- Robert Browning: A Life within Life by Donald Thomas
Weidenfeld, 334 pp, £12.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 297 78092 1
- The Elusive Self in the Poetry of Robert Browning by Constance Hassett
Ohio, 186 pp, £17.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 8214 0629 9
- The Complete Works of Robert Browning. Vol. V edited by Roma King
Ohio, 395 pp, £29.75, July 1981, ISBN 0 8214 0220 X
- The Poetical Works of Robert Browning: Vol. I edited by Ian Jack and Margaret Smith
Oxford, 543 pp, £45.00, April 1983, ISBN 0 19 811839 2
- Robert Browning: The Poems edited by John Pettigrew and Thomas Collins
Yale/Penguin, 1191 pp, £26.00, January 1982, ISBN 0 300 02675 7
- Robert Browning: ‘The Ring and the Book’ edited by Richard Altick
Yale/Penguin, 707 pp, £21.00, May 1981, ISBN 0 300 02677 3
James Thurber’s best-known cartoon has an impassive little man introducing his spouse to a dazed friend with ‘That’s My First Wife Up There, and This Is the Present Mrs Harris.’ The first Mrs Harris seems to be crouched on all fours on the top of a very high (glazed) bookcase, just behind the second Mrs Harris. This image has found an appreciative audience even among those not particularly interested in American humour of the 1930s. In part, this large appeal probably derives from a real social sophistication concealed in the innocence of the drawing. The linguistically prim social formula of the caption underwrites the wild surprise both of the occasion in itself and of its medium, Thurber’s own very peculiar and vestigial draughtsmanship; together they cover the way in which our formulaic social manners have to contend with the extreme ad hoc-ness of experience – a first wife on the bookcase, crouched to spring, or embalmed, or perhaps just teasing.
But one could go further and say that this social joke in fact works in linguistic terms: that the whole cartoon is a sober pun on ‘Up There’ and on ‘Present’, and indeed on the entire verbal gesture of introduction. We expect an introduction not to introduce so much – not to take us in so far; from ‘Up There’ we look for a portrait, and we scarcely want any artwork to be as much ‘present’ with us as is the first Mrs Harris, up on that bookcase. In fact, this linguistic quality seems to me to extend as far as the literary (Mrs Harris was the potently invisible friend of Dickens’s Mrs Gamp, and Thurber was a writer before he was a cartoonist); and it may be that the ‘extra’ dimension in this cartoon came about because its essential idea had first been established by another and earlier writer. Somewhere at the back of his mind Thurber was surely remembering, with profit and perhaps with gratitude, a poem by an inventive, a hugely fructifying writer widely read sixty or eighty years ago when Thurber was young, although out of fashion for at least the last half-century. Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ begins, with a fine surprising immediacy:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now ...
– the 16th-century Duke of Ferrara speaking with a flamboyant strength that Thurber’s capitals echo at a distance; and the Duke, too, ends by introducing a second wife in circumstances felt as not altogether usual:
his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ is a tricky poem: very striking in its own right, it yet hardly proclaims the fact that it is a good poem, and even less suggests the reasons why it should be so. And yet it has a potency that makes one understand how it could generate out of itself so successful an image as the cartoon has been, in a different medium, and for an age and a continent so different from its own. In this, the poem is characteristic of Browning’s work as a whole, and of the problems it seems to present to criticism. Such essays as have lately been written about ‘My Last Duchess’ – for something like a critical revival is happening in Browning studies, one marked by the accession of new editions – do little more than try to base an ethical conclusion on what they take to be the psychology of what they take to be the Duke’s ‘character’; and though such probings are often acute and sensible, they hardly advance understanding of the poem beyond the critical consensus of Browning’s lifetime, that the poet was of course not a poet at all but a prose-writer, indeed a novelist. This antique tradition (the term is precise, since the poet died nearly a century ago in 1889) has probably continued silently ever since in the conventional handing-over of the poet, all through the period of his unfashion, to the innocent and the unwilling, to the schoolchild and the undergraduate, presumably on the supposition that Browning is securely far from all such troublesome complications as anything, in the nature of the aesthetic would entail. The Thurber cartoon at least does better than that – which is why, I think, his ‘quotation’ from the poet is worth remembering: it mediates aesthetically what it has clearly seen aesthetically. Speaking less clumsily, one might say that in the cartoon itself a magnifying glass will not make really clear whether the Mrs Harris on the bookcase is animate or inanimate, is glaring or just glass-eyed. These things are not important; the drawing has to be allowed to speak for itself. To ‘read’ it at all is to recognise how much is entailed by style, both the farcical personal style of the drawing and that severe social intonation that the caption implies: the two in special combination constitute Thurber’s own style. Browning’s poem is richer in details of sense-experience than most cartoons will be, but all the same it offers no more than meets the eye.
