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OXFORD COMPANION TO ENGLISH LITERATURE. Seventh edition edited by Dinah Birch. Oxford University Press, 2009; [xvii], 1,164pp.; ISBN 978-0-19-280687-1. £35.00 (hardback).


Experience Classicsonline

This may seem a surprising book to find reviewed here, but it should not be forgotten that there are a great many references in its pages to music, composers, and the authors whose work inspires those composers.

The Oxford companion to English literature first appeared in 1932, and in 2009 the seventh edition was published with a new editor, Dinah Birch, Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool. Her predecessor, Margaret Drabble, remains as an adviser and the present editor’s debt to previous editions is acknowledged by including a list of all the contributors to the sixth edition, most of whose work remains in this new publication, for the OCEL is an evolutionary work. Nevertheless, there are ‘more than 1,000 entirely new entries’.

The ‘literature of music’is surveyed in a separate entry and ranges from Thomas Morley’s Plaine and easie introduction to practicall Musicke (1597), via Roger North, Burney, Bernard Shaw, Ernest Newman and others, to the 20th century, including biographies, from Mainwaring’s Life of Handel to Dr Fellowes on Gibbons, Byrd and the English madrigal composers. Any people or subjects mentioned in this and any other part of the book who have a separate entry are shown by the attaching of an asterisk to the name or subject heading, an expedient common to the various Oxford Companions.

These are references to those who have written about music, but there are also references to musical compositions by them with literary associations and to similar works by others: Elgar. These entries, too, refer (via the asterisk) to further entries for poets and writers associated with a particular composer. In the case of Elgar, for example, Longfellow, Newman, O’Shaughnessy, Kipling and Benson.

As with all personal entries in the book, there is also a guide to major separate works of reference, biographies or commentaries.

To give a further example, the Britten entry leads to separate entries for Auden, James, Crabbe, Forster, Melville, Plomer, Mann and others; Stanford has references to separate entries for Tennyson, Bridges, Whitman, Sheridan, Newbolt, Le Fanu and Hans Christian Andersen.

The Companion has always attempted to cover ‘English literature in its broadest context’, as well as ‘authors and works from literary cultures other than those of Great Britain’; so in addition to British composers such as Matthew Locke, Henry and William Lawes, Purcell, Handel, Parry, Butterworth, Gurney, Holst, Ireland, Bliss, Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Quilter, and others, there are entries for Berlioz, Strauss, Stravinsky and Verdi (to name just four), all of whom were indebted to British authors for texts, libretti or storylines.

It has to be said that there are few if any references from authors to musical settings or representations of their work - not even in the entries for Housman or Whitman - but virtually all the writers referred to in the composer entries have their own entries in the body of the work.

There are as before useful Appendices: a chronology of English literature which, as well as showing ‘Principal Literary Works’ for each year, also has ‘Other Events’, which include significant births and deaths of composers and first performances of musical works and operas. Other appendices list Poets Laureate and the winners of various literary prizes, all updated to 2008 or 2009.

A small number of general entries occur where a literary and musical form coincide for example ‘madrigal’, describing its history and form and listing prominent composers. I was fascinated to read the entry for ‘dub, dub poetry’ (new to this edition) – ‘an instrumental remix of a reggae recording, often involving reverberation, echo, and other electronic effects, used as a backing track for improvisation or “toasting”’; there is more, but ‘toasting’ is not explained! I was also surprised and disappointed, given the Liverpudlian credentials of the editor and no fewer than six of her colleagues among the associate editors and contributors, to find no entry for John Lennon (though Roger McGough is there) – a minor, though regrettable lapse!

This Companion keeps well clear of the territory of the Oxford companion to music, but it is right and proper that the literary and musical links are recognized and can result in some interesting revelations. The list of composers is surprisingly good.

My only grumble concerns the format, which - to my mind unnecessarily - has been enlarged from 16 × 24 × 5 cm to 19½ × 25 × 5½ cm (number of pages unchanged), with weightier paper and more leading between the lines. I prefer the more compact version: the new edition is too tall to occupy the shelf-space not yet vacated by its predecessor. No doubt this is all in the dubious cause of ‘accessibility’.

It can be bought online at much less than the recommended retail price.

© Garry Humphreys, 2009



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