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Civilizing, Selling, and T. S. Eliot Curled Up Behind the Encyclopædia Britannica


The only book, except the Bible, which has followed the Anglo-Saxon around the world.

—ad for Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911

The New Encyclopædia Britannica is a complete and modern exposition of thought, learning and achievement to 1910, a vivid representation of the world’s activities, so arranged and classified as to afford a maximum of accessibility, and embodying everything that can possibly interest or concern a civilized people.

—ad for Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911

THE 11TH Edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, 1910–11 (EB11) was something of a publishing event.

Behold: 64 editors and 8 years of preparation; 29 volumes in two formats; 850 plates and maps; 7,000 illustrations; 32,000 pages, 40,000 entries, 44 million words; a first printing of 40,000 sets (1,160,000 volumes); the ordinary paper collection weighing in at about 250 pounds, with the India “Bible” paper format at about 83 pounds; early pre-publication orders of at least 32,000 copies. EB11 also becomes the basis for the 12th (1922) and 13th (1926) editions of Britannica.

Volume 29, the index, is a wonder unto itself: under the editorial guidance of Janet Elizabeth Hogarth (1865–1954), it has more than five hundred thousand “easily accessible” entry headings for EB11, “every one of which is . . . the skeleton of an encyclopædic article” (v. 29, pp. v–vi); it also has a marvelous “Classified List of Articles,” which claims “to be the first attempt in any general work of reference at a systematic subject catalogue or analysis of the material contained in it” (v. 29, p. 879); and then, too, volume 29 has the names and qualifications of 1,507 “collaborating” contributors and a list of what they contribute.

At the time, production cost for EB11 was £230,000, which, today, approaches something close to $40 (US) million /£35 million.

At the time, production cost for EB11 was £230,000, which, today, approaches something close to $40 (US) million / £35 million. In its two format incarnations, it may have sold something like 225,000 sets, though exact numbers are unknown. Its aim was to colonize every corner of the English-speaking world with what that world absolutely needed to know. It typically billed itself as the “most comprehensive exhibition of exact knowledge” ever seen.

But wait, there’s more. Much more.

Here’s part of another ad:

The sum of human knowledge—all that mankind has thought, done or achieved—all of the past experience of humanity that has survived the trial of time and the ordeal of service and is preserved as the useful knowledge of today. Of the human race and its endowment, of persons, places, histories, languages, literatures, arts, sciences, religions, philosophies, laws, industries, and of the things and ideas connected with these—all is included that is relevant and everything explained that is explainable [. . .] the contents of The Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica constitute a cross section of the trunk of the tree of knowledge as it stood in the year 1910.

“all . . . all . . . all.” Thus matching the impressive accomplishment and those heavily advertised numbers was considerable hype and hyperbole. The best part of the above blurb—“everything explained that is explainable”—is in fact the title of the terrific 2016 book on EB11 by the late Denis Boyles, with the subtitle, On the Creation of the Encyclopædia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910–1911. Boyles offers an intriguing and detailed narrative of how, propped by proper British cultural authority, brash American advertising promoted EB11 as a must-have item in any self-respecting household or workplace. It was, after all, and as a very cocksure four-page ad tells prospective American buyers, “published by the Cambridge University Press, of England.” Pressured sales tactics often pushed an ALL IN CAPS finger into the face (and into the purse) of possible consumers: “WILL YOU DELAY—OR WILL YOU ACT?” In the US, a down payment of $5.00 was all you needed—and then installments. At one point, you could get the “Handy” (“Bible” paper) edition (as advertised in The American Magazine) for only $1.00 down from Sears, Roebuck and Co., Chicago: “We guarantee your complete satisfaction—or your money back.”

Where exactly did this pitch come from?

Horace Everett Hooper

If you think it doesn’t sound much like a business plan cooked in Edwardian Britain, you’d be right. Much of the driving force was captained by a certain American, Horace Everett Hooper (1859–1922), who invaded and then aggressively transformed (or upset) some of the establishment publishing scene in the UK—buying, selling, promoting, pushing—and in the process creating tensions that at moments pitted publishers against booksellers, generally rousing some cultural strains between the literary and the popular.