What the eye sees is a (relatively) short poem that all the same bears one or two delusive attributes of drama. It begins with a quasi-speech-heading, ‘Ferrara’, and it is consistently couched in that essence of Browning’s stylistic character, the sound of a voice talking in an intensely recognisable human situation. To this degree the poet is, despite all his older reputation for obscurity, a very simple poet – the sort of human being who enters a room talking. In Browning a temperamental downrightness and impetuosity meet and fuse with the common Victorian preference that literature should be public and popular: with the result that his first lines tend to put us into the presence of all that is there to be communicated. In this case the opening line is appropriately a form of social introduction. To say this, however, is not to predict a drama: the very strength and self-consistency of that voice which begins talking brings with it the inheritance of Romantic poetry, which is a subjective mode – and nothing that follows in the poem is in itself free-standing and extraverted enough to break down that in fact private and poetic communication. For a speech-heading is not a stage-direction, nor is a voice a character. Earlier periods can sometimes startle us by their possession of what we think of as ‘modern’ attributes, just as the present is often archaic and retrospective; Browning is (we can say if we want, though the comparison may not be fruitful) making a new metaphor out of fragments of old forms and genres, as Eliot and others were to do eighty years later.
The only literal way to take a metaphor is not to make the mistake of believing it to be literal. The Duke’s situation is confined to that brilliant imagined voice: he will never really come down the portrait-adorned staircase into the actuality we stand on. Browning was later to say of Sordello that ‘the historical decoration was purposely of no more importance than a background requires’: background and foreground are metaphors too – what the reader of ‘My Last Duchess’ sees and hears is a voice, which is less 16th-century Italian (Browning’s pervasive easy humour, emerges here in the relative insignificance of the trappings) than 19th-century Victorian, indeed the voice of the poet’s or the reader’s contemporary moment. Poetry itself is to Browning ‘How it strikes a Contemporary’. The voice’s inflections are, if we like, upperclass or at least authoritarian English of the reader or writer’s own period, with a powerful assurance written in every phrase, as in that still encountered idiom by which proprietorship is signalled by the addition of ‘my’ to properties sometimes unexpected: my plumber, my milkman, my archivist, my last Duchess. Person at once converts into owned object (‘his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed/At starting, is my object’). This proprietorship, whether of wife or of painting, is so marked that we may for a moment think that the Duke himself is an artist: as the wife is no more than a painting, ‘looking as if she were alive’, so is the Duke for an instant something very like a highly successful and established Victorian artist, Ferrara, RA. But his Italian Renaissance prototype could of course in practice scarcely have been a professional painter in this way. Therefore someone must be introduced to do the actual work, hence the existence of Fra Pandolph:
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolph’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
Fra Pandolph by design ...
