Cyclopædias of English Literature

WITH the issue of the fourth volume of Garnett and Gosse’s illustrated history of English Literature,1 and of the third volume of the new edition of Chambers’s Cyclopædia,2 these two massive contributions to our literary history are now brought to a conclusion. Limitations of space make it impossible for the Atlantic to give a detailed review of either work, so enormous is the field covered, and so manifold are the critical questions involved in the execution of such a task as the survey of our literature in its entirety. The huge volumes must be left, practically, to tell their own story, but their mere physical appearance affords weighty evidence of the vastness and richness of the material at the disposal of their compilers.

The sub-title of the work issued under the charge of Dr. Garnett and Mr. Gosse sufficiently explains the most noticeable feature of their undertaking. It is an attempt to teach the history of English literature by appealing to the eye as well as to the ear. Many thousands of portraits, autographs, and facsimiles of title-pages illuminate the narrative, and for the fullness and freshness of these illustrations too much praise can scarcely be given. Dr. Garnett’s share in the authorship makes him responsible for the entire first volume and for the second as far as to the end of the chapter on Shakespeare. To Mr. Gosse’s practiced hand has been entrusted the remainder of the record. In dealing with the more important authors his method has been to note first the general scope and significance of the writer’s productions, then to tell in some detail the story of his life, and to furnish extracts from his writings, making constant use of pictorial illustration to bring the whole vividly before the reader. To criticise here the exact proportion of space allotted to various authors and periods, or to question the complete sympathy and justice with which Mr. Gosse discusses individual writers like Ruskin or John Stuart Mill, would of course be possible, but it would be, for our purposes, beside the mark. The main question is, whether these huge volumes have proved successful in their general aim of furnishing an attractive and compendious illustrated record of the long centuries of our literature, and the question must be answered by a prompt affirmative.

It is more than sixty years since Dr. Robert Chambers devised and prepared the first edition of his famous Cyclopædia. It has been revised and reissued four times, and now a completely new edition has been produced under the editorship of Dr. David Patrick. The familiar two volumes have been increased to three; the space assigned to Old English and Middle English writers has been greatly enlarged; many authors not included hitherto have been discussed; frequent illustrations have been inserted; and, what is of especial interest to American readers, American literature, in the editor’s words, “has from the beginning been treated as an integral and important part of the literature of Greater Britain. We do not look upon Longfellow or Poe as foreigners, or read the histories of Prescott, Motley, and Parkman as if written by strangers.”

Here again, as with the volumes just noticed, we cannot enter into detailed comment upon the work of Dr. Patrick and his coadjutors. But we must at least say that the old Cyclopædia has been greatly enriched and strengthened by this new material. The special articles by critical authorities, such as Mr. Saintsbury’s on Swift, Mr. T. Watts-Dunton’s on The Nineteenth Century, and George Borrow, or, for that matter, Mr. Chadwick’s articles upon the more important American authors, are excellently suited to the purpose. It is inevitable that the inclusion of living authors — convenient as it doubtless may be to many who have not a Who’s Who at their elbow — should raise some queries as to proportion and taste. We are inclined to think that Mr. Gosse’s Epilogue, in which he discusses the place and value of scientific criticism of literature, makes a fitter close for a great encyclopædia than biographical paragraphs about Miss Marie Corelli and Mrs. Gertrude Atherton. But perhaps these ladies will differ with us.

  1. English. Literature. An Illustrated Record. By RICHARD GARNETT and EDMUND GOSSE. Four volumes. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1903-1904.
  2. Chambers’s Cyclopœdia of English Literature. New Edition. By DAVID PATRICK. Three volumes. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co. 1902-1904.