English lit for the novice and the knowledgeable

The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature, edited by Pat Rogers. New York: Oxford University Press. 528 pp. $30. The History of English Literature: One Indivisible, Unending Book, by Peter Conrad. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 740 pp. $39.95.

Today, historians - including literary historians - must navigate between the Scylla of hard fact and the Charybdis of system and theory. They will inevitably veer closer to one extreme, the monster of positivism, or the other, the whirlpool of theory, but if careful, will in time sail into the open waters of the reader's affections.

Like other recent Oxford histories, ``The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature'' is a collaborative effort. Experts sum up the recognized periods of English literary history, presenting the basic, agreed-on facts and discussing some of the great works in detail.

In contrast, Peter Conrad's ``History of English Literature'' is definitely a one-man show and just escapes coming to grief in swirling theories.

In his foreword to the Oxford history, editor Pat Rogers defends the traditional historical approach against the recent demand for a ``new literary history'' based on theoretical ``explanations'' of facts. He says his collaborators have been chosen ``not just because of proven scholarship, but also because they maintain a vital concern with the critical ideas of the present.''

And yet, it must be said that some of these writers show their concern for ``the critical ideas of the present'' by studiously ignoring them.

Others manage to make the facts shine with their own light. Early in the book, J.A. Burrow explains the Anglo-Saxon verse line so patiently and graphically that we almost hear the poet speak to us from the Dark Ages.

Sometimes the facts of plot synopsis crowd out telling facts of context: Johnson's attitude toward his Dictionary, Pope's toward money. Sometimes the pictures do what the text doesn't: illuminate. Since the illustrations - many full pages, many in color - are expertly captioned and interesting in themselves, they add their own layer of fact to this history.

This is a book of discoveries. In John Pitcher's chapter on Tudor literature (1485-1603), there's a fine defense of John Skelton's poetry. ``It has to be said,'' we read, ``that he is not a major writer, but he is more than a charming na"if or a dotty, hawk-flying jigster (two modern ways of placing him).''

Even at his spiciest, it is argued, Skelton is refreshing, saved from prurience by medieval gentilesse. ``Where Skelton is not cool is in his attacks on sham anguish, or phoney blushes, or desire which dresses itself in power and self-righteousness.''

Then there's a stout reading of ``Paradise Lost'' that confronts the pseudo-sophisticated readings now prevailing and, to my mind, defeats them hands down.

Jane Austen's fictions are shown to be alert to the big subjects - politics, sexual passion - that some readers miss in her novels. Her career is summarized thus: ``The early Jane Austen novels had heroines whose minds were carried away by fashionable ideas. We reach the mature Jane Austen when she no longer needs a fashionable idea to blind her heroine - sheer willfulness will do it.'' Such pithy epitomes add charm to the Oxford book.

Peter Conrad's history is another thing altogether: It feeds the appetite for ``explanation'' referred to by Rogers. Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Conrad has written books on diverse topics and lectured widely in the United States. His history of English literature reveals both his ambition and his capacity for entertaining an audience.

This is a ``totalizing'' work. It seeks the ``unity'' of its subject; it pretends ``to include everyone of significance, and to relate them all to each other.'' It's full of sentences beginning with the word ``all.'' It's full of definitions - sometimes two in one sentence: On page one we read that ``The first instinct of literature is epic, because language is power.''

And it's full of definition-laden theory. Of Andrew Marvell, Conrad says, ``...the pastoral is the primary existence, and the form most lyrically tenacious of paradise.'' Conrad's joining of linking verbs, literary terms, philosophical terms, and lively adverbs like ``tenacious'' in this sentence suggest his style - and how dizzying this book can be.

Still, Conrad is no ideologue, forcing facts to fit his system. He's an enthusiastic variety of ``theoretician'' in the Greek sense: an educated spectator. He's putting it all together. He's doing ``color'' analysis for a reader whose attentions soon flicker between the game and the voice of the analyst. Conrad misses things, sometimes important things, but makes up for it with observations of his own.

Both these books avoid their respective extremes. Neither is disfigured by the various reductive approaches to literature popular now - done in the name of social history, cultural context, and so on. Both know what literature is and love it. The Oxford history would make a perfect gift for someone about to enter a liberal arts program; Conrad is appropriate for the already educated reader.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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