Saturday, December 12, 2015

I tend to think of the academicizing of literature as a twentieth-century phenomenon (and one of its symptoms is using big ugly words such as academicizing). Of course, there have long been critics--Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, Matthew Arnold and Thomas Carlyle in the 19th--but apparently the Victorians also had a cluster of the sort of creative pedants who are familiar to any contemporary copyeditor of scholarly texts:
Mr. Curdle . . . had written a pamphlet of sixty-four pages, post octavo, on the character of the Nurse's husband in Romeo and Juliet, with an inquiry whether he really had been a "merry man" in his lifetime, or whether it was merely his widow's affectionate partiality that induced her so to report him. He had likewise proved, that by altering the received mode of punctuation, any one of Shakspeare's plays could be made quite different, and the sense completely changed; it is needless to say, therefore, that he was a great critic, and a very profound and most original thinker. (Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby)
Ah, if only this were a joke. Consider The New Poems of Emily Dickinson (1993), "edited" by William Shurr. According to the enthusiastic marketing blurb, "although many critics have commented on the poetic quality of Dickinson's letters, . . . Shurr is the first to draw fully developed poems from them. In this remarkable volume, he presents nearly 500 new poems that he and his associates excavated from her correspondence, thereby expanding the canon of Dickinson's known poems by almost one-third and making a remarkable addition to the study of American literature."

Dear academics and your long-suffering associates: After I die, please do not "excavate" my prose and repackage it as poetry. If I'd wanted to write poetry, I would have written poetry. Somehow I suspect Dickinson was also capable of making that decision.

* * *

But back to Dickens and Shakespeare and Mr. Curdle's punctuation plan. Here's a brief speech from Hamlet.
As thou art to thyself:
Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated;
So frown'd he once, when, in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.
'Tis strange.
The punctation is fairly unobtrusive; it's word choice that trumps all, along with that driving iambic-pentameter beat: "He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice." Already this is the best thing I've read all day.

Dickens's own work is filled with similar metrical power . . . so maybe it's really poetry . . . maybe we could turn it into what he really meant it to be . . . because surely we know better . . .


Carlene said...

Yikes. Revisionism.
Only, without vision.
Somehow, though, I wonder what is up with people who feel that they need to manipulate other people's work into something they want. Write your own, I'd say. Stop poking other people's intellectual children with your pointy pencils, I'd say. I suspect Dickens would be other than amused.

Dawn Potter said...

Mind you, I have no problem with the concept of found poetry. But this kind of "scholarship" makes me queasy.