I thanked Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti for posting “A Greek Botanical Catalogue.” In return I sent him Yvor Winters’ “Time and the Garden,” which includes catalogues of fruit-bearing plants and seventeenth-century English poets, and told Mike, “I’m a sucker for lists.” He replied:
“I don't know much about the origins of writing, but weren't some of mankind's earliest writings lists and inventories? Lists, possibly the earliest literary genre. The second book of the Iliad is one big list. Whitman is of course the great poetic list-maker.”
The appeal of lists or catalogs is the impression they give of bounty and comprehensiveness, whether serious or comic. A list can be grand, as when Homer dutifully names the twenty-nine Achaean contingents, their geographic origins and forty-six captains, and tallies 1,186 ships. The effect can also be boastful and inadvertently comic, as in “Song of Myself,” which frequently threatens to turn into a blowhard's catalogue of catalogues. In “Jubilate Agno,” Christopher Smart wrote virtually nothing but lists, including the sublimely moving section called “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.”
A list can be brief, musical and deftly somber, as in Edgar Bowers’ “The Mountain Cemetery”:
“The enormous, sundry platitude of death
Is for these bones, bees, trees, and leaves the same.”
The effect can be comic, as in the final lines of Swift’s “Description of a Shower”:
“Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.”
In The Dunciad, another tour de force of cataloguing (the practice seems suited to satire), Pope gives us a list of competitive theatrical effects, designed to bring in the crowds:
“Gods, imps, and monsters, music, rage, and mirth,
A fire, a jig, a battle, and a ball,
Till one wide Conflagration swallows all."
And, of course, Belinda’s mock-epic toilet in “The Rape of the Lock”:
“The Tortoise here and Elephant unite,
Transform'd to Combs, the speckled and the white.
Here Files of Pins extend their shining Rows,
Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux.”
As this catalogue of poetic catalogues swells to dangerous proportions, let’s return to Mike Gilleland who asks in his email: “On lists, have you read Umberto Eco, The Infinity of Lists? I haven't, although it's on my `list’ of books to read.”
Mine, too, Mike, thanks to you.