Hooper was a mass-marketing maverick if ever there was one. Unlike some of the Brit publishing establishment, he thought less in terms of class and more in terms of cash. But lest we see Hooper too-firmly rooted in the material world of dollars as sense, he genuinely believed that knowledge should be democratized, and he believed in what was then called self-education; but if he got licked up by such idealisms, there was always further marketing drive from Henry Haxton (1860–1924?), an innovative ad-man who knew how to push product into the hands of the public—and who had honed a penchant for touting the sensational in having worked for a young William Randolph Hearst. It may have passed as unnoticed, but Haxton actually co-writes one entry for EB11—no, not on himself, but on “Advertisement, or Advertising,” in which he notes, with some closeted self-reference and condescension, the current state of affairs:

The ingenuity displayed in modern newspaper advertising is unquestionably due to American initiative. The English newspaper advertisement of twenty years ago consisted for the most part of the mere reiteration of a name. An advertiser who took a column’s space supplied enough matter to fill an inch, and ingenuously repeated his statement throughout the column. Such departures from this childlike method as were made were for the most part eccentric to the point of incoherence.

Part of the Haxton-Hooper pitch is to tell potential EB11 purchasers that they absolutely need to possess all that sanctioned knowledge—and in the convenience of your home or office. If there were any doubts about credibility, this sanctioning came from on high, indeed: EB11 was “Dedicated By Permission” to

His Majesty George the Fifth
King of Great Britain and Ireland
And of the British Dominions Beyond the Seas 
Emperor of India
And To
William Howard Taft
President of the United States of America

Historical and nationalistic pretentions are anything but held in check, signaling the axis of Anglo-American-centric power in the early twentieth century. And the best way to both preserve and increase such power is of course to sell it.

Hugh Chisholm, ca. 1900

Bracing Hooper and Haxton’s pitch—well, at least standing behind it—was the supervising editor, Oxford-educated journalist Hugh Chisholm (1866–1924). With his journalistic instincts, training, and connections, he generally knew whom to call upon to write what he wanted in the way he wanted (he contributes to a number of entries himself). Much of EB11’s appeal is that it attempts readability for the masses (“maximum accessibility,” they called it). You just needed good eyes or great glasses.

But it should be mentioned that Wikipedia, in its own words, “incorporates texts”—rather, quite a bit of text—from EB11.

FOR ITS TIME, EB11 was by far the closest you could get to today’s marvel of ever-sprawling virtual information, Wikipedia (“The Free Encyclopedia”), which, since we’re into numbers, receives two edits a second. That’s impressive, too, if not frightening. But it should be mentioned that Wikipedia, in its own words, “incorporates texts”—rather, quite a bit of text—from EB11. And there’s no doubt that EB11 has made its way into responses given by our new best frenemies, ChatGPT and other generative AI tools. So, if you think the knowledge baseline of our own time has escaped EB11, think again. Chisholm, fittingly, ends his “Editorial Introduction” to EB11 by referring to its “editorial machinery,” and calling it “a vast engine of co-operative effort, dedicated to the service of the public” (v. 1, p. xxvi), so the metaphor of information gathering is already in play, surfacing again in the early 1990s as we know it: the “search engine.”

EB11 offers a daunting heap of knowledge—knowledge, of course, that it chose to represent. The aim was to capture, as it were, the world as it was up to that point, or at least all “that is relevant”—again, at least according to Britannica’s editorial tastes. Striving minds, like those of the young Ken Clark (later Sir Kenneth), seized upon EB11’s powers: in his autobiography, Another Part of the Wood (1974), he recalls how it was the most valuable item on his book shelf—“my Bible” (pp. 68–69, 112).

As one ad from May 1911 puts it, Britannica delivers “everything that can possibly interest or concern a civilized people.”

Caught between the vast, stockpiling by Victorian culture and a soon-to-be fractured Modernist future, EB11’s aggrandizing, desire to assemble essential and reasoned knowledge represents some kind of pinnacle—or end game—of Enlightenment thinking and achievement, with a perspective mainly dominated by, what Chisholm calls in EB11’s Introduction, “the historical point of view” (v. 1, p. xix), which is code for a certain historical point of view. As one ad from May 1911 puts it, Britannica delivers “everything that can possibly interest or concern a civilized people.”

“Civilized.” Civilized?

Here and there in EB11 are softer cultural hints of a modernist world …

ANOTHER WAY TO say this: EB11 presents a material archive of stability, clarity, and virtue—themselves myths, of course—without any sense of the looming brutality of World War I just around the corner, with carnage about to descend on a never-before-seen scale. Here and there in EB11 are softer cultural hints of a modernist world (in, for example, entries about the aesthetics of some late eighteenth-century painters); but within the realm of the subject here—poetry—nothing in EB11 is pre-tuned to the brewing visions and startling breaks in a few small magazines like Ford Madox Ford’s The English Review and Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST (published shortly before World War I begins), as well as what was emerging in The Little Review (which serializes James Joyce’s Ulysses between 1918 and 1920); nothing can quite anticipate the inter-war work of, for example, T. S. Eliot or William Butler Yeats—poetry that often enacts a fall into disorder and disillusion, where the desire for shared values and tradition tangle with aesthetic experimentation as well as the burden of uncertainty, disjointedness, and spiritual inertia. Helping out, a decisive break from Romantic and Victorian poetic ideologies has been lurking for a few decades. This, for example, we see in the unrelenting imagery of wreckage and emptied desire in Eliot’s 1922 The Wasteland; but we also see something of it in less monumental poems, in, for example, Eliot’s 1929 poem, Animula.


