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From the archive, 2 March 1949: Follow that poet


We English, when it comes to literature, have always been more interested in Lives than in Works

We English, when it comes to literature, have always been more interested in Lives than in Works. To-day we gather our reward: the wealth of biographical gossip is by now so great that there is no need to waste one's time on Works at all except for detective purposes.

There they stand, the solemn ranks of Standard Works, but their sober dignity does not fool us any longer. We know now some of the things that went on behind those prim bindings. Did you hear the one about Wordsworth? The proper study of mankind is man and probably it would not be too difficult to get something quite new and really startling on Pope which would make reading him more comfortably irrelevant than ever. Not that we are out for scandal, necessarily. Oddities are always a good line in these jolly chats over the literary fence. Browning (did you know?) had one microscopic and one telescopic eye; with the one he could watch things on the horizon, while the other was able to read small print by twilight (not, presumably, at the same time). This is the sort of thing we really like to know in order to avoid feeling out of touch.

Byron has been exceptionally well covered; there never was any need to read Byron. His popularity was always due to the fact that one has been able to dismiss him as an energetic but somewhat vulgar writer, and get down to the Life without even blowing the dust off the Works. Later research in particular has done wonders, but we return with undimmed pleasure to the Shelley letter in which he describes the curious Byron establishment at Ravenna, which consisted, not counting servants, of ten horses, eight large dogs, five cats, an eagle, a crow, a falcon, five peacocks, two guinea-hens, and an Egyptian crane.

Who, wonders Shelley, were all these animals "before they were changed into these shapes"? The game, of course, is to try to guess, with special attention to the claims of Caro Lamb and the Countess Guiccioli. It is far more amusing than crossword-puzzles.

May not even the great Johnson show an Achilles' heel? There is one chance, at least, of checking on him. It seems astonishing that nobody has thought of it before. "I'll have a frolic with you," he said to his friends on a famous occasion. Why has no one traced exactly where they went and what they did that night, with a detailed sketch-map? Devoted research has tackled and solved problems as tough as this before: surely our literary detectives have missed an opportunity. Who knows but that here might be a chance to explode the biggest reputation of all, with a roar that would set the shelves of the twopenny libraries deliciously quivering for years?

These archive extracts, compiled by the Guardian's research and information department, appear online daily at gu.com/fromthearchive

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