It is in the interest of both the poet and the Duke himself to keep the Friar’s part in things as small as possible, so that his work on the portrait is diminished to that contemptuous ‘busily a day’. Reading the poem naturalistically, editors and critics have found ‘problems’ in it, of which this is one: how did the Friar manage it in a day? Another is what discoverable ‘design’ the Duke can have had in so naming him, for the poem itself does not appear to disclose it. But, just as the ‘day’ is really the measure of the Duke’s dismissal of the true artist, so is the ‘design’ really the difference between the creative idea of the quiet, almost invisible Friar painting in the background, and the Duke’s insistent will to turn attention solely on himself (‘none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I’). Thus, in the manner of any work of literary art, words like ‘day’ and ‘design’ do trace back into truth, but not into an imported psychology: to suppose that is to ignore the working of an aesthetic medium, just as the Duke treats with contempt his aesthetic workmen. We cannot, in short, know much about the dramatic plot, the precise fate of the last Duchess or the putative future of the next one (and Browning is very unlikely to have known it either). What we can say is that from the moment that the Duke fuses together woman and portrait into that fatal image of ownership – ‘My Last Duchess’, ‘there she stands,’ ‘as if alive’ – the poem finds a language vividly metaphorical to the point of drama, in which to speak of both love and art in terms of the power they both yield. From first to last, the Master (both Maestro and tyrant) is the Duke himself: ‘That’s my ... for me.’ But while we read, we cannot usefully distinguish between Browning’s voice and the Duke’s – between the authority of the writer and the tyranny of the despot. Because this is true, all critical accounts that attempt to settle finally the moral status of the Duke are in themselves pointless: he is made of an ambiguity. Even while we follow the quasi-history of the Duke’s destruction of his wife, we acknowledge that his servants are Fra Pandolph, preserver of the natural life of art, and Claus, the bringer of a bronze-like immortality. And more, that such servants have it in themselves to perpetuate, even against the will of the Duke – indeed through that same incisive intense voice of authority that is his – and even through deathly forms, all the natural life that is in the fluid evanescent actualities of the Duchess’s existence: ‘the faint /Half-flush that dies along her throat’,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her ...
‘The English Poets’
This series of editions (Penguin paperback, Yale hardcover) is one of the most cheering developments in recent publishing. Each volume provides a newly edited text, with full annotation, a table of dates, a reading-list and indexes, all in a pleasant readable format – and remarkably inexpensive. The Introductions are brief and factual: no space is given to critical appreciative essays, though select bibliographies inform the interested reader where the best scholarship and criticism can be found. The footnotes are placed at the back of the volume, though keyed to the pages of the text, leaving the text itself clearly laid out and uncluttered with editorial apparatus. All these decisions on the part of the General Editor, Christopher Ricks, are well-judged. Most of the editions represent major scholarly under-takings. In some cases, the poet concerned has not been edited for many years, so that the commentary supplied in the notes makes a substantially new contribution to the subject. This is so with John Scattergood’s Skelton (whose notes are supplemented by a glossary) and Pat Rogers’s Swift (with over 300 pages of notes plus a biographical dictionary). Alan Rudrum’s Henry Vaughan supersedes what was the standard Oxford edition by L.C. Martin, which, good though it was, is inferior in annotation to Rudrum’s. Similarly, J.D. Fleeman’s Samuel Johnson is the best, most textually refined edition of these poems available anywhere. R.A. Rebholz’s Wyatt is the third edition of this poet in recent years, following those by Kenneth Muir and Patricia Thomson (1969) and Joost Daalder (1975). The text and canon of Wyatt’s poems are especially difficult to establish; the whole subject is controversial. Rebholz’s edition is excellent: he presents a modernised text, deals with the problematic issues rigorously and systematically, lays out the poems lucidly according to genre, and provides a fine commentary. This is undoubtedly the best buy for students – orreaders of any sort – wishing to make the acquaintance of a poet still too little read. Other volumes are planned: The Canterbury Tales, Sidney, Dryden, Pope and Rossetti.
The following volumes in ‘The English Poets’ series are published by Yale University Press and Penguin:
Samuel Johnson: The Complete English Poems, edited by J.D. Fleeman, 256 pp., £12 and £4.95, 22 July 1982, 0 300 02824 5.
John Skelton: The Complete English Poems, edited by John Scattergood. 573 pp., £17.50 and £6.95, 20 January, 0 300 02970 5.
Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems, edited by Pat Rogers. 955 pp., £26 and £9.95,27 January, 0 300 02966 7.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Idylls of the King, edited by J.M. Gray. 371 pp., £16 and £6.95, 23 June, 0 300 03059 2.