No, you might not have heard of it.

Animula is number twenty-three in a series of thirty-eight pamphlet-poems (known as the “Ariel Poems”) by various poets published by Faber & Faber as Christmas cards between 1927 and 1931, while Eliot works for the company; the series is shortly revived in 1954. It is commercially successful, assured by commissioning a wide selection of original art for the cards, including work by brothers Paul and John Nash, poet-artist David Jones, and Eric Gill. Animula comes with two engravings (one in colour) by sculptor, illustrator, and wood-engraver Gertrude Hermes (1901–83).

The full line up of Ariel poets, most of it orchestrated by Eliot himself, is close to a who’s-who of poets of the first half of the twentieth century.

Eliot contributes a poem in the Ariel series for each of the years it runs. Other writers in the series include Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, G. K. Chesterton, Siegfried Sassoon, W. B. Yeats, Edith Sitwell, and D. H. Lawrence; the 1954 pamphlet-cards include poetry by W. H. Auden, C. Day-Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender. The full line up of Ariel poets, most of it orchestrated by Eliot himself, is close to a who’s-who of poets of the first half of the twentieth century.

T. S. Eliot, age 8, the Downs, Gloucester, MA, 1896.

Lifting and condensing (in translation) a few lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Purgatorio XVI) that fall within the larger context of Dante’s argument about the necessary interconnection of free will with justice, Eliot’s thirty-seven-line Animula follows a “simple soul”—born into life as a child—issued “from the hand of God” (1) on a truncated trip through time and life (from child to adult). On its way, the child experiences kisses, confusions, and pleasures, as well as, increasingly, pains and fears and chronic indecision. The character eventually becomes less than a “shadow,” a “spectre in its own gloom,” leaving some “disordered papers in a dusty room” (29–30); that last image irresistibly conjures workaholic Eliot. The following line that ends the first stanza offers a departing pause for last rites: “the silence after the viaticum” (31), perhaps as a kind of death wish for the spectre figure leaving that mess of papers behind in the dust. Finally, divorced from the chronology, the speaker in the last six lines invokes prayer for five dead and seemingly sinful figures (32–37). In a way, you can’t get more Eliotic.

There’s much more to say about the somewhat underappreciated Animula, but, at its centre, it just so happens to picture the Encyclopædia Britannica, with its material presence sheltering or hiding (though perhaps immaterially deluding) “the small soul in the window seat”:

The heavy burden of the growing soul
Perplexes and offends more, day by day;
Week by week, offends and perplexes more
With the imperatives of ‘is and seems’
And may and may not, desire and control.
The pain of living and the drug of dreams
Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Issues from the hand of time the simple soul
Irresolute and selfish, misshapen, lame,
Unable to fare forward or retreat,
Fearing the warm reality, the offered good,
Denying the importunity of the blood,
Shadow of its own shadows, spectre in its own gloom,
Leaving disordered papers in a dusty room;
Living first in the silence after the viaticum. (16–31 )

Eliot’s image of “The heavy burden of the growing soul” channels and intertwines two of William Wordsworth’s most memorable poetic moments. First, in Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode (1807), there’s the corresponding subject, chronology, and sentiment as Wordsworth rehearses how the child, issued from heaven (58–66), moves away from heavenly innocence: “Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy” (68–69); and second, in Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey (1798), where

. . . the burden of the mystery
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lightened. (38–41)

So too does Wordsworth’s idea of the those growing “obstinate questions” of the child (Ode 146) fully show up in Animula as the speaker portrays the child as increasingly perplexed by what “is and seems” and “what may or may not” be (19–20). Finally, infiltrating Eliot’s non-lyric lyric are Wordsworthian thematics of loss: in Wordsworth’s words, those years of growing away from childhood into the world “bring the inevitable yoke” and a frozen, habitual burden:

Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life! (Ode, 129–31)

While the Ode in the end can, thanks to the one “the human heart,” arrive at foundational strength and continuity out of “human suffering . . . that looks through death” (187–89), Eliot’s Animula points to the uncertainty and misdirections of life, of being caught in “the hand of time” that prevents moving forward or retreating (lines 24–26), waiting for something greater. Animula argues itself away from the powerful Wordsworthian logic of thanks, restoration, loss-to-gain, and continuity to settle upon the “pain of living” (21); it ends with prayer superimposed over those obscure figures and images of sin, death, and violence, images that seem to exist in limbo, repeating Eliot’s bleak, stilted view in The Hollow Men, 1925—a world devolved, disintegrated, without reassurance . . . the world after the Great War, that is—the world that follows the publication of EB11.

