Edward Short Articles

The Eliot Shelf

Old Possum's prose is gathered together.
Feb 08, 2016

Writing in 1920 of Algernon Swinburne, the appeal of whose enraptured lyricism was not self-evident to the generation that had survived the Great War, T. S. Eliot pronounced, in that marvelously authoritative tone of his, that "it is a question of some nicety to decide how much must be read of any particular poet" before delivering the sort of definitive verdict that his readers came to relish.

There are some poets whose every line has unique value. There are others who can be taken by a few poems universally agreed upon. There are others who need be read only in selections, but what selections are read will not very much matter.

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Dr. Johnson’s Friend

Francis Barber and the Great Cham.
Sep 28, 2015

In his memorable poem “At the Grave of Henry James,” W. H. Auden apostrophized the novelist to make a useful point:

Master of nuance and scruple,

Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;

Because there are many whose works

Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end

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London Calling

The documentary version of Dickens’s metropolis.
Jun 29, 2015

During 1849-50, the author and journalist Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) set about anatomizing the lives of the London poor in a series of 82 articles for the Morning Chronicle, which would eventually lay the groundwork for the greatest study of the English poor ever written, the four-volume London Labour and the London Poor (1851-65). 

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Lessons Learned

Newman the educator, in theory and practice.
May 18, 2015

In the debate about what needs to be done to make university education more coherent and more effective, no figure is cited more frequently than John Henry Newman, whose classic study The Idea of a University (1873) tackles educational questions that still exercise would-be reformers.

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Dublin’s Fair(?) City

The complicated soul of the Irish capital
Feb 23, 2015

In 1732, Jonathan Swift wrote a friend that, while he had lost all hope of favor with those in power in Dublin, he had won “the love of the Irish vulgar” and inspired “two or three dozen signposts of the Drapier in this city.” Here, he was referring to Dublin’s gratitude for the eloquent stand he had taken against a debased halfpence, a stand that constituted one of the first stirrings of Irish nationhood—albeit a distinctly Anglo-Irish nation:

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Here the Word

The English sermon as theology and social history
Dec 15, 2014

In William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), Pitt Crawley, Becky Sharp’s first employer, “an old, stumpy, short, vulgar, and very dirty man, in old clothes and shabby old gaiters, who smokes a horrid pipe, and cooks his own horrid supper in a saucepan,” is given a characteristic by his creator that nicely rounds out his unusual character: The baronet has a taste not only

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Eye of the Beholder

The tart, sweet, comprehending vision of Richard Greene
Oct 27, 2014

This deft, revelatory collection opens with a poem about the poet’s mother, in which Richard Greene speaks of shapes of memory from which she can / never turn away. Integral to his own “shapes of memory” is familial love, and Greene, who has written a brilliant critical biography of Edith Sitwell (herself no stranger to this most consuming of themes), does full justice to the subject in a range of

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Journey’s End?

Visions of life from encounters with death
Sep 29, 2014

In this foray into what Hamlet famously styled the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns,” Judy Bachrach looks at recent accounts of those claiming to have returned from the undiscovered country in order to suggest what her readers’—and, indeed, her own—“impending itineraries” might be like.  

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The Son Also Rises

Titles, tangled webs, titillating journalism
Aug 18, 2014

In his preface to this well-researched and witty retelling of the famous Ampthill Succession case, Bevis Hillier recalls how he chose his subject after researching a proposed Oxford Book of Fleet Street.

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Bertie the Good

The royal antidote to Victorian austerity.
Jun 16, 2014

In 1871, when Albert Edward Prince of Wales (1841-1910) and his wife Alexandra lost their youngest child after a premature birth, Queen Victoria advised that they go into prolonged mourning. Bertie’s response exhibited one of the great differences between him and his notoriously woeful mother: 

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Action into Words

The Great War and modern poetry.
Mar 24, 2014

In 1755, in the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson declared that “the chief glory of every people arises from its authors.” Barely 160 years later, when England entered the First World War, the very notion of glory began to take a beating from which it has never recovered. Wilfred Owen was perhaps its most savage critic:  

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Agony of Spirit

The revolutionary poet revealed in his letters.
Dec 16, 2013

England produced some superb letter-writers in the 19th century: Lord Byron, Emily Eden, John Keats, Charlotte Brontë, and Sydney Smith gave an altogether new charm and expressiveness to the epistolary art. Smith’s letter to his young friend Miss Lucie Austin in 1835 is a good example:

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Dispirit of ’76

The American Revolution as seen from the other side.
Sep 30, 2013

In his groundbreaking history of the American War of Independence from the British standpoint, The War for America (1964), Piers Mackesy argued, “To understand the war, one must view it with sympathy for the Ministers in their difficulties, and not with the arrogant assumption that because they were defeated they were incompetent, and that all their actions proceeded from folly.” 

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This American World

The ‘last, best hope of earth’ goes global.
Jul 29, 2013

If one thing distinguishes all of Conrad Black’s books, from his brilliant biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon to his impassioned 2011 apologia, A Matter of Principle, it is exuberance.

