REFERENCE BOOKS HAVE, by convention, editors rather than authors. And not surprisingly editors will on rare occasion permit themselves a comment. These rules are, of course, subject to exception. Some reference works have many authors, each commissioned by the editor to write something in their particular areas of expertise. In modern practice the editor will exert a fair degree of control over each author’s submission, enforcing the peculiar style rules of the publication, for example, or toning down extravagant expression to what has been called the “encyclopedic voice.” Such was not always the practice.
For the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica one of the editors, either Thomas Spencer Baynes or William Robertson Smith, asked the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne to write a biographical essay on John Keats. Swinburne apparently leapt at the offer. Whether the editor had any intimation of what was to follow is unknown. Suffice it to say that it is impossible to imagine any contemporary reference work publishing it. So much the worse for contemporary readers, who must make do with the blandness of mere information.
After an initial sentence reciting the barest biographic essentials — birth and death dates and places — Swinburne jumps into the job with both feet and a gunnysack full of alliteration.
In his first book there was little foretaste of anything greatly or even genuinely good; but between the marshy and sandy flats of sterile or futile verse there were undoubtedly some few purple patches of floral promise. The style was frequently detestable — a mixture of sham Spenserian and mock Wordsworthian, alternately florid and arid. His second book, Endymion, rises in its best passages to the highest level of Barnfield and of Lodge, the two previous poets with whom, had he published nothing more, he might most properly have been classed; and this, among minor minstrels , is no unenviable place. His third book raised him at once to a foremost rank in the highest class of English poets. Never was any one of them but Shelley so little of a marvellous boy and so suddenly revealed as a marvellous man. Never has any poet suffered so much from the chaotic misarrangement of his poems in every collected edition. The rawest and the rankest rubbish of his fitful spring is bound up in one sheaf with the ripest ears, flung into one basket with the richest fruits, of his sudden and splendid summer. The Ode to a Nightingale, one of the final masterpieces of human work in all time and for all ages, is immediately preceded in all editions now current by some of the most vulgar and fulsome doggrel ever whimpered by a vapid and effeminate rhymester in the sickly stage of whelphood. Shelley, up to twenty, had written little or nothing that would have done credit to a boy of ten; and of Keats also it may be said that the merit of his work at twenty-five was hardly by comparison more wonderful than its demerit at twenty-two….A critic of exceptional carefulness and candour might have noted in the first book so singular an example of a stork among the cranes as the famous and noble sonnet on Chapman’s Homer; a just judge would have indicated, a partial advocate might have exaggerated, the value of such golden grain amid a garish harvest of tares as the hymn to Pan and the translation into verse of Titian’s Bacchanal which glorify the weedy wilderness of Endymion.”1
He reserves his highest praise for the odes. “Of these,” he says, “perhaps the two nearest to absolute perfection, to the triumphant achievement and accomplishment of the very utmost beauty possible to human words, may be that to Autumn and that on a Grecian Urn; the most radiant, fervent, and musical is that to a Nightingale; the most pictorial and perhaps the tenderest in its ardour of passionate fancy is that to Psyche; the subtlest in sweetness of thought and feeling is that on Melancholy. Greater lyrical poetry the world may have seen than any that is in these; lovelier it surely has never seen, nor ever can it possibly see.”
Swinburne’s panegyric runs on for nearly 2,500 words, in the course of which he manages to mention almost nothing about, you know, Keats. A modern editor would send such a thing back to the author with a monitory note. To his everlasting glory, the editor of the Ninth simply added a paragraph at the end that begins “Subjoined are the most important facts in the life of Keats.”
Robert McHenry is the former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He is the author of How to Know (Booklocker, 2004) and the “q.v.” columnist for The Fortnightly Review. His work has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Skeptical Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, and the American.