In Praise of Compilers

I was going to write this post on the short stories of the neglected nineteenth-century Austrian master Adalbert Stifter, some of which New York Review of Books Classics has recently published. But I look out the window and see my world covered in snow, and I glance at the calendar and see the secular year winding down—or, for western Christians, the new liturgical year just begun with Advent. It is a season for looking back and reflecting. I’ve read plenty of fiction this year, but I also find I’ve been reading another kind of thing, something I call compilation.

In fact, I have only lately been more conscious of reading compilations. Since the beginning of my formal, post-secondary study of literature, I have relied on the compilation. Education in any culture has always done this, because the compilation (or the anthology or florilegium—these two mean the same, a collection or bouquet of flowers) is the natural genre of tradition. On my shelves I still have the doorstopper anthologies of British and American literature I first acquired more than twenty years ago for some of my first college courses. A quick survey of my home will reveal other such works acquired around the same time:

Paul Allen Miller’s Latin Erotic Elegy, with my student translations scribbled in the margins along with a few epigrams composed in Latin in praise of the beautiful professor with whom I was blessed, or perhaps cursed, to study this material; the Loeb edition of the Greek Anthology; curious, heavy florilegia like Thomas Robert Smith’s Poetica Erotica from 1921 and Huntington Cairns’ The Limits of Art (Bollingen XII, 1948) and Witherspoon and Warnke’s superb Seventeenth-century Prose and Poetry. Most unusual, perhaps, is Florilège des Troubadours (ed. André Berry, 1930). I acquired this last book, which contains a modern French prose crib en face, in one of Cincinnati’s excellent used bookstores when I read Ezra Pound’s praise of Arnaut Daniel in his early book The Spirit of Romance and was overcome by desire to learn Old Occitan.

As the years went by I acquired other volumes which could be called compilations: some of the readers, as they’re called, for the various languages I’ve dallied with would count, or things like my critical edition of medieval Welsh gnomic verse and Rachel Bromwich’s definitive Trioedd Ynys Prydain (the “triads” of Britain). Other compilations are less academic. I think of the great early twentieth-century scholar and prose stylist Helen Waddell’s books. Her Beasts and Saints, from which I taught this semester, is a compilation of wonder tales and miracles and little hagiographies that all have something to do with animals. And her Medieval Latin Lyrics is an anthology. But Waddell’s masterpiece, The Wandering Scholars, is the best sort of compilation, the kind that perfectly blends the author’s own learning and personality with a useful trove of source material presented in an engaging narrative format.

Another beloved compilation came to me one recent autumn when I was visiting family. My father and I wandered into the Israel Book Shop in Brookline, MA, and I found a lone, forlorn copy of Nahum Glatzer’s The Judaic Tradition. Glatzer was Franz Rosenzweig’s disciple, and in my own much less accomplished way I, too, for a number of years now, have been trying to make myself Rosenzweig’s disciple.

I have many compilations of material from Asian cultures. Pu Songling’s Strange Tales arguably counts as one: he wrote the tales himself, but culled the material from his friends and every old book he could find. It’s great fantasy and can even be taught with modest success—so I’ve discovered this autumn—to undergraduates not at all expecting a course in Asian literature or fantasy. The Israeli writer Yoel Hoffmann is also a scholar and produced among his many unclassifiable works a collection with commentary called Japanese Death Poems. A work with that title needs no further explanation or recommendation. I spent the first spring of Covidtide reading Japanese Death Poems while drinking beer and watching my children in the backyard.

But the compilation to do with Asian culture that has had the most impact on me has undoubtedly been the five-volume Zen and Zen Classics by R. H. Blyth, which I read over this past year. Blyth was an interesting figure: an Englishman who spent most of his adult life in Korea and Japan, married to a Japanese woman. He spent much of World War Two interned, since Britain and Japan were at war. He published many brilliant books, all out of print now except for a splendid anthology of haiku and Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics (the book he wrote while interned), recently reissued by Angelico Press. Blyth is a man after my own heart, revering Basho, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Bach. He writes with verve and insight and humor, not to mention vast learning and experience. I have found no better expositor to a Western audience of Eastern worldviews and traditions.

While reading Zen and Zen Classics I wondered if we couldn’t have some equivalent of this for the Christian tradition. But I suppose I have only to further inspect my own shelves to discover Christian anthologies: Apophthegmata Patrum Aegyptiorum (the sayings of the desert fathers); Jacobus de Varagine’s collection of hagiographies—perhaps the quintessential medieval text—usually called Aurea Legenda (the Golden Legend); the Philokalia. But R. H. Blyth, like Helen Waddell (who, perhaps not coincidentally, was born in Japan, the daughter of missionaries, and partly grew up there) is wiser and more charming than what he compiles—yet we could not get that wisdom and charm but by means of the compiled material. Such is the necessity of compilation.

I wrote earlier for this blog on the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones. His masterpiece, Anathemata, is by its author’s own understanding a vast compilation and, in his footnotes, a commentary. Jones construed his title to mean a heap of things gathered and set aside and thus made sacred. The Anathemata is in a way set during a Catholic mass, and it comes from a larger poetic project, which Jones didn’t publish as such in his lifetime, called The Grail Mass. I also wrote earlier about S. Y. Agnon’s seamless, tapestry-like compilation Days of Awe, a complement to the machzor, prayer book of the High Holy Days.

And so, thinking of the compilation, I have come round from youthful concupiscence and pedantry clear into the territory of religion. It seems my house overflows with prayer books and missals, siddurim and hymnals. Peter Walsh’s One Hundred Latin Hymns is a staple around here. Your psalter is a compilation, and indeed so is the whole of the Bible and the Talmud. Perhaps more than any other genre, the compilation is the fruit of choice—choices, it may be, made by many minds across countries and generations. Slow to arise, slow to be lost, it is the genre of revelation. The compilation survives when everything else goes to hell. These fragments I have shored against my ruins…. So wrote a great poet-compiler, and whenever we pray by the book, so to speak, we too are poet-compilers, shoring our fragments.


Jonathan Geltner lives in Ann Arbor MI with his wife and two sons. His translation of Paul Claudel’s Five Great Odes is available from Angelico Press and a novel, Absolute Music, is forthcoming from Slant. He writes more about the meeting of fantasy and fiction with theology, philosophy, music and the sense of place at