Friday, August 06, 2004

Literary anecdotes

Another book which is suitable for bathroom reading is The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. First published in 1975, it is edited by James Sutherland.

The book is arranged chronologically, and it consists, fairly obviously, of stories about literary figures from the past.

The first thing one notices is that literature is evidently a fairly new invention. We begin with Caedmon, from the seventh century, but by page 6 we are already up to the sixteenth century. We end with Dylan Thomas, who died in 1953.

I am currently about two thirds of the way through, but here are a few thoughts on the sections read so far.

During the English civil war, George Wither fought on the side of Parliament. But when he was captured by the royalists, Sir John Denham asked the King not to hang him, because 'as long as Wither lived, Denham would not be accounted the worst poet in England.'

Now there was a character called Denham in fiction. He was, of course, the small boy's sadistic tutor in Algernon Swinburne's unfinished (and deeply scandalous) novel, Lesbia Brandon. Swinburne, who was said to have read everything ever written in five languages, may well have known this story. Do you think it was a little conceit of his, to name his villain after the self-confessed second-worst poet in England?

When I was a small boy myself, oh, vast numbers of years ago, it was the practice to respond to any bully's insult with a bold yell of 'Same to you, with knobs on!' Followed by a determined run for safety. Now I discover, I think, the origin of this witty piece of repartee. It was John Milton, no less. Dryden requested something from Milton which he was not keen on, and in his 'gently ironic' response Milton made 'an apposite reference to the then fashionable metal knobs worn at the end of laces.'

The book of anecdotes also sheds light on the the origin of the claim that someone has stolen one's thunder. In the early eighteenth century there was a playwright called John Dennis, and he seems to have invented a piece of machinery which reproduced, rather convincingly, the sound of a heavy storm. (The book does not tell us, but I believe it involved rolling cannonballs in a metal drum.) Dennis used this device in one of his own plays, which was produced at Drury Lane in 1709. The play was not a success and was taken off after a few performances. Later, Dennis went to see the play which had replaced his own, and to his fury the management made free use of his thunder machine. Dennis was incensed, and cried out in a transport of resentment, 'That is my thunder, by God! The villains will play my thunder but not my plays!'

Well, that's theatrical managements for you. Always the same, darling.

More bits and thoughts may follow.