Hard Labour

Frank Kermode

  • The Poems of Andrew Marvell edited by Nigel Smith
    Longman, 468 pp, £50.00, January 2003, ISBN 0 582 07770 2

The task of keeping us interested in the canonical poets seems now to have fallen mainly to the Longman Annotated English Poets series. But who are we? Every time another volume is added somebody has to decide who we are, how many we are, and how much annotation and prefatory material we’ll want in addition to a reliable text. Given that nobody really knows the market for the canonical poets, or how many people are willing to work with a full-scale edition, these cannot be easy decisions. Perhaps it is in accordance with them that the quantity of annotation, even within this series, varies from one volume to another.

The books have changed their format over the years but continue not to resemble the old Oxford English Texts, which appeared in handsome editions, suitable for the libraries of scholars and gentlemen, and, later, in cheaper formats for the underprivileged. In the old days there were few if any notes in the Oxford volumes. All was left in the original spelling and there was an apparent assumption that anybody likely to read them would scorn assistance. Meanwhile students and ordinary folk used tersely annotated paperback editions.

The founding editor of the Longman series, F.W. Bateson, explained in a preface that he wanted as little as possible to come between the reader and the poetry, but, as the title of the series makes plain, this principle did not exclude notes. Bateson also decreed that the poems should appear in chronological order, a rule that produces difficulties for editors whose poets did a lot of revising, and which, as the latest general editors point out, would make little sense if the poet was George Herbert.

Long reprinted, Bateson’s preface has now disappeared to be replaced by another, this time by the succeeding general editors, John Barnard and Paul Hammond. They claim fidelity to Bateson except where he has come to seem fallible. For instance, he insisted on modernising spelling and punctuation; but why modernise Browning, and why meddle with Marvell’s punctuation, which is important to his rhetoric and contributes to his ambiguity? Most important still, Bateson hoped his editors could work on a received text, but now, editorial standards being higher, they feel obliged to return to the originals, no small matter when they have to deal with corrupt manuscripts and dodgy printing. And when that is sorted there remains the problem of commentary, vastly more ample than it used to be, almost a reversion to ancient editorial practices. And all along it must be presumed that some of the many readers who admire the poet will like to have him in this necessarily rather elephantine format.

The Longman series has a distinguished history stretching over nearly half a century. It includes Christopher Ricks’s exemplary Tennyson volume, later much enlarged to include variants from the Trinity MS, still under ban at the time of the first edition; the Milton volumes of Alastair Fowler and John Carey; and a good many others, including, more recently, multi-volume editions of Shelley, Browning and Dryden. The editors are expert and the poets are major poets, so that it seems surprising, but only at first glance, that these books are not published by a university press. It must “be thought a good thing that a commercial house continues to be willing to do the job, having presumably discovered that there are enough readers out there who want the kind of help and instruction these editions offer.

The addition of Andrew Marvell to the list is a tacit claim for his major status. T.S. Eliot, in one of his less impressive lectures, brooded over the difference between major and minor, deciding that minor poets are the ones we read only in anthologies. There are difficult cases like that of Herbert, whose work we may know from anthologies but who proves on inspection to have written other poems just as good that are not in anthologies, and which belong to a book best read as a whole. Only thus can one develop a sense not only of his skill but also of his context – for example, his place in the history of Anglican piety.

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