Revision and Romantic Authorship 
by Zachary Leader.
Oxford, 354 pp., £40, March 1996, 0 19 812264 0
Show More
Show More

The time is almost past when writers copiously provided the curious, concerned as much with process as with product, with drafts showing corrections by one or more hands and interestingly rejected alternative readings. Poems are still drafted, of course, and corrections are made, but they won’t show up in computer files, where all traces of a poem’s trajectory from conception to birth can be, and usually are, erased. Research into the ways in which authors revise their work, or allow others to do so, will usually have to be content with material written during the epochs of pen and typewriter. All is not quite lost, for there will remain variations in different printed texts, early versions in periodicals; but there will be less to work on, and this book is evidence that we’ll be a little the poorer for it.

W.H. Auden became convinced that in some of his prewar poetry he had been telling lies or advocating causes in which he no longer believed. Indeed he had come to think that it had been wicked to write in support of such causes. Poetry itself was suspect: ‘Nothing is lovely, / Not even in poetry, which is not the case,’ he decided, and it is difficult for poetry to be nothing but the case. Auden altered some poems in an attempt to bring them closer to being so; others he eliminated from his canon as beyond repair. Some of his alterations were so perverse that it sometimes seemed he was now simply missing the point of the original, as when he took the celebrated line ‘We must love one another or die’ to be a mistake, and preferred ‘We must love one another and die.’ Later he struck down the whole poem, as he did others, among them, it is still possible to argue, the finest of their period.

Auden’s scrupulous editor and executor, Edward Mendelson, has invariably respected and supported the poet’s decisions, but manages to have it both ways by including in a separate volume, The English Auden, the original versions of poems that were later either revised or rejected. This expensive option is not available to all editors. Yeats, though not in the same way anxious about having said what might be thought not the case, was another reviser, sometimes drastically altering early poems. His editors, Allt and Alspach, dealt with the problem by producing a large so-called ‘variorum’ edition, recording all printed versions but giving precedence to the last:

The brawling of the sparrows in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky.
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry

and relegating to the footnotes the original:

The quarrel of the sparrows in the eaves,
The full round moon and the star-laden sky,
And the loud song of ever-singing leaves
Had hid away earth’s old and weary cry.

In hectic later years Yeats disowned the weariness of his twenties but still thought of this poem, revised and updated, as a necessary constituent of his oeuvre. He admitted that it belonged to a group of poems so much altered as to become ‘altogether new poems. Whatever changes I have made are but an attempt to express better what I thought and felt when I was a very young man.’ Some thought this mere falsification, but he answered them thus:

The friends that have it I do wrong
Whenever I remake a song,
Should know what issue is at stake:
It is myself that I remake.

These lines were written in 1908, but the idea persisted that in his revisions he was remaking himself as well as the poems: thirty years later, near death, he prays, ‘Grant me an old man’s frenzy, / Myself I must remake.’

It is this doubleness – the desire to keep what belonged to an earlier phase of existence yet change it to make it comply with a different self-image – that makes it difficult to decide what to do with Wordsworth, another keen reviser, and a more difficult case than Yeats. The Prelude, for instance, remained in manuscript, indeed in a good many variant manuscripts, until after his death. This multiplicity creates all sorts of problems, and they are among the issues meditated in Zachary Leader’s carefully written book.

He has two objectives. At a rather abstract level he wants to know what notions of identity underlie the assumption that a poet in his twenties could be identical with the poet who, in his seventies, was still tinkering with his early writings, as if they were essential to the expression of the singleness of a life or a life-work, rather than leaving them alone as virtually the work of a different person, or at any rate of a person in no need of being assimilated to a later one. Secondly he proposes to examine what actually happened in the process of certain revisions in the poetry of Wordsworth and Byron, the Shelleys, Clare and Keats. In this second part of his work he has to take into account the fact, of special interest to some modern bibliographers, that other hands than the writer’s have often played a considerable part in the revisions.

Leader starts from the position that a preference for earlier, if possible the earliest, versions is evidence of what he thinks of as a (false) Romantic notion: that closeness to the original moment of inspiration is the best determinant of the right text. This opinion unconsciously echoes Shelley’s famous notion that ‘the mind in creation is as a fading coal ... When composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline’ – whence it follows that all the ‘labour and study’ later bestowed on a poem merely take one further away from that precious but already fading original inspiration.

In contesting this view of the matter, Leader aligns himself with the modern critical school associated with the name of Jerome McGann and with his attack on what he calls ‘the Romantic ideology’, a disease of the original Romantics from which all criticism of them continues to suffer, or anyway did until McGann and his friends administered a purgative cure. Much of what they say I myself think erroneous, but Leader is not interested, here at any rate, in their new-historical bullying; his point is simply that there is something false in the cult of the original unrevised version.