Descending from Dante, the hope Eliot uses to prop up Animula is that the soul, issued from God into life, is to return, so turning death into (as the poem’s final word) a “birth” (37). Here, too, we return to Wordsworth via his notes dictated to Isabella Fenwick in 1843—to his words about preexistence, and that standing behind the Ode is his own youthful struggle with “the notion of death,” and his hope that in death he would be “translated . . . to heaven.” Eliot certainly knew these well-known notes.

Perhaps because Eliot was fully aware that Britannica was wildly advertised throughout the English-speaking world as the single most important cultural archive and publishing event of the era …

This interpretive excursion offers the hint, though, that the circumstance of the sensitive, “small soul” curled up “Behind the Encyclopædia Britannica” is a moment of possible protection—a buffer—from reality’s perplexing “offered good,” though it might also suggest deception or represent an ironic presence. Why? Perhaps because Eliot was fully aware that Britannica was wildly advertised throughout the English-speaking world as the single most important cultural archive and publishing event of the era (Eliot mentions as much in a 1931 obituary of Charles Whibley for the English Association). So, oddly fitting, as those EB11 ads put it, “WILL YOU DELAY—OR WILL YOU ACT?” ends up sounding more than a little like Hamlet’s problem, a problem that Eliot via Hamlet directly points to in his breakthrough poem of 1915, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It’s the good ol’ tragic flaw of procrastination, turned loose upon both the consumed and the consumer. Eliot, of course, is famously critical of the created character of Hamlet as flawed, in that his circumstances and his responses to those circumstances are mismatched. Yes, picky, prickly Eliot.

SO, YES THIS excursion takes us back to that most famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and back to the realm of poetry, which arrives at the online project Then & Now: Romantic-Era Poets in the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, 1910–1911)—to, in fact, Wordsworth and his contemporaries as they appear in that edition of Britannica, remembering that the Romantic era was more than once nominated as “the age of Wordsworth.” The project, as its title suggests, revolves around the past and present: What do EB11 entries on Romantic-era poets (there’s about thirty-seven of them) tell us about literary history, evolving scholarship, and cultural shifts? What’s right, what’s sort of right, what’s wrong? What’s lacking and lasting? After more than a century, what insights, information, and commentary remain deep, valid, or genuinely provocative? Surely we know more, but do we also know better—or just differently? These are some of the questions thrown to selected current experts: to provide both critique of and context for those original EB11 entries.

We began with some numbers, so it seems fitting to end with just a few more.

About 46 percent of the EB11 entries are taken up with the sciences and geography; history claims 17 percent; and just over 10 percent of the entries are dedicated to literature, which is not too bad considering that EB11 claims to include “everything that can possibly interest or concern a civilized people.” The inclusion of many Romantic-era poets swells that percent. The overseeing literary advisor for EB11 was in fact the prolific critic and poet Edmund Gosse (1849–1928), who, for many (including himself), was a leading “man of letters” for the age. But, at the same time, despite the claim to render “all” that needs to be known (to massage famous phrasing from Percy Shelley, “Look upon EB11, ye Mighty, and Despair!”), not all the poets working under the umbrella of Romantic-era poetry are there among those forty thousand entries, like Ann Yearsley, Helen Maria Williams, and Lady Caroline Lamb. Poor Cornelius Webb does not make the grade, either, though George Darley does. As we all know, acts of exclusion can tell us much, though historical hindsight is too easy a shot to take.

G. KIM BLANK is the creator of the online project Then & Now: Romantic-Era Poetry in the 1910–1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. He’s also published a previous piece in The Fortnightly Review, ‘The Case of John Keats in Shanklin’, about a famous John Keats literary site that does not in fact exist,  as well as a recent novel (2023), The Watchers’ Club. He works at the University of Victoria.

Image credits: Encyclopædia Britannica ad from Anglo-Saxon Journal; Janet Hogarth speaking at Encyclopædia Britannica dinner; Horace Everett Hooper, Encyclopædia Britannica; Hugh Chisholm, Library of Congress; T. S. Eliot photograph by Henry Ware Eliot, Jr., courtesy of the T. S. Eliot Estate; Animula, the University of Victoria, Special Collections.

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