Henry Vaughan: The Complete Poems, edited by Alan Rudrum. 718 pp., £21 and £5.95, 1981, 0 300 02680 3.
William Wordsworth: The Prelude, A Parallel Text, edited by J.C. Maxwell. 573 pp., £22 and £4.95, 21 January 1982, 0 300 02753 2.
William Wordsworth: The Complete Poems, edited by John Hayden. Vol. I, 1072 pp., £32 and £8.95, 1977, 0 300 02751 6. Vol. II, 1104 pp., £32 and £3.75, 1981, 0 300 02752 4.
Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems, edited by R.A. Rebholz. 588 pp., £16.95 and £3.50, 1981, 0 300 02681 1.
Ben Jonson: The Complete Poems, edited by George Parfitt. 640 pp., £20 and £3.95, July 1982, 0 300 02825 3.
Lord Byron: Don Juan, edited by T.G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W.W. Pratt. 768 pp., £14.95 and £5.95, July 1982, 0 300 02687 1.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by J.A. Burrow. 176 pp., £8.95 and £3.50, July 1982, 0 300 02906 3.
Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene, edited by Thomas Roche, with the assistance of Patrick O’Donnell. 1246 pp., £26 and £5.95, 1981, 0 300 02705 2.
Vol. 5 No. 16 · 1 September 1983
From Park Honan
SIR: Because you allow excellent reviewers space to develop their ideas, your journal challenges and delights us: but the crucial thing is to have an idea, and to be hard-headed and detailed with it. I approve the space you gave to your amiable Browning reviewer (LRB, 4 August). But where were her ideas? And detailed comments? May I mention one example? To imply, with no demonstration, as your reviewer does, that Ian Jack and Margaret Smith’s Oxford edition is better than the Ohio-Baylor variorum edition of Robert Browning’s poetry is very odd. Browning cared about artistic minutiae: ‘I attach importance to the mere stops.’ B.W.A. Massey, E.K. Brown and others show that pointing, hyphenation, capitalisation and even spelling mattered to him as devices of art and portraiture. The Oxford edition (so far only of Pauline and Paracelsus) is wayward and incomplete in recording his alterations in these minutiae. Further, as notes in Jack and Smith are brief, and set at the bottom of pages of Browning’s texts, very little is discussed by the editors for its real complexity or ambiguity. The Ohio-Baylor variorum, in contrast, records all of Browning’s changes in these artistic minutiae from edition to edition in the texts published during his lifetime; and its notes do discuss ambiguities and complexities. Just how accurate the Oxford Browning editors have been, I do not know. But they have two errors in the entry for my own and William Irvine’s The Book, the Ring, and the Poet: a Biography of Robert Browning (part of the title is omitted, and the London edition is given as ‘1974’ for 1975), and other errors in their ‘References and Abbreviations’. One of the editors, Ian Jack, in the Oxford volume of Browning’s Poetical Works 1833-1864, rewrites line 334 of ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, by changing ‘pity’ to ‘piety’ (to make the line more ‘Victorian’? or simply redundant?) though one finds ‘pity’ in Robert Browning’s texts of 1855, 1863, 1865, 1868, 1888 and 1889 of this line. Is it not time to be severe on Oxford’s recent practices with Browning?
Department of English Language and Literature, University of Birmingham
Barbara Everett writes: Park Honan’s idea of an idea is not mine. I was writing on Browning, and I mentioned recent editions – not just of Browning but of other poets – only to call attention to them. Textual criticism has its place, and the merits of the new Oxford Browning will no doubt be assessed in the academic journals. Mr Honan is wrong to say that I implied that the new Oxford edition is superior to the Ohio (he may be swayed by the fact that he is on the Ohio Editorial Board). I did, however, say that, among recent biographies of Browning, the best seemed to me to be Donald Thomas’s: the implication here being (I suppose) that the best is therefore not that by William Irvine and Park Honan.
