BOOKS / Ahi] There's a bug in my sonnet: Andrew Brown explores the database that holds 1300 English poets

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The Independent Culture
THE COMPLETE works of nine gross of poets sounds like a vision from one of Bob Dylan's apocalypse songs, and not a particularly attractive one: you don't want to meet 1,300 poets any more than you actually want to meet a hundred drummers with blazing hands or ten thousand talkers whose tongues are all broken; a first brisk spin through the first release of English Poetry on CD-ROM confirms that most of the poets whom history has forgotten could make Dr Seuss look like Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

There will eventually be four CDs published by Chadwyck-Healey, containing all the work of every poet listed in the New Cambridge Bibliography of English literature from 600AD to 1900. The first (containing mostly Victorian poets) has just been published; the sequence should be complete next summer, when it will cost pounds 30,000. Discounts are available to universities and libraries which order quickly.

Reading on screen will never be as restful or thought-provoking as reading a book, but once the thought has been provoked, a properly indexed compact disk will let you follow it more quickly than a library can and in directions that no library can map. The Oxford English Dictionary on CD is actually better than the paper version, because a dictionary is not in essence a book, designed to be read in one direction, but a database in which every entry should be adjacent to all the others, and the leap from Shakespeare to Shelley no shorter than that from Browning to Wordsworth.

Although a certain order obviously applies within some collections of poetry, which are meant to be read from beginning to end, a library of collected poems is more informative as a freely navigable disk than a bookshelf. The English Poetry CD places no obvious limits on the way in which you can search for poems and the results can be unnervingly fast. It took about three seconds to find every occurrence of 'Rosamond' within five words of 'fair' on the first disk: there are three, and seven 'Rosamonds' altogether, which took about five seconds to find. It would be possible to narrow the search much further. I could search for unrhymed poems with 'Rosamond' in the dedication from before 1600. It took a couple of seconds to report that there are none on the first disk. You can also do all the obvious searches, by author, epigraph, date, and so on, to produce any collection of poetry you want. 'Byron on war'; 'An anthology of Incest through the Ages'; 'How the Poets have loved Anne'.

The Poetry CD runs under Microsoft Windows 3.1 on any reasonably powerful PC. On my system, there were a number of irritating inflexibilities which will, no doubt, be sorted out when the project is finished: dialogue boxes appeared at the wrong size, and the printing was limited to one needlessly large and ugly font. Searching for the poet 'Aird' found 'Thomas Aird' all right, but searching for 'Thomas Aird' produced the surprising reply that there was no such poet on the disk. But the essentials of the system work well.

The real frustration is that this first release does not have all the poets I want, or even most of them. And as soon as you grow used to being able to look anything up, a mouse click away from the word processor, it becomes very difficult to give up, and very frustrating, like all computer magic: when something that would have taken two years without a computer takes as long as 30 seconds with technology, this seems proof of unbearable inadequacies in the machine. But however you rage, you are hooked. In fact the only non-financial argument against this software is that you cannot run it at the same time as the OED without buying another specially adapted CD player to plug into the computer.

If I had to choose, I would still choose the dictionary, because much more of it is much more interesting. Unfortunately, the anthology to which this disk most naturally lends itself would be something like 'The very stuffed owl: a definitive collection of really bad verse in English'.

You could make an early start with the poetical works of Sir Edwin Arnold, whose 'See now] an Ivory casket for your treasures' deserves to be more widely known. Here is the scene between a mouse and an elephant:

The red tongues raged; whereat this kingly beast.

Betook himself for flight; when - from the reeds -

A striped bush-mouse, of all things last and least,

Leaped forth, and ran between his feet, and pleads

To Raja Megh: 'Ahi] great Prince] permit

I take asylum from this dreadful flame

Betwixt thy mighty legs]' Megh looked on it:

Small art thou]' quotha 'yet is life the same

Brother] for thee as me. Stay where thou art]

I never spurned aught living, nor shall now;

Sit close and fear not; I will not depart]'

Therewith he faced the fire. . .

Ahi] indeed. Ho bloody ha in sooth] Yet think what a good teacher could do with that fragment. In 17 short lines it contains almost every fault against which aspiring writers of fiction should be warned. It is unclear, undramatic, unbelievable and uncertain in tone. And these are timeless faults, unlike time-bound faults such as the Victorian fondness for archaism.

To thrid, for example, is to thread, spelt 'poetically', as when John Davidson asks: 'What meteor flashes in and out / Thridding the darksome steep?' Here, the verb merely piles archaism on clumsiness. Yet Browning and Tennyson use the word seven times between them, and they can get away with it easily: 'Thrid somehow, by some glimpse of arrow-loop / The turnings to the gallery below'. This is neither formulaic nor ridiculous.

Taking Browning as an example is cheating slightly, because he is so unlike anyone else, but the Tennyson who emerges from this disk is much more interesting than one would expect. Everything about him that could be parodied, was. But the effect of reading acres of false Tennyson is to restore a proper sense of wonder when you reach the real thing. And that, perhaps, is the real justification of all the effort and scholarship that has gone into this enterprise.