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Cardinal Virtue

Style and substance in the voice of John Henry Newman.
Jun 03, 2013

When John Henry Newman died in 1890, English papers around the world singled out different aspects of his life and work for praise or censure, but on one point they were unanimous. As the obituarist of the Colonies and India put it, “We question whether there is a living writer who had a command of the English tongue at once so eloquent and incisive, though often ironical.” The force of Newman’s style may have been universally acknowledged, but the content of the writing was rarely paid the attention it deserves.

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A Faithful Poet

From the darkness of her existence, Elizabeth Jennings comes to light.
Feb 18, 2013

When John Betjeman was charged with helping find a proper recipient for the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1977, he contacted Philip Larkin and suggested Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), who had befriended Larkin and Kingsley Amis when they were undergraduates together at Oxford.

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Eminent Precursors

Distinguished groups in Bloomsbury before there was a Bloomsbury Group.
Dec 10, 2012


Looking back on 19th-century England, Lytton Strachey saw what he called the “Glass Case Age,” taking particular exception to Victorian intellectuals. 

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Suite Charity

Where the Bright Young Things escaped from World War II.
Oct 29, 2012


Now, wherever we turn, the cry has become incessant: The rich are not doing enough. 

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Not So Special

Why the author doesn’t like Churchill’s ‘History of the English-Speaking Peoples.’
Sep 24, 2012

Not long ago I was in Boston browsing the stacks of that legendary emporium, the Brattle Book Shop, when I chanced upon Winston Spencer Churchill: Servant of Crown and Commonwealth, a collection of tributes to the parliamentarian, war leader, historian, and wit, which his longstanding English publisher Cassell brought out in 1954 to celebrate the great man’s 80th birthday. 

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Original Edith

The Sitwell with, arguably, the main claim to genius.
Jul 16, 2012

Does a biography bring any psychological insight to the portrayal of its subject? Does it place its subject in the context of his or her contemporaries? Does it have anything of critical substance to say about its subject? Is it well written? Is it entertaining? Is it animated by that sympathetic fellow-feeling without which biography too often is little more than prurient gossip? 

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People of the Book

No need to be a believer to cherish the Bible.
Apr 30, 2012

The popular Victorian novelist and travel writer Georgiana, Lady Chatterton (1806-1876), describing the bafflement she felt when reading the Bible as a girl, recalled how “one governess considered me unteachable, because I could not say the second Psalm by heart, and especially the verse, ‘Why do the heathen so furiously rage?’ which she used to repeat over and over again. .  .  . The fact is, I was wondering all the time why the heathen did so furiously rage, and who they could be; so that the more my mind was made to dwell on the words, the more puzzled I became.”

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In Shakespeare’s Shadow

A splendid life of rare Ben Jonson.
Mar 12, 2012

On the cover of Ian Donaldson’s new biography of Ben Jonson (1572-1637) there is a portrait of the poet and dramatist by the Flemish painter Abraham van Blyenberch showing him regarding the viewer with amused intentness, as if poised to make some choice rejoinder. Here is the man of the theater, the bon vivant, the exuberant conversationalist whose table talk William Drummond recorded with such zest.

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Sincerely, T. S. Eliot

New letters from Old Possum
Dec 05, 2011

In 1909 Henry James took thousands of letters that he had received over the years into his garden at Lamb House in Rye and committed them to a great bonfire. In his last years what time he could spare from refining his ever more rarefied fiction he devoted to confounding his biographers.

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Writer’s Progress

Behind the scenes of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novelistic life.
Nov 07, 2011

n 1853, when William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) made his first lecture tour of America, Boston particularly pleased him because, as he said, its “vast amount of toryism and donnishness” reminded him of Edinburgh. Today, there may be precious little toryism or donnishness left in Boston, but there remains a sturdy affection for Thackeray—and one proof of this was the superb exhibition that Harvard’s Houghton Library mounted to commemorate the bicentenary of the great novelist’s birth.

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Caught in the Web

An English monument goes digital.
Sep 26, 2011

In 1747, eight years before the publication of his pioneering dictionary, Samuel Johnson wrote that his “chief intent” in compiling his great work was “to preserve the purity and ascertain the meaning of the English idiom,” which he characterized as “the exact and pure idea of a grammatical dictionary.” But he also recognized that “in lexicography, as in other arts, naked science is too delicate for the purposes of life.” And it

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Things Not Seen

How faith was received in the Era of Good Feelings.
Aug 08, 2011

In The Making of the English Working Class, E.P.

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Seeker of Truth

A mind as wide as the legendary waistline.
Jun 27, 2011

G. K. Chesterton
A Biography
by Ian Ker
Oxford, 688 pp., $66

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Ideas Matter

One Englishman’s adventures in the life of the mind.
May 23, 2011

History Man

The Life of
R. G. Collingwood

by Fred Inglis

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The Firm of Art

McKim, Mead, White and America’s design
Apr 25, 2011



McKim, Mead and White: Art, Architecture, Scandal and Class in America’s Gilded Age

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Speaking of Volumes

Praising, or burying, the book?
Mar 07, 2011

The Oxford Companion to the Book
edited by Michael Suarez & H. R. Woudhuysen
Oxford, 1,408 pp., $325

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