Vol. 5 No. 18 · 6 October 1983
From Ian Jack
SIR: When I came on Park Honan’s strange outburst (Letters, 1 September) my first impulse was to ignore it. But it is clearly intended to do harm, and requires a few sentences of correction. It is not only inaccurate, confused and blustering, but also disingenuous.
As Barbara Everett points out, Honan refrains from mentioning that he is a member of the editorial board of the Ohio (now Ohio/Baylor) edition of Browning, a fact which deprives his opinion of the relative merits of that edition and the new Oxford English Texts edition of any claim to impartiality. In the essay to which he takes such exception (LRB, 4 August) Barbara Everett confines herself to a reference to the statement in my General Introduction that if the Ohio edition had been a sound one ‘I should have turned to other undertakings with a mixture of regret and relief’ – regret because I had always hoped to do something to render this great and enigmatic poet more accessible to readers, relief because I would have been saved many years of work and would have been free to turn to other projects.
Although I have more than once refused to review volumes of the Ohio edition (if I had reviewed one, I need hardly say, I would have begun with a declaration of my own interest in the matter), I felt obliged to say something in our first volume to explain why one large-scale edition of Browning was being succeeded by another. The demerits of the Ohio edition are common knowledge: I was glad to be able to confine myself to a reference to the trenchant reviews by the late John Pettigrew (an excellent Browning scholar) and a quotation from the criticisms of a former member of the editorial board, Morse Peckham, who reported ‘hundreds and hundreds of errors’ in the first two volumes, ‘in text, emendations, variants, and explanatory notes’.
Honan confesses that he does not know how accurate the Oxford edition may be, but then astonishingly goes on to claim that our record of variant readings is ‘wayward and incomplete’. The absurdity of this will be evident to anyone who takes the trouble to read the Textual Introduction by my co-editor Margaret Smith, who is well-known for her textual work on Charlotte Brontë. If Honan had read so far as page xxii he would have discovered a clear statement on the matter, and would have found that our (relatively few, yet important) textual emendations are based on a very careful evaluation of the editions and MSS, and almost invariably take the form of restorations of Browning’s own preferred text. Our explanatory notes (also placed at the foot of the page, for ease of reference) are much fuller than those in the Ohio edition, and I hope more accurate. I refrain from quoting any of their erroneous notes in this place, and content myself with the remark that the text and apparatus of Sordello, which will be available in our Volume II later this year, will enable those who wish to make comparisons to do so with a poem which requires scholarly attention more than most.
Honan claims that our list of ‘References and Abbreviations’ contains errors, but his only attempt to substantiate this relates to the title and date of a biography by the late William Irvine and himself. He accuses me, without justification, of giving the title wrongly (has he never heard of short titles? Does he think I should have given the title of the Biographie Universelle in full?), and is indignant because I give the date of the American edition of the book (1974) rather than that of the English (1975). If this seems to smack of desperation, it is as nothing compared to his concluding objection to an emendation of mine in the Oxford Standard Authors edition of 1970. He did not have to hunt far for it, since it is one of the seven verbal emendations which I listed at the end of the Introduction. I soon decided that I did not like it, my friends did not like it, and it was removed from the corrected reprints of 1975 and 1980 (including the paperback edition). But of course the OSA edition, in which my principal aim was to replace the old double-column edition with something more adequate and more likely to attract readers, had no textual ambitions; and it has nothing whatever to do with the Oxford English Texts edition.
Pembroke College, Cambridge
Vol. 5 No. 20 · 3 November 1983
From Park Honan
SIR: I never meant ‘to do harm’ to Oxford Press, but in asking your reviewer ‘to be severe on Oxford’s recent practices with Browning’ (Letters, 1 September) I had in mind not only the faults of its new edition, which are discussed in the summer issue of Browning Society Notes (pp. 43-9), but a major principle. We ought to be faithful to poet’s diction, spelling, capitalisation, hyphenation and pointing, even though editors list some pointing changes but not others, regularise spelling and alter words. One editor changed Browning’s ‘pity’ to ‘piety’ in an Oxford Standard Authors edition. When his friends ‘did not like’ the change, he says (LRB, 4 August), he restored the poet’s word five years later. It seems the principle was not respected in the first place.
