s urge to bite off more than any reader can chew. Not only do Things Fall Apart and Frankenstein now complement the short stories which have too long stood proxy to the novel in American textbooks, but the anthology itself can be bought shrinkwrapped with optional reprints of selected novels, marketed as Norton Anthology Editions. Such one-stop shopping makes the canon coextensive with the anthology, stamping the editors’ imprimatur on even those texts too bulky to fit within its covers.

What exactly are these anthologies of? The titles might lead one to expect the Norton to define its scope by language, the Longman by geopolitics (or just geography: the latter takes ‘British’ to imply British Isles). But neither case is so simple. The exclusion of US texts makes the Norton something less than an anthology of anglophone writing, while the inclusion of Walcott and Gordimer makes the Longman something more than a collection of texts by British and Irish authors. Ricks’s Oxford Book of English Verse, which for the first time opens its borders to a spectacular series of translations into English (and Scots), ‘does not seek to be a book of anglophone verse, of verse in the English language whatever its provenance’, but never quite decides what it does seek to be. Judicious selections from Edward Taylor and Anne Bradstreet extend the anthology’s reach beyond what Ricks terms ‘our precious stones from Land’s End to John o’Groats, leave alone the emerald of Ireland’. On the other hand, the editorial policy excludes ‘the British Empire or the British Commonwealth’ through a historical Catch-22. Post-colonial poets are refused entry on the separate-but-equal principle that they can ‘claim their own national anthologies, other Oxford Books’; meanwhile, pre-independence writers are turned away in a body, on the grounds that they ‘had not achieved poetic independence (freedom from diluted fashion), had not given to the world such poetic accomplishments as would constitute a claim to the pages of an anthology of the best in English poetry’.

Hear the voice of the practitioner,’ Ricks enjoins in a provocative play on Blake. The voice of the anthologist – authoritative in tone, appositive in syntax – is heard here first in a stylishly stylised preface, next in a more tangential introduction vertebrated by a miniature anthology of elegant extracts from ‘our poet-critics’, Dryden to Donald Davie. Both essays substitute bravura appreciations for the comfortable tautologies which padded out Arthur Quiller-Couch’s preface to the first Oxford Book (‘the best is the best’). But in neither does Ricks find time to explain why Derek Walcott, who once confessed to wanting to be ‘not a poet but an anthology’, has been invited to jump the editorial immigration queue. At six times fewer pages than the next entry (Anthony Thwaite), the answer may be that his is a tourist visa.

As their titles suggest, geography is equally crucial to the trade war pitting Longman against Norton. Given the inevitable overlap between their contents, it may be all that allows some harried buyers to distinguish the two. Both anthologies register the aftershock of the multiculturalist impulse that generated Paul Lauter’s revisionist Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990) and Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner’s English Literatures of America (1996), but they do so in diametrically opposed ways. The new Norton turns outward to include a staggering array of post-colonial writers, from Chinua Achebe to Alice Munro to Les Murray. (None of the ten 20th-century authors added to this edition is English.) The Longman translates US multiculturalism more obliquely into UK devolution, turning inward to trace cultural differences within the British Isles, from the 14th-century Welsh writer Dafydd ap Gwilym through the contemporary Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle through James Kelman. At stake in Longman’s ‘British’ rebranding of Norton’s ‘English’ title is more than the pedantry that Ricks dismisses with the observation that ‘people do not as yet say that they love or study British literature’. (The Longman may change that.) David Damrosch’s prefatory ‘road map’ to the Longman reminds us that most English-speakers now live outside the British Isles, while much British literature has been produced in languages other than English. His anthology wears its sympathies on its jacket: where the Norton’s cover is illustrated with the Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth I standing on a map of England, the Longman’s is taken from the Book of Kells.

‘That the Science of Cartography. Is Limited’ is among the poems by Eavan Boland added to the latest edition of the Norton, and her title rings true. Maps have always concretised anthologists’ ambivalence about the meaning of ‘English literature’: George Woods’s American anthology The Literature of England (1936), eager to ‘secure unity by stressing the English spirit in English literature’, annexed Yeats but overlaid the southern edge of Ireland with a blown-up inset of the Lake District. The Longman’s decision to mark Gaelic-speaking areas on a map of the British Isles announces its devolutionary agenda as clearly as the new Norton’s move to balance its traditional map of London by another of the Empire honours its growing commitment to a generously cosmopolitan vision of ‘English’. The map that appears inside the Norton’s front cover, too, has been redrawn: Ireland is no longer off the edge, Edinburgh and Glasgow no longer blank. An appendix now explains the difference between England, Britain and the United Kingdom. But an editorial apparatus that tells students how to address a baronet’s lady, and finds time to list the 15 items contained in a typical Victorian dressing-case, should also take the trouble not to encumber Virginia Woolf’s meditation on the ‘mothers who bore 13 children to ministers of religion at St Andrews’ and raised all 13 ‘up in Scotland ... Scotland, and its fine air and cakes and all the rest of it’ with a footnote identifying St Andrews as ‘perhaps a church in London designed by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723)’.

