Why edit socially?

Marilyn Butler

  • Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, Vol. VII edited by Jerome McGann
    Oxford, 445 pp, £52.50, March 1993, ISBN 0 19 812328 0
  • The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse edited by Jerome McGann
    Oxford, 832 pp, £25.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 19 214158 9

Jerome McGann’s seven-volume edition of Byron’s Poems has concluded with a magnificent index compiled by Carol Pearson. As columns to browse in, these are in the same league as the DNB or OED. Old Romantic hands might be tempted to look up ‘Rousseau’ or ‘Wordsworth’, but to test this edition with the name of another established writer would be to show you didn’t know what McGann stands for. Warm up, if you must, on ‘Great Britain’, ‘France’ and ‘Greece’. But a social edition, as McGann has described his project, offers immersion in Byron’s day-to-day living, opened up in Pearson’s adroit listings on animals, books, food, friends and, above all, women. At nearly four columns, the last is easily the longest entry:

women

   and age, VI, 400,401; of a certain age, IV, 136;

    V, 320,574; vs. youth, V, 439-40,742c

   and love, V, 71, 151, 593-4; first love of, V,

    161-2; vs. wine, V, 210-11. See also love

   and male world: as rulers of men, I, 194-5, 200;

    domain of, VI, 483, 721e; exclusion from choir in St. Peter’s, V, 705c; exclusion from Christian priesthood, VI, 662c; exclusion from heaven, I,144-5. See also women, British; women, Muslim

   and warfare, II, 29-30, 42, 189c, 189var/c; V,

    357-60; VI, 75, 84-5, 537, 564-7; their genital organs as cause of, V, 425-6 ...

   as whores, prostitutes, harlots, and courtesans,

    I, 284, 298, 436c; IV, 289; VI, 621c; Catherine the Great as, V, 327, 328; good intentions of, V, 372; in ancient Greece, I, 326, 450c; in Cadiz, V, 114; in London, V, 474, 493; in Venice, IV, 163, 541c; of Assyria, VI, 613c; of Bahylon, V, 445; of the historical Sardanapalus, VI, 624c; opera company members as, V, 230; Semiramis as, VI, 618c; wives as, V, 208

   educated and literary, IV, 153-4; V, 15, 510;

    VI, 298-9; and books, V, 613, 635; as dramatists, IV, 549c; as letter writers, V, 555; as students of science, mathematics and languages, V, 12-13, 89, 301; VI, 298-9; as writers and novelists, I, 253, 253var, 441c; IV, 151, 168; V, 152, 630, 634, 635, 691c. See also Baillie, Joanna; Blessington, Marguerite, Countess of; bluestockings; Dacre, Charlotte; Edgeworth, Maria; Hemans, Felicia Dorothea; Lamb, Lady Caroline; Lee, Harriet; Lee, Sophia; Radcliffe, Ann: Sévigné, Marie de; Seward, Anna; Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft; Staël-Holstein, Anne Louise Germaine, Baronne de

Worldly, informed and informal, the index is a fitting finale to an edition which extends the range of information scholarly editions usually provide. It responds not only to the cosmopolitan spread of Byron’s interests, personal, literary and political, but to the likely nature of modern readers’ need to know. Conventionally, a scholarly index represents a writer’s work in his vocabulary and supposed thought processes. This one comes on Byron in different worlds and different moods. One sub-heading, on ‘whores’, uncovers his flip pancy and misogyny; the next, on ‘educated and literary’ women, identifies a camaraderie not sexual yet demonstrably Byronic.

Why edit socially? Because the conventional alternative, directed at the mental life of the individual author, leaves out too much that matters in a text. Scholarly editions have long since become monumental not just in bulk and cost, but as a kind of mausoleum in print, proof that for great artists at least there is life after death. In some senses, though, editions have not grown larger-minded but more shortsighted and literal: their authority rests on their accuracy to the author’s own words and sometimes to idiosyncratic punctuation and spelling. Gradually, beginning in the 19th century but speeded up in out own time, a more and more intensive search has uncovered exactly what those words were from manuscript versions which typically survive for post-Enlightenment writers.