He takes issue with Stephen Gill, whose Oxford Authors edition of Wordsworth prints the poems ‘in texts in which their original identity is restored’. Thus all the ‘secondary’ work that resulted in the final authorised text, the six-volume Poems of 1849-50, published at the very end of the poet’s life, is ignored. Yet Wordsworth always assumed that he remained the same person, the same poet, and that he could, without offence to the poetry, change it in accord with his maturing idea of it. Gill’s defence is that to give the preference to later, much-changed versions creates a false idea of what the poetry looked or felt like to Wordsworth’s immediate contemporaries when it first appeared, and obscures our view of his development. Leader has no difficulty pointing out confusions in Gill’s practice, but his main objection is that there is no good reason to believe the revised versions to be less worthy than the original effusions. He allows that Wordsworth himself caused some of the confusion, because although he manifestly believed in revising he did talk about the value of the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. But he evidently took the un-Shelleyan view that there was a secondary phase of creation as important as the first, which Leader also believes.

The truth is presumably that there are two extreme positions, one emphasising the labour of the file, the other the valuable initial glow of creation. Between the two most writers oscillate; some may incline more towards the Shelleyan idea, others more to Horace’s labor limae. But most know that both the delight of the donnée and the less joyous pleasures of revision actually work together. Valéry thought poorly of the initial flourish, what you were given, for which you deserve no more credit than the Pythian oracle did for relaying the divine message; the real work of the poet comes later. And few poems reach print unrevised, though some are more spontaneous than others. It is curious that Wallace Stevens, who rarely suggests the poetry of flashing eye and floating hair, was in fact a very spontaneous writer and did very little revision, as if, for him, the primary and secondary processes were virtually one and the same. Wordsworth, on the other hand, revised obsessively, and his revisions reflected his changes of opinion, especially political opinion, over a very long period. Technical matters of bibliography aside, some readers will prefer the early, some (probably rather fewer, in Wordsworth’s case) the late. And there are all those other intermediate versions, which may one day be represented by hypertext, the reader at his console picking and choosing among all the variants. Leader argues, reasonably, that these plural texts are not likely to be of much use to people who simply want to read Wordsworth and leave it to the experts to give them a text.

Leader maintains that Wordsworth in his revisions has ‘an underlying coherence of purpose’, and indeed this is what the poet himself affirmed. He accepted that youthful enthusiasm naturally gives way to mature reflection, and saw no reason to be ashamed that he had turned against ‘France, and her Rulers, when they abandoned the struggle for Liberty, gave themselves up to tyranny, and endeavoured to enslave the world.’ This change of attitude is reflected in the revision of The Prelude. Whether you prefer the early versions or the later depends partly on whether you want to see the poet’s years ‘bound each to each’, as he did, or prefer the younger Wordsworth before ‘mature reflection’ disappointingly altered his character and dimmed his youthful fire. Leader has very carefully considered the whole question; he won’t always win agreement but what he says demands a comparably scrupulous attention.

Byron provides a contrast. He did very little revision, being preternaturally fluent, lazy and aristocratically hostile to the bourgeois glamorising of integral selfhood, the Romantic cult of organic wholeness, and pretentious claims for the sedentary trade of writing (‘who would write who had anything better to do?’). This was the ‘affected coolness’ of which Keats complained. Byron took care to read proof, but did little by way of correction before that stage. He allowed Mary Shelley to make prudential changes in his manuscripts, and left the rest in the hands of the publisher Murray and his advisers: ‘Ask Mr Gifford and Mr Hobhouse, and, as they think, so let it be.’ To some extent this kind of interference, sanctioned as it was, justifies talk about replacing the author with Foucault’s ‘author-function’, a term designed to account for the part played by friends, advisers, proof correctors, publishers and so on. But I don’t see this catching on with the laity, or any who persist naively in imagining that in all great works of art they can perceive what Wallace Stevens called a presiding personality.

Coleridge heavily revised The Ancient Mariner; should we be offered everything, hyper-textually, or let editors choose a version? Do you find the later version ‘richer, more complex’, like Jack Stillinger and Zachary Leader; or decide, with William Empson, that it has been mangled ‘for reasons of conscience’? It is not easy to make out what Coleridge thought about the unity of the self, but surely having a sense of it is consistent with occasional changes of mind. His practice suggests that he at least thought of the body of his poetry as capable of achieving integration. In practice some of the changes he made seem to be the result of political prudence, some smack of prudery; it would be hard to say which version of the poem would contribute more to the achievement of those Romantic ambitions, the integral life, the organic whole. The story of the person from Porlock, who caused Coleridge to break off ‘Kubla Khan’ and so forfeit his primary inspiration, obviously illustrates another Romantic illusion, the fading-coal theory. Coleridge’s texts, unlike Byron’s, are highly unstable; editors have not yet solved all the problems and, short of hypertext, perhaps never can.

