Anthologies of English poetry started out as thematic selections designed to direct the readers’ thoughts about various topics. A kind of didactic tool.

The word, from Greek, carries the literal meaning of more or less a bunch of flowers. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it appears to have come in to English in the early seventeenth century when it arrived with the meaning we associate with it today (a collection of pieces by various hands), but also with the sense of a treatise on flowers, or alternatively a breviary.

What are we to make of the competing word, chrestomathy? It’s Greek root is useful learning; somewhat less flowery than the anthology’s. The only time I’ve tangled with one was in a Medieval French course, and its use does seem to be largely educational. The florilegium is just a fancy word for anthology, taking the Greek bunch of flowers idea and Latinizing it. A divan is apparently a collection of poems by one author. The Arabic/Persion terms is paradoxically best known to us via Goethe’s “West-östlicher Divan”.* An analect is a selection from one author’s works, similar to a digest, which latter does also carry the implication of abbreviation. A compendium also implies condensation. An epitome goes all the way, abridging things down to their very essence. A compilation can be anything compiled. A Festschrift (straightforwardly German) is a collection of essays written in tribute to a scholar to whom the whole kit and caboodle is in theory presented on some formal occasion; perhaps a symposium, in the drinking party sense. But of course symposium in the book sense also carries the meaning of a collection of papers presented at some conference or other. An omnibus implies a collection of all the works of an author. But I have an omnibus edition of Simenon’s Maigret novels which contains but four books — more of a “parti-bus”. Actually in origin an omnibus is not a bus for omnis (Latin for all); it’s actually the dative plural, thus meaning simply “for all” with vehicle or some such term understood. The bus is just a back formation from the more formal word.

The Golden Treasury (1861) is said to have sold 10,000 copies a year for a century. Sorry I’m no longer in a position to see how it’s selling these days: but it is, of course, still rolling along. Oxford University Press has developed a little corner in anthologies of English literature: The Oxford Book of XYZ will be familiar to most. I even had to buy an Oxford Book of English Prose for use at school. Seem to remember being a bit resentful that we hardly used to damn thing at all; and it was expensive. I still have it, but can’t really find any use to it: six hundred snippets chosen because Q (as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, 1863-1944, was known at the height of his influence as a man of letters) thought they were good — can’t see why I should spend the time really. Q was also the editor of the first Oxford Book of English Verse, which lasted as a sort of canon maker from 1900 to 1979 when a new edition came out. Never owned either, nor subsequent editions, though I do have two editions of the Oxford Book of American Verse, though the latest one has sensibly evolved into American Poetry.

As a child I used always to have trouble with the title of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses: I’d always expect Garland: was I precociously thinking to the bunch of flowers meaning of anthology? Of course RLS, who originally published the collection (all of which he wrote himself — so no anthology in this garden) as Penny Whistles, was doubtless picking up the garden image from the envoy “To any reader”.

Anthologies generally consist of previously published pieces by a number of different authors. This tends to mean they are expensive to publish, so you have to be confident of selling thousands of them. Poets and their estates tend to see proposed anthologies as an unexpected opportunity to make a little money. This means that you may find your selection of say T. S. Eliot having to be curtailed in the face of budgetary constraints. Yes, you obviously have to pay the authors, and as that’ll be coming out of the “author’s” part of the pot (normally the royalty) its size will be limited to the notional royalty multiplied by the number of copies expected to be sold. Reality can rapidly set in. Rights have to be cleared for all relevant markets around the world. Attention must be paid. I recently found myself having to reprint an anthology with a new page containing a different translation of one of the sonnets: permission had originally been cleared for the wrong translation. Since this monetary restriction is not something you can expatiate on in your preface, it may mean that your bunch of poetic blooms ends up over-representing daisies, and having to leave out that arum lily. This in turn may eventually mean that history thinks you undervalued lilies.

Mention of preface reminds me that I also own an anthology of prefaces. The Book of Prefaces is edited by Alasdair Gray, of whose work I am a fan. Here’s a photograph of the front flap, providing a characteristic justification for every anthology ever created.


* To me a divan is what most people now seem to call a chaise longue. Houzz provides information enabling you to distinguish between chaise, divan, daybed, recamier, and settee. Sofa and couch have to fend for themselves.