McGann has edited Byron’s poems from manuscript as well as published versions. But he has also used his edition as a platform from which to debate whether we are not now the prisoners of two exaggerated, even fictitious axioms – that there is somewhere a pure text, and that it is solely the author’s. The central strategy of McGann’s Byron is to shift attention from the poet to the poem. Each Byron poem or volume of poems is shown to have its own complex history, involving other people: an amanuensis (sometimes Mary Shelley), the publisher (Murray), his editor (Gifford), friends with or without authority to act for the poet, readers, shady piratical publishers and shadowy fakers, forgers and parodists. The ‘social’ emphasis brings out the process whereby a poem is shaped before and after publication by its milieu, and by what was already a well-organised modern commercial publishing trade. The act of publication is viewed as an event: its time and place will both have significance. As a product, the poem has a material form, or more likely a variety of forms: on the page of a newspaper or journal, as title poem or lesser poem in an expensive octavo volume, or as a booklet of dirty yellow paper offered for a shilling or two.

As a whole the McGann edition of Byron’s Poems is intended to be exemplary: it gives many instances of the way ‘extrinsic’ information and interventions by others have acquired the kind of textual significance once reserved for the poet’s reading, his statements of intent, or relevant poetic chippings from his block. Thus Volume VII characteristically includes a substantial section of poems attributed to Byron and now deemed either doubtful or inauthentic. It has a smaller section for poems Byron issued in different states, illustrating several of McGann’s favourite points: that date, format and literary context all influence our interpretations, and that it is possible for us to have two fully-authenticated versions of one poem.

One of this last group appeared earlier, in Volume V, as ‘The Witch’s Song’ in Manfred (1817). As the reviewer of Manfred in the Critical Review drily noted, the song was pretty well unintelligible when sung offstage by an unidentified voice in this mysterious witch-drama. But it had meant all too much when it had first appeared in 1816 as one of the minor poems accompanying The Prisoner of Chillon: the ‘fine incantation, published before ... was generally supposed to be a poetic imprecation against [Lady Byron]’. That year, it was natural to take the first-person speaker in a free-standing short poem for the poet, his addressee for the estranged wife whose complaints, increasingly scandalous, were filling the gossip columns:

By thy cold breast and serpent smile,
By thy unfathom’d gulfs of guile,
By that most seeming virtuous eye,
By thy shut soul’s hypocrisy;
By the perfection of thine own art,
Which pass’d for human thine own heart;
By thy delight in others’ pain,
And by thy brotherhood of Cain,
I call upon thee! and compel
Thyself to be thy proper hell!

McGann brings back another version that first readers readily knew of, and in doing so modifies our reading of what is by now the better-known text, Manfred. By pointedly drawing attention to the first published version he establishes another of his maxims: that different versions of a text, once known, must interact; reading one, we cannot forget the other.

No poet is so topical, so insistently referential, so conversational with his imagined readers, as Byron. No poet sold so many copies of volume after volume (peaking at more than a million for Don Juan, if we include the piratical editions from which Byron did not benefit). So it could be argued that Byron is a special case, who has got the editor other poets hardly need. This is certainly not McGann’s contention. Context matters, whatever the book. His edition, for instance, has throughout co-existed with the mammoth publishing enterprise of modern Romantic studies, the ongoing 50-volume Cornell Wordsworth, which is conceived on completely different principles.