An anthology is not an atlas, and the Longman’s distinctiveness is more than geographical. Inviting readers to channel-surf among a dazzling (sometimes dizzying) variety of texts, its editors import into the classroom the countercultural energy hitherto restricted to non-academic anthologies like Tom Paulin’s Faber Book of Vernacular Verse (1990), with its graffiti and cross-stitch mottoes, or Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’s Poems for the Millennium (1995, 1998). The chapter on ‘The Romantics and Their Contemporaries’ includes a custard advertiser among the latter, opens the Blake headnote with an (apposite) discussion of the Doors, and ends the Burns selection with a song entitled ‘The Fornicator’. (But is he a Romantic or a Contemporary?) The Longman’s demotic verve reaches its height in the thematic groupings that punctuate its skimpier authorial entries. Among the most inventive are a sampling from the 18th-century press, a miscellany of writings from Bloomsbury, a quirky Condition of England chapter in which anonymous ballads jostle blue books, and a pyrotechnic conclusion on the politics of language.

The Longman is a polemical anthology. At the point when many feminist critics were either turning away from anthologies to photocopies and electronic databases, or else pouring their energy into separatist collections such as the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, its editors seem to have realised that the inflexible encyclopedic anthology in fact provided an ideal vehicle for literary-historical revisionism. The key is what retailers call loss leaders. Economists have long known that shoppers who enter a supermarket in search of a few staple items can emerge an hour later with a trolleyful of impulse purchases. Here, readers looking for Othello may find the pages falling open at Elizabeth Cary’s unabridged Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry, and some of those heading for Dryden will be sidetracked by the pamphlet wars surrounding the bigamist and self-styled German princess Mary Carleton. When second-hand copies of the Longman start to appear in college bookstores, the pages devoted to Wordsworth will probably prove grubbier than those occupied by Joanna Baillie, but the concatenation of pages makes it possible to read one in relation to the other, and impossible to own one without owning the other. The test of that strategy may come when a one-volume ‘Compact’ edition of the Longman appears later this year: the Norton’s ‘Major Authors’ abridgment, for example, has a rather different gender balance from the full-length edition.

But the Longman’s agenda is less crude than all this makes it sound. Unlike the Norton’s chapter on the ‘Woman Question’, the Longman’s pages on Victorian constructions of gender allow masculinity equal time: Tom Brown as well as Queen Victoria, Charles Kingsley as well as Harriet Martineau. And for all their apparent political correctness, the editors are rarely squeamish about incorporating texts whose politics are likely to trouble students. While the Norton’s new section on ‘Slavery and Freedom’ shies away from including so much as a single pro-slavery text, for example, the Longman pairs The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave with ‘The Benevolent Planters: A Dramatic Piece’. (The title is not intended ironically.) And where an excerpt from the autobiography of the ex-slave Olaudah Equiano is juxtaposed in the Norton with anti-slavery endorsements by canonical writers – representing neither their authors’ most formally interesting work nor the most significant milestones in the abolition of slavery – the excerpts that flank Equiano’s Life in the Longman range from an anonymous Edinburgh Review article to Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Abolition. The meaning of ‘literature’, as the Norton’s preface points out, ‘has over the course of several centuries shifted from the whole body of writing produced in a particular language to a subset of that writing consisting of works that claim special attention because of their formal beauty’, and it is hardly surprising that an anthology so exuberantly inclusive sometimes cracks under the strain of having it both ways.

The Longman’s generic trade-offs lie elsewhere. Prosy even in the entries devoted to Heaney and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, its postwar section makes room for Monty Python but not Geoffrey Hill, or Tony Harrison, or Thom Gunn, or Ted Hughes, or Craig Raine, or James Fenton, or Paul Muldoon, all of whom the Norton squeezes in at the eleventh hour. Ricks, for whom Heaney provides an effective endpoint, is probably right that many anthologies falter with the telltale compression of pages. But the risks involved make it all the more noteworthy that the Norton, unlike most teaching anthologies past and present, has never shrunk from presenting literary history as unfinished business.

Despite these anthologies’ millennial timespan, none could easily be confused with last year’s crop of Y2K anthologies. Marketing gimmicks do not do justice to the pleasures of Carol Ann Duffy’s Time’s Tidings: Poems for the Millennium, a reverse-alphabetical countdown of temporally-themed poems by past and present authors chosen through a proportional-representation formula too complex to be explained here, or to Peter Forbes’s Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the 20th Century in Poetry, a platitudinously introduced but brilliantly chosen collection of poems that manage, in the editor’s words, to ‘capture the flavour of the century with something like the tang of news-reel and the zest of popular song’. Even the best of the millennial anthologies look modish, however, next to Robert Irwin’s encyclopedic but accessible Night & Horses & the Desert, which embeds excerpts from classical Arabic texts in an urbane historical survey.

Anthologies tend to have a shorter shelf life than anthology pieces, though exceptions are possible: Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse has remained in print concurrently with Helen Gardner’s New Oxford Book. If the Norton continues to update itself at the present rate, the year 2100 will see the 25th edition, whether in print or some unknown form. The thought does not seem as absurd as it might, for the canniness with which successive editions have sloughed off dated entries matches an uncanny ability to breathe new life into old texts. Monumental without being mausolean, this latest Norton enables readers to engage in what Stephen Greenblatt has elsewhere called ‘speaking with the dead’ – not only the proverbial dead white males, but a good many others.