Now we have Vol. I of the Clarendon Poetical Works edition, in which the principle is neglected. It is surely wrong to print a volume which claims to give ‘full details of revisions’ and which omits every change the poet made in ‘hyphenation unless it indicates a different meaning’, many ‘capitalisation and spelling variants’ and ‘alternation between colons and semi-colons, with a few exceptions’. The fault is in not understanding that these minutiae may affect tempo, rhythm or tone in poetry, and that Browning worked at this level. How do we know he did? 1. B.W.A. Massey, E.K. Brown and others show in detail that colons, apostrophes, hyphens may be artfully used in his monologues. 2. Browning wrote in 1855, ‘I attach importance to the mere stops,’ and a year later, ‘you know what I do in looking after commas,’ and elsewhere: ‘I see little or nothing to emend … except the punctuation.’ 3. His methods matured when both oratorical and grammatical systems were valued, so that points for ‘breath-pause’ affect tempo in his verses. We who love Oxford may believe its Press will reform. Meanwhile it may be well that we have in the Ohio-Baylor and Oxford projects two sets of editors who remind us that there may be several versions of Browning.
University of Birmingham
From John Maynard
SIR: Park Honan’s letter (Letters, 1 September) concerning the Oxford and Ohio editions of Robert Browning surprises by its omissions: not only of his interest in the Ohio edition but of the long and sad history of that edition. Although I cannot begin to rehearse the various editorial and textual problems that led to the virtual abandonment of the Ohio edition after four volumes, much criticism, and even disarray among the original editors themselves, your readers should be warned that the edition has many problems as well as some special advantages. The fifth volume, out recently after a hiatus of many years, is an improvement. But no Browning scholar in the United States or Canada is unaware of the problems with the first four volumes of the Ohio edition. I am surprised that Professor Honan should act as if they should remain unknown (if they are unknown) in England.
Department of English, New York University
Vol. 5 No. 22 · 1 December 1983
From Ian Jack
SIR: Park Honan has become a nuisance. When John Maynard, who writes with authority as the author of the most important biographical study of Browning for many years (Browning’s Youth), remarks that his letter ‘surprises by its omissions’, he draws attention to one of Honan’s most unattractive habits. In his second letter (Letters, 7 July) he states that ‘the faults’ of the Oxford English Texts edition ‘are discussed in the summer issue of Browning Society Notes’, without revealing that the piece in question is by none other than himself. It is no more than a réchauffé of his letter, spiced with further bluster and misrepresentation.
Another strange thing has to be pointed out. In his first letter Honan admitted that he did not know just how accurate the Oxford Browning editors have been’. The admission becomes even more remarkable when one realises that he seems to have written his ‘review’ by the day when Barbara Everett’s essay was published. That appeared in your issue for 4-17 August, and on 4 August one of the research students who edit BSN wrote to tell me that he had received an unfavourable notice of our book. It appears to follow (and certainly the ‘review’ bears it out) than Honan had an equally superficial acquaintance with the book when he wrote the piece in question. Since our first volume, recently described in the Times Higher Education Supplement as ‘an impressive beginning to what promises to be the definitive edition of Browning’, represents the labour of years on the part of Margaret Smith and myself, such behaviour can only be described as unaccountable.
We had hoped to say as little as possible of the Ohio edition, which Honan’s maladroit attempts to defend can only draw still further into disrepute: but I feel obliged to cite one instance of the ‘scholarship’ of the first volume of the edition which he commends for its ‘graphic, factual, pertinent information’. When he presented the MS of Paracelsus to John Forster, Browning wrote on it two lines of Latin verse. I do not blame the Ohio editors for failing to recognise them as the work of John Donne (see the Addenda to our second volume, to be published shortly), but I must comment on the remarkable translation of the couplet which they provide. Freely translated, Donne states that while printed books are acceptable, manuscripts are to be more highly regarded. The Ohio editors, who get the second line nearly right, offer the following strange translation of the first: ‘The offspring which issued forth out of intoxicated effort, has been accepted.’ Did it ever occur to them that the unknown author of the Latin must have meant something when he wrote it, and that Browning must have had some reason for quoting it, when he made his generous gift?