Where McGann sees poems evolving in a complex indeterminate process, taking in the history of reception and reproduction down in the present day, the Cornell editors seek to isolate the solitary author’s own comments and compositional stages, and focus intently on words in their earliest manuscript state, pre-publication. In fact, the very fine band of scholars who since World War Two have worked on Wordsworth’s manuscripts on both sides of the Atlantic have transformed the poetic oeuvre that early 19th-century contemporaries knew. Wordsworth, sensitive to criticism of his ‘egotism’, withheld the greater part of his autobiographical poetry. Even his much-revised, importantly Victorian version of The Prelude appeared (in 14 books, 1850) only after the poet’s death. It is since the Second World War that the public, or particularly students, have learnt to venerate as the very greatest achievements of English Romanticism the 13-book Prelude of 1805 and the two-book version of 1799, along with an early version of an episode in The Excursion, ‘The Ruined Cottage’.

The symmetry McGann contrives between his Byron edition and the far bigger Wordsworth one is not accidental. He has initiated a debate of (thus far) civilised manners, but not always perfect clarity, on how we should research, present and teach historical materials. This has not been presented as an assault on other scholars, but as a call for the discussion of principles and standards. A misconception has got about just the same that McGann is assailing decent hardworking scholars going about their traditional business, in the name of an arbitrary, extremist theory. Yet the facts are that he has generally presented his case in the language and from the viewpoint of a historian, and with careful, detailed illustration. If he has a complaint, it is against a literary practice broken up into sub-practices (editing, biography, close reading, theory), none of them historical enough.

After accepting Oxford University Press’s invitation in the late Seventies to edit Byron’s poems, McGann prepared himself, with the old Germanic thoroughness for which his first university, Chicago, is famous, by reflecting on the history of editing from the Enlightenment to the present day. A critical monograph, The Romantic Ideology (1983), argues against an idealisation of the author he traces back to Hegel, and against a prevalent assumption that the ideas of Wordsworth’s colleague Coleridge can stand for English Romanticism at large. His manifesto as an editor, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (1983), analyses editing practice from the German Enlightenment to the present day, and notes that cultural context and history, hallmarks of the method developed by Eichhorn, Herder, Humboldt and Wolf, are much less respected now than then. From 1985 he issued a series of collections of his own articles, beginning with a particularly impressive group in The Beauty of Inflections. In these thirty or so articles, incorporating most of the best of his critical work, he re-reads poems by Keats, Blake, Coleridge, Christina Rossetti and other 19th-century writers, as both a critical interpreter and a cultural historian who pays unusually close attention to format and circumstance.

Working in the American academy, McGann responds to its changing sub-cultures: by 1990 his prose was harder to read, and may have become vaguer instead of merely seeming so. But in his central stand on history he has given little if any ground. He has little in common with the Califomian style of so-called New Historicism, with its reliance on over-general propositions attributed to Foucault, concerning the nature of power and culture’s relations with power. McGann’s manner has none of the sprezzatura of California’s Stephen Greenblatt, based on an entertaining gift for anecdote and ‘off-the-wall’ parallels from other places and times. Where the Californian school endow lectures with the multimedia pleasures of an evening with Tom Lehrer or Jools Holland, McGann’s style at the lectern as on the page gets nearer to George Eliot reading her works.

Yet the Foucauldian Californians are programmed pessimists, who find the individualism, colour and apparent subversions of art inevitably contained by a totalising system. McGann is on the contrary an optimist, through his respect for knowledge and for the historical understanding exemplified in much Romantic art as well as scholarship. Occasionally he has even hoped that current schisms and uncertainties can be resolved by Shelleyan acts of re-imagining what we do – such as his own. ‘This book’s ... ultimate hope, and expectation, is that the crisis in hermeneutics on the one hand and editorial method on the other will not fail to bring about their destined appointment.’

Though McGann uses literary examples, his methods and conclusions would probably seem familiar to some of the best younger historians of ideas or of science or of social history. Most disciplines now have groups keenly re-examining the history of knowledge within their own field, the conflicts, cross-pressures and accidents which have led to one version (or belief, theory, interpretation, way of doing things) being preferred to another. In this perspective, McGann, the critic’s critic, is by no means an isolated figure. Discrete exploratory work, often social-historical in orientation, sceptical of received value-judgments, above all ingenious, exact and localised in its attention to detail, and in particular social detail, has in the past two decades revived the notion, outside departments of history, that there is pleasure and profit in historical research.

