Snapshots in time: critical editions and changes in editorial practice

July 31, 2012

Authored by: Nicholas Halmi, University Lecturer in English Literature of the Romantic period, University College, Oxford

Critical editions are both contributions to scholarship and instances of the history of scholarship. Like the texts they present, editions are historical artefacts. They reflect not only the state of the knowledge and understanding of a given author or work at a given time, but also the assumptions and prejudices that condition editorial practice of that time.

The difference between the textual knowledge and the conditions that shape editorial practice is illustrated—to take an example from the OSEO tranche for which I am the advisory editor—by Helen Darbishire’s treatment of the text of The Ruined Cottage in the Oxford English Texts edition of William Wordsworth’s Poetical Works, edited by Darbishire and Ernest de Selincourt (1940–9). Her conflation of two different manuscript versions of the poem is indicative of her understanding of the relationship between those manuscripts, whereas her decision to print The Ruined Cottage (a poem that Wordsworth never published as such) as an appendix to The Excursion (the published poem into which a revised version of The Ruined Cottage was incorporated as book 1) is indicative of the then-prevailing view that editors should try to honour an author’s ‘final intentions’ as attested in the final authorised state of a text. Although, for Darbishire, The Ruined Cottage was sufficiently distinct from The Excursion to merit a separate presentation in an appendix, it could not be canonised as an independent poem because Wordsworth himself had never published it.

From the 1960s, however, critical attitudes towards the poet’s texts changed, and for aesthetic and ideological reasons early versions of poems, whether or not Wordsworth had published them, began to be privileged over later versions. Thus in the currently standard critical edition, the Cornell Wordsworth, The Ruined Cottage (in its multiple versions) appears in one volume and The Excursion in another, but it is much harder than in Darbishire’s edition to determine the relationship between the two.

Has the Cornell edition superseded its Oxford predecessor? There is no single answer to this question because the question involves two distinct issues, factual and theoretical. In terms of the factual information available to them and the accuracy of their transcriptions, the Cornell editors do have the advantage over Darbishire and de Selincourt. Similarly, if a new editor of Donne’s poems has access to a manuscript that was unknown to Helen Gardner, her or his manuscript census, being more complete, will supersede Gardner’s. But when the principles according to which a manuscript or printed text is edited differ between two editors, what is at issue is the competition of editorial theories. If one wants to read a poem by Wordsworth in the final version he published (in the 1849–50 edition of his Poetical Works), one is likelier to turn to the Oxford edition, in which the version is printed full measure, than the Cornell edition, in which it must be reconstructed from the apparatus criticus. And that in itself is good reason for making the Oxford edition available digitally, notwithstanding that most Wordsworth scholars now prefer to cite the Cornell edition.

But there is another reason. From an editor’s own point of view, of course, the principles she or he has adopted will seem superior to those rejected. But from a broader perspective, that of the history of scholarship, the very plurality of editorial theories is significant because it demonstrates that, whatever its claims to be a positivist discipline, textual editing has its own history, which is to say that it is subject to all manner of historical contingencies, including economic pressures, available technologies, and aesthetic and ideological preferences. Making older and newer editions simultaneously available on the OSEO site affords a uniquely rich view of changing practices in scholarly editions from the early twentieth century to the present, while being very much of its own time in its governing assumptions about the value and potentiality of digitalisation. The site is particularly useful in this respect to those who, as I do, teach textual studies and want to introduce their students to different models of scholarly editing. But it also serves more generally as a salutary reminder to editors and readers alike of the historicity of scholarly editions and hence provisionality of all ‘solutions’ to editorial problems.

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