Three feet on the ground
SIR: I have always rather agreed with Wordsworth’s comment, after Southey’s paltry notice of Lyrical Ballads (1798), that if he couldn’t think of anything pleasant to say about a friend’s book he shouldn’t have reviewed it. That Marilyn Butler should choose to attack The Borders of Vision in print might in any case seem less than amiable (LRB, 7 July): that she should take the opportunity of doing so twice within the space of a few weeks argues a blunt sensibility – which I’m afraid is what is to be seen in her political readings of Romantic poetry.
St Catherine’s College, Oxford
On the second of the occasions to which Jonathan Wordsworth refers, Marilyn Butler was arguing, rather than attacking, in response to letters of criticism directed at her review.
Editor, ‘London Review’
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
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
Dignity and Impudence
SIR: Oliver Whitley, so he says in his review of Michael Tracey’s biography of Hugh Greene, doesn’t like references to ‘the establishment’, he finds the term ‘vague and portentous’, and suspects that ‘if it had to be defined it would fall out of use’ (LRB, 6 October). I learn from the biographical details you publish on page two that Mr Whitley used to work at the BBC, that he was once Managing Director of its External Services and before that Chief Assistant to Hugh Greene. This would explain how he came to make (or to receive) the mysterious phone call he sort of describes at the end of his review:
Incidentally, my phone went dead too, not long after Hugh Greene’s, when I felt bound to tell the other one that my colours were nailed to Greene’s mast and that this meant that I, too, thought there were human qualities more important than dignity. ‘Then there’s nothing more to be said,’ and the phone in the flat in Lambeth Palace banged down, ending a friendship of more than thirty years – or at any rate its outward manifestations.
To whom is he telling this story? Not to me – I can’t make head or tail of it. Would it be portentous – or merely vague – to suggest that it will only be intelligible to members of ‘the establishment’? I will concede to those who think I am being wrongheaded that ‘the other one’ refers to ‘the other BBC giant’ to whom Mr Whitley alluded in the preceding sentence. But who was he? Lord Reith perhaps? If so, why not mention his name? And how does the Archbishop of Canterbury come into it? Or did someone else live in Lambeth Palace? It could be said by those who are inclined to say that kind of thing that this is a vague and portentous mode of speech – and not uncharacteristic of the way members of the establishment talk to each other when they don’t want the rest of the world to know what’s going on. Or simply can’t be bothered to tell them.
SIR: The deficiencies to which David Katz refers in his review of Economic History of the Jews in England by Harold Pollins (LRB, 6 October) are not confined to the years before the 18th century but apply also to the 19th century. He seems to accept Pollins’s claim that Jews played no part in the developing British industries of that century. But in at least one of the industries he specifies, shipbuilding, I have personal knowledge that he is mistaken. My maternal grandfather, Alfred David Lewis, a practising Jew, had responsibilities for the building of the Manchester Ship Canal and for organising and acting as a judge of the Exhibition of Naval Models held by the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights; and in 1886 he was Master of that Company. Perhaps Anglicisation by some ancestor of the name Levy to Lewis has contributed to obfuscation.
Blood & Laughter, discussed on page two of the last issue, is published by Cape, not Thames and Hudson. We apologise for the error.
Editors, ‘London Review’