On the face of it a more recent enterprise, The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse, offers a second opportunity for those who missed McGann in the Eighties to catch up with him. Already, however, the new volume has occasioned as much rancour as enlightenment. McGann himself could provide reasons for this: the format of the anthology has different histories and sends out different messages either side of the Atlantic. When I have discussed anthologies with American friends, they find Oxford Books bizarre, they do not quite say quaint. They are aimed at an extinct type, the general reader, when they should be textbooks meant for classroom use, and thus low on pleasure, high on instruction. Within Britain, on the other hand, Oxford Books have a proud history as selections of poetry for the educated non-specialist reader. Unlike the American Norton Anthology, they do not offer a magisterial version of the English ‘canon’, what ought to be studied and what may be left out, but a selection made by an established poet or critic guided primarily by personal taste and judgment. Eclecticism is encouraged: old favourites, significantly known as ‘anthology-pieces’, single gems by unknowns and by Anon, are supposed to rub shoulders with discoveries and with great poetry by major writers. The unexpected conjunctions that result evoke the most pleasurable of reading sensations, surprise.

On these matters McGann is an American anthologist, sceptical of the innocent naturalness of traditional British as well as academic American anthology-making. In the latest of his manifestos, an article called ‘Rethinking Romanticism’, he remarks that classic anthologists such as the Victorian Palgrave and the Modernist Yeats used the platform to make tendentious statements about poetic history and values. Yeats launched his selection of modern poetry in 1936 with a declaratory prose excerpt by Pater. Palgrave termed four successive ages of English poetry the ages of four great poets. Points with which the editor means to score can be made by the dates of beginning and ending, the first and last poems and the method of arrangement. Above all the conventional practice, in a volume purportedly chronological, of grouping together one writer’s contributions with the first, destroys the historical sequence and pulls the major writer’s later poems away from their literary milieu. Invited to ‘represent’ the poetry of the Romantic period, McGann feels free to open a discussion.

He imagines classroom readers, who may be beginners but even so will know the current ABC: an author-centred approach to texts and a Wordsworth-centred narrative of Romanticism. These supposed fundamentals, not the evaluation of individual poems nor the casual reader’s aesthetic pleasure, condition his selection, as both his article and the Introduction make clear. He warns us to expect changes from features we have become used to. Academics conventionally date Romanticism from 1798 (or perhaps 1789) to 1824 (or perhaps 1830). McGann has opaquely chosen to begin in 1785 and to end in 1832, for reasons unconnected with the Reform Bill; the small extensions give prominence to relatively little-known decades, those preceding 1798 and 1832. He rejects the practice of gathering a writer’s oeuvre together in favour of a chronological presentation of as it were ‘poems of the year’, rather in the manner of a journal’s end-of-year round-up. As a matter of policy he gives prominence to writers famous in their own day who have since dropped from sight. Finally, he observes his own axiom that poems are events in time, by omitting any that were not published but remained in manuscript through the Romantic period.

Admired Romantic poems which remained unpublished until after 1832 include Shelley’s Epipsychidion and The Mask of Anarchy, the best of Clare and almost all T.L. Beddoes. Some reviewers have complained of each of these losses: the relative under-representation of Wordsworth created by the publication rule has occasioned more general outrage. The Norton Anthology, edited for this period by the senior Wordsworthian, Cornell’s M.H. Abrams, centres on Wordsworth and particularly on his poetry of introspection or soul-making. McGann’s selection up-ends the Norton’s modern orthodoxy, by devoting 152 pages to Byron, only 87 to Wordsworth. McGann decorously expresses regret at the shearing of the old Samson, and leaves his readers to reflect on its logic: The Prelude, for two generations the poetic masterpiece of Romanticism and perhaps Modernism too, was neither an event nor a material artefact of the historical Romantic period.

