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 possible interest or concern a civilized people. —ad for Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911

Introduction: G. Kim Blank

The 11th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, 1910-1911 (EB11) was something of a publishing event.

Behold: 64 editors and 8 years of preparation; 29 volumes in two formats; 850 plates and maps; 1507 contributors (from 21 different countries); 7,000 illustrations; 32,000 pages, 40,000 entries (in 289 classes of subjects); 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.

Ad for Encyclopaedia Britannica
“A REMARKABLY SUCCESSFUL INNOVATION.” Original image.

Volume 29, the index, is a wonder unto itself: under the editorial guidance of Janet Elizabeth Hogarth (1865-1954), it has more than 500,000 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 marvellous 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 1507 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 about $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.

Boyle offered 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, or for anyone who had a hankering for upward mobility. 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?

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.

Ad for Encyclopaedia Britannica
A booklet dialogue story created for advertising Britannica XI, from Gimbel Brothers department store, 1916 (courtesy G. Kim Blank) Original image.

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 a further marketing drive by 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 (1863-1951), who was central in feeding the public’s taste for yellow journalism. 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 at check, signalling the axis of Anglo-American-centric power in the early 20th century. And the best way to both preserve and increase such power is of course to sell it. Commerce, culture, and imperialism become hard to tell apart—welcome to the modern world.

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 contributed 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.

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, achieves a couple of edits—every second. That’s impressive, too. 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 (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 a certain young Ken Clark, later Sir Kenneth Clark, 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).

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, again, is code for a certain historical point of view.

Propping up the encyclopædia’s reach and prowess was the conception of Pax Britannica (British Peace), that Britain, for a century, beginning in 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon, was the dominant world power—which, in terms of imperializing truth, and for better or worse, it was. The ads for EB11 constantly call upon this global mission, however skewed: as one ad from May 1911 puts it, Britannica delivers everything that can possible interest or concern a civilized people.

Civilized. Civilized?

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 1 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 18th-century painters); but within the realm of our subject—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’ BLAST (published shortly before World War 1 begins), as well as what was emerging in The Little Review (which serializes James Joyce’s Ulysses between 1918-1920); 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 Victoria 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.

Animula?

No, you probably haven’t 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 1927-1931, while Eliot works—and works hard—for the company. The first line of Animula lifts and condenses (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.

Christmas card for T.S. Elliot's Animula
Envelope for T. S. Eliotʼs Animula Christmas Card (courtesy G. Kim Blank) Original image.

Eliot’s thirty-seven-line poem follows a simple soul—born into life as a child—issued from the hand of God (1) on truncated trip through time and life (from child to adult), on the way experiencing kisses, confusions, and pleasures, as well as self-centredness, timidity commingled with pains, 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—poet, critic, editor. 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, which now seem more like ashes. 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 under-appreciated Animula—in particular, how the child-figure in the poem is fully based on Eliot’s description of himself as a child (see his letter to Emily Hale, 7 September 1931)—but, at its centre, it just so happens to picture the Encyclopædia Britannica, with its material presence sheltering or hiding (perhaps even 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 the freedoms of 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, 129-131)

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 (187-189), 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 figures and images of death, sin, and violence, images that seem to rise from the limbo (repeating Eliot’s bleak, stilted view in The Hollow Men, 1925) that has devolved and disintegrated . . . the world after the Great War, that is—the world that follows the publication of EB11.

T.S. Elliot in rocking chair reading
Young T. S. Eliot Reading (Photograph by Henry Ware Eliot, Jr.; courtesy of the T. S. Eliot Estate. Original image.

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 have to turn back to Wordsworth, and we can do so via his notes dictated to Isabella Fenwick in 1843—his words about pre-existence, and that standing behind the Ode is his own youthful struggle with the notion of death, and his hope that in death he would translated . . . to heaven. Eliot certainly knew these well-known notes, though he was critical of a Wordsworthian indulgent reminiscence over childhood, as he acerbically chirps in a 1927 review of a contemporary’s wrong-headed appreciation of the 17th-century poet, Henry Vaughn.

This interpretive excursion offers the hint, though, that the circumstance of 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? 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? sounds more than a little like Hamlet’s problem, a problem Eliot 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.

So, yes (and thanks for waiting), this excursion takes us back to EB11, and back to the realm of poetry, which in turn takes us back to the present project—to, in fact, Wordsworth and his contemporaries in EB11, remembering that the Romantic era was more than once nominated as the age of Wordsworth.

And back to a few more numbers.

About 46% of the EB11 entries are taken up with the sciences and geography; history claims 17%; and just over 10% 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 40,000 entries, like Ann Yearsley, Helen Maria Williams, and Lady Caroline Lamb. Poor Cornelius Webb does not make the grade, either. At least George Darley gets a few words. As we all know, acts of exclusion can tell us much, though historical hindsight is an easy shot to take.

What this current project attempts to do is connect with and contextualize entries from EB11 to gauge and assess our own thinking about the many Romantic-era poets who did manage to get their own entries. Then and now: What do these EB11 entries 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 out to our wonderful introducers: the invitation to provide both critique of and context for those original EB11 entries.

So, Dear Reader, enjoy the wealth both in those original EB11 entries as well as in the views our contemporary reviewers, as they profitably add to the sum of human knowledge.

~ A version of this essay, entitled Civilizing, Selling, and T. S. Eliot Curled Up Behind the Encyclopædia Britannica, appears in The Fortnightly Review for 19 January 2023. ~

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