Since Margaret Smith and I have replied to Honan at some length in the forthcoming issue of Browning Society Notes, I limit myself here to a single example of the ‘review’ to which he seeks to refer your readers. Remarking that there are ‘tid-bits’ in our appendices, he makes the surprising statement that one of them gives ‘variants from the Yale/Penguin Paracelsus’. I remember with pleasure the hours I spent in the Beinecke Library, copying out the variants in question. I ordered a microfilm, and Margaret Smith wrote the appendix to which Honan seems to be referring. I have a bad memory, but so far as I recall I did not see a single Penguin all day.
Pembroke College, Cambridge
Vol. 5 No. 24 · 22 December 1983
From Park Honan
SIR: Ian Jack says I am a ‘nuisance’ (Letters, 1 December), but fails to reply to this: Oxford University Press have printed an edition of Browning’s Pauline and Paracelsus that is not edited to the standards of modern literary scholarship. Its major faults are: 1. the volume claims to give ‘full details’ (p. ix) of revisions but omits so many of Browning’s changes in important minutiae that not one of Jack’s textual notes, for any verse, can be trusted as full; 2. Jack is careless in bibliographical references; 3. his naive notion of ‘accidentals’ takes no account of the poet’s attitude to revisions; and 4. the editorial statements are misleading on Sordello’s modern reception, the poet’s borrowings, the poet’s reception of Kean, and similar matters.
Since Fault No 1 is the most grave, I discussed it in my review in Browning Society Notes and twice in your correspondence columns. Ian Jack is not helpless; he is a professor at Cambridge; but instead of telling us why he fails to give ‘full details of revisions’, he twice blames me for reviewing or criticising him. Most of his evasions are comic. He now sends a reply to BSN to imply that he is a Childe Roland and that I live in ‘Honanland’, presumably because he thinks he has cited Maynard often enough in his editorial notes to suit anyone.
University of Birmingham
From Editor, ‘London Review’
Professor Jack is welcome to reply: after his letter, should he write one, this correspondence will close.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 6 No. 1 · 19 January 1984
From Ian Jack
SIR: Margaret Smith and I have replied to Park Honan’s allegations (Letters, 22 December 1983) in an article in the forthcoming number of Browning Society Notes entitled ‘Browning in Honanland: Some Comments on a recent “Review” of Volume I of the Oxford English Texts Edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Browning’. We were surprised that he should have been shown the article before publication, and are astonished that he should wish to draw your readers’ attention to it. His strange comment that I ‘imply’ that I am a ‘Childe Roland’ presumably refers to the motto of the article, lines 109-115 of that poem. We do not understand his reference to John Maynard.
Since Honan causes fresh confusion whenever he uses his typewriter, I am obliged to make two points. First, Sordello (to our treatment of which he seems to take exception) is not in Volume I of our edition, but in Volume II, which will be published during the spring. Secondly, his reference to ‘Jack’s textual notes’ obscures the fact that the textual editor of these two volumes is Margaret Smith. To anyone who knows her work on Charlotte Brontë this makes the statement that the textual part of our edition ignores ‘the standards of modern literary scholarship’ little short of astonishing – until, indeed, one realises that these standards are epitomised, for Honan, by the curiously involved and frequently unacceptable observations on textual matters in the prefatory matter of the ill-fated Ohio edition. We have been told of forthcoming reviews of our edition in the Modern Language Review, the Review of English Studies and Victorian Poetry, and others will no doubt appear in the appropriate journals. While we hope that the high opinion of our work already expressed by J.W. Harper in the Times Higher Education Supplement will be shared by other writers, we do not claim that our edition is irreproachable or wholly free from error. We look forward to studying careful and rational assessments of Volume I which will no doubt be characterised by the scholarship, the fair-mindedness and the normal courtesy so sadly absent from the communications of Park Honan.
Pembroke College, Cambridge