All McGann’s choices in this volume are really propositions, and most could be expected to provoke. Take the seemingly whimsical starting-point in 1785 (the year following Johnson’s death?), and ask what was then making literary headlines. According to McGann, four poems practically no one has heard of: ‘The Hymn to Na’ra’yena’, by the Orientalist Sir William Jones; two poems by Robert Merry and William Parsons, members of the ‘Della Cruscan’ school of English expatriates in Florence; and ‘Soliloquy’ by Ann Yearsley, also known as the Bristol Milkwoman. It’s a micro-anthology of marginal materials by four newcomers (though Yearsley makes it into Roger Lonsdale’s innovative, egalitarian Oxford Book of 18th-Century Verse of 1984). There has not been a previous Oxford Book of Romanticism, but there was a textbook venture, the Oxford Anthology of the Romantic Period, edited by the Americans Bloom and Trilling in 1973. McGann could hardly dissociate himself more completely from that volume, which opens with 550 pages on the six canonical poets Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats, gives another 50 pages to 11 minor poets, and mentions no women poets at all.

The remaining years before the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 McGann finds chiefly remarkable for not giving advance warning of that (to us) momentous event. True, he gives a good account of two very individual poets, Burns and Blake. But those familiar with academic post-war criticism would know that the Wordsworthian concepts of Nature and Imagination have been held to define English-language Romanticism. Neither Burns nor Blake, here in their heyday, addresses either. As for the lesser figures, McGann represents a poetic scene riven between very different forces, Jones’s politically adroit promotion of an embryo Indian empire as the heartland of world religion, and Merry’s self-promotion as ‘della Crusca’, Hannah Cowley’s as ‘Anna Matilda’ – two strangers play-acting ‘romantic’ passion in a poetic correspondence published in the magazine The World.

Equally uncomfortably, McGann suffers the 1820s to drag on for eight years after the death of Byron in 1824. His explanatory article suggests why we normally avoid these years: because they saw the eclipse of a brilliant movement of demanding poetry before an advancing flood of sentimental magazines, edited and filled by women for women readers. McGann indeed represents the later 1820s by Felicia Hemans and Laetitia Elizabeth Landon, and describes the phase as Romanticism’s ‘commercialised nightmare’, but not, it seems, unhappily. Romanticism proper is for him the glittering, commercialised, non-natural side of the period’s literary production. His anthology dreams up a theatrical line of figures who appear and bow out: Merry, ‘Monk’ Lewis, the Gothic Coleridge, Charlotte Dacre, Byron, Keats, Hemans, Landon – and Tennyson, whose ‘Lady of Shalott’ and ‘The Palace of Art’ in 1832 round off a period.

In this country at least, anthologies tend to be reviewed rather crabbily. Critics in the weeklies and Sundays are as Oxonian as Oxford editors, and often more so. They concentrate on what is omitted, admittedly an easy target when you are not responsible, as the anthologist is, for the length and balance of the volume as a whole. I claim my right to cavils of this local kind. Why relatively little ‘philosophical’ and political poetry, satire, epigram, inscription, eclogue and, at the other end of the scale, verse drama? Should four or five over-long, repetitive German-style Gothic ballads have been allowed to displace the greater intensity of oriental Gothic? It isn’t hard to extract insidious horrors from Landor’s Gebir, Southey’s Thalaba and Kehama and Moore’s story of the ‘Veiled Prophet of Khorassan’ in Lalla Rookh. While some critics lament the supposed harshness of McGann’s approach, I mind more that as poems his idiosyncratic choices don’t bite hard enough.

Leaving aside the Oxford Book he didn’t compile, what will be the fate of the one he did? He would probably say its history belongs with the histories of its companions. His remark about different versions of a poem – that we can never read one without recalling the other – also works for anthologies. Christopher Ricks’s splendidly discriminating Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1987) looks different now, along with the textbooks by Abrams and Bloom that McGann has more obviously targeted: less natural, less historical, less comprehensive and less authoritative.