From TODD WALTON
Under The Table Books
I recently came upon an old book I inherited from my grandmother Goody, The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature published in 1939, a seventy-five-year-old book that has provided me with several days of enjoyable reading. Part of my enjoyment comes from frequently encountering words I have to look up in my trusty Oxford English Dictionary. But the larger part of my pleasure comes from the fascinating details to be found in the hundreds of miniature biographies of once-famous writers who are largely forgotten today.
In terms of my vocabulary, I have learned that a cottar is the equivalent of a sharecropper, a prebend is a stipend derived from a percentage of a church’s profits, a squib is a satirical jab, a suppostitious child is one fraudulently substituted to displace the real heir, and a pindaric is an ode in the manner of Pindar.
Of Pindar, this little old book says, “(c.522-442 B.C.) the great Greek lyric poet, acquired fame at an early age and was employed by many winners at the Games (Olympics) to celebrate their victories.”
I first came upon the word pindaric while reading the two-column biography of Jonathan Swift who was a cousin of Dryden, who also garners a two-column biography. Only Shakespeare warrants three columns, which means Swift and Dryden are thought to be among the most famous writers of all time, according to the editors of this edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature.
Also according to this dictionary, Dryden, upon reading one of Swift’s pindarics, remarked, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.”
And the last line of Swift’s little biography states, “Nearly all his works were published anonymously, and for only one, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, did he receive any payment (£200).”
Famous writers making little money from their writing is a recurring theme in this dictionary, as is the fact that many noted writers from the 1600’s through the early 1900’s died insane. Syphilis, the cause of madness in most of those cases, is never mentioned in the dictionary, but the editors doubtless assume their readers know about the link between syphilis and insanity in the days before the advent of antibiotics.
Indeed, the editors make a number of assumptions about their readers, which assumptions in 1939 were probably sound. For instance, they assume anyone reading this volume will probably be fairly fluent in Latin and know most of the famous writers of the past three hundreds years by their last names. Scott is Sir Walter Scott, Arbuthnot is John Arbuthnot, Pope is Alexander Pope, and so on. Fortunately for the likes of me, if an author is referred to solely by his last name, he will have a biography in the good book and I can discover why he was so famous.