A companionable Companion to English Literature

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The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Fifth Edition, edited by Margaret Drabble. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1,155 pp. $35. That excellent dictionary, Chambers's 20th Century (new edition), indicates how rich the word ``companion'' is: from ``one who keeps company or frequently associates with another,'' down to ``an often pocket-sized book on a particular subject,'' and last, to the etymology: French compagnon, from Late Latin companium, a mess -- Latin com-, with, and panis, bread. In brief, one might say a companion is a person or thing one can relax with and trust, as over supper (mess, as on board ship).

Quite: Drabble's Companion is companionable, though it is hardly ``pocket-sized'' -- it would fill the bucket seat of a Corvette. But, like a good ham bone, it is full of concentrated nourishment. It says of that almost forgotten poet, E. A. Robinson: ``His predominantly dry, restrained, ironic tone continues through most of his prolific output, in which he employs traditional forms with a delicate and original skill.'' Notice the balance of the judgment: ``dry'' is a turnoff to most, while ``delicate and original'' wins most of us back.

So this Companion, like all good companions, reminds us of things we had forgotten and tells us things we didn't know. It does so concisely and yet without obscurity. It falls a little flat on the ancients, perhaps, seriously underestimating Seneca, though duly recording his immense usefulness to most centuries other than the last two; same for Horace.

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It is quite nice about Americans, noting that John Crowe Ransom is to be remembered for ``his formal, subtle, taut ballad-portraits.'' But why no entry for Eudora Welty or Janet Lewis, who certainly deserve them, when Janet Lewis's husband, Yvor Winters, gets his?

Many and hard were the choices. I find no pattern of rejection.

Allen Ginsberg is missing. Jack Kerouac (``Episodic, fastmoving, unstructured, [his writing] produced a mythology of its own and many imitators'') is not missing; he is to be found next to W. P. Ker, ``celebrated for the width of his humane criticism in English, Norse, and Scottish literature.'' The companions made by the Companion are sometimes odd couples indeed, though perhaps a foretaste of heaven, where lions lie down with lambs, beatniks with cultured scholars.

The Companion is not all literary. The philosophers are here, some of their works given the full treatment and, like famous novels, recapitulated. There is a nice short note on Karl Popper and a long, sinuous entry on David Hume, whose ``mitigated skepticism'' strikes one again as peculiarly suited to a wet, dark climate.

There is an interesting appendix on ``Censorship and the Law of the Press'': In Britain an editor can be convicted of a crime of blasphemous libel if he publishes a poem obnoxious to Christian sentiment. In a 1977 case it was held that ``the crime [lay] in the scurrility of the expression rather than in the message imparted.''

Drabble's Companion contains no entry under ``Drabble, Margaret.'' One has no way of knowing how the work was divided up, though Drabble does note in her preface that Michael Holroyd, her husband, ``married me and the `Companion' when it was half-way through its five-year plan'' and that her children, Adam, Joseph, and Rebecca, served in various capacities, from research assistants to ``telephone answering machines,'' so at least that much is clear.

There were doubtless many hands at work, but there is -- or am I deluded? -- one voice, and it's that of one of Drabble's heroines, say, Rosamund Stacey, from her novel ``The Millstone.'' Contemplating having a baby, Rosamund can say, ``I thought continually and with relief that I was as sure about the Elizabethan poets as I was sure that I liked baked potatoes.''

Do not quarrel with the price (who can quarrel with 3 cents a page?). Take your month's entertainment budget and go out and buy Drabble's Companion. A baked potato, with real butter and plenty of salt and pepper, plus the Companion, and you won't hear the phone ring.

Tom D'Evelyn edits the Monitor's book pages.

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