The textual history of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is typically complex but in detail unusual. Shelley made many changes in Mary Shelley’s original manuscript and the proofs, changes that seem by no means always to be improvements. It would not have been easy for the youthful author to resist these corrections even if she’d wanted to: Shelley was older, more eminent, and also a man, whereas she was merely an inexperienced young female, self-described as ‘a silly goose’. But Leader convincingly criticises the strong feminist version of this relationship, arguing that the novel actually contests the Romantic ‘Promethean’ view of the author, an attitude she understood very well because she lived with Shelley. After his death she in her turn had some power over her husband’s poems. In such cases writing does in a sense become a ‘genuinely social activity’.

John Clare’s dealings with his publisher Taylor provide a variation on this theme. Clare’s peculiar circumstances resulted in revisions that were necessarily ‘social’, but modern editors have a persistent tendency to revert to the earliest unsocial text, which they regard as more ‘authentic’. Leader wants to know: ‘what is the nature of the evidence that Clare would have preferred manuscript versions of his early poems – unpunctuated, misspelled, ungrammatical, metrically defective, irregularly rhymed, poorly structured, repetitive’ – to the versions printed by Taylor? Until he went mad Clare expected and wanted his poems to be revised, and Taylor, though sometimes cast as the interfering bourgeois publisher, was actually never too keen on the job. On Leader’s view critics who ignore these facts are still under the Romantic illusion that the poet is a solitary genius, still unreasonably favouring primary over secondary process, still unwilling to take into account the ‘social’ aspects of that process.

Taylor, here defended against these primitivist ‘victims of the Romantic ideology’, was the publisher who took on Keats when his first publisher dropped him, and Keats also underwent revision at Taylor’s hands and those of his advisers, Reynolds and Woodhouse. Keats was not himself a great reviser, but on the whole approved the alterations they made, often with a view to getting him a less critical hearing and to nullifying his dangerous association with Leigh Hunt, poetaster and Cockney radical. Keats even apologised for giving Taylor so much bother: ‘I did very wrong to leave you all the trouble of Endymion.’ Of course that poem still got a critical drubbing, and the revision of Keats’s next book in 1820 was in large part devoted to the elimination of Endymion-like gushings and lusciousnesses. Once again other hands than the poet’s intervened between manuscript and print. Keats had to be helped to be ‘manly’. He responded to this advice, and to the changes proposed, with some enthusiasm, while professing to despise the audience these changes were meant to placate. Thus, to use a word that interested him, he acquired, under social pressure, a revised identity as well as a revised text and a new respect for the ‘secondary’ creativity of revision.

Leader develops these points in great detail, with many long footnotes – happily, for once, at the foot of the page. His arguments have implications that go beyond the Romantic authors he concerns himself with. Conventions of self-understanding change; if we are to believe Charles Taylor’s argument in Sources of the Self the change speeded up remarkably during the Romantic period. Of course it is rare (though not unknown) for a poet to abandon his or her youthful work entirely; it may be thought of as juvenilia, failing to meet the standards of the mature writer: still, though only faintly, relevant, still not quite dispensable. It may find a place in an appendix. And we are all so infected by the Romantic ideology that we have what seems a fairly clear, though some would say a hallucinated view of the wholeness as well as the inspiration of Yeats, of Wordsworth, of Keats, author-functions though they may be; just as we have a view of our own selves as forming a continuum, from youthful immaturity to ancient resignation. Others took a hand in that process, but we think we know we somehow made and remade ourselves.

Is this a Romantic fallacy? If so it was shared by many writers before Romanticism came in (Pope, for instance, carefully recovering and rewriting his correspondence) and by many lesser souls, all of whom unsophisticatedly see themselves as single persons. Some of them even live with the rather awful idea that at some future moment they will be asked to account for what they made of the selves they started with. Shakespeare wrote, of a unique occasion, the union of the Phoenix and the Turtle, that Property (the personified idea of what is proper to a person, what makes it distinct and individual) was appalled to discover that the self was not the same. We also feel that such a metaphysical discovery would be pretty appalling, that generally the self is the same, yet malleable, revisable, remakeable – sometimes, perhaps even always, with social assistance.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences