Floating Hair v. Blue Pencil

Frank Kermode

  • Revision and Romantic Authorship by Zachary Leader
    Oxford, 354 pp, £40.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 19 812264 0

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.

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