Saturday, August 3, 2013

In his comment on yesterday's post, David brings up an important point about the punctuation choices that appear in published versions of Donne's poetry. Here's what Charles M. Coffin, editor of The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne (Modern Library, 1952) has to say about the matter:
Donne's place in the twentieth century owes a great deal to the careful work of his editors. The establishment of a good text, of the poems especially, has been difficult, not only because Donne is not an easy poet, but also because of the considerable variation among the numerous manuscript copies and among the early printed editions. Except for the 1611 edition of the First Anniversary, which Donne probably saw through the press, he had no hand in the publication of any of his poems: they circulated in manuscript, subject to the vicissitudes which are inevitable to frequent transcription, and there was no collected edition until after his death. Professor Grierson was the first to surmount most of the difficulties presented by this situation, and his edition (1912) has become the foundation for all subsequent editorial work.
I ran into an even worse situation when I was trying to write about Milton's Paradise Lost. Not only does PL have the usual manuscript issues, but Milton didn't even do his own original writing. Can we trust the accuracy of an exasperated daughter who is boringly forced to transcribe her crabby father's oratory? Probably not.

I am unable to tell you exactly which difficulties Professor Grierson managed to surmount, though I daresay his wife simultaneously coped with decades of irascible muttering. Nonetheless, here we are, all these hundreds of years later, faced with a poem on a page. In a certain way, we have to "suspend our disbelief," as Coleridge said in an entirely different literary context. The Donne on the page of my book is not an exact replica of the Donne who sneezed onto his sermon in the autumn of 1611. But he's as close as I am able to get. Someone, at some point, thought there should be a comma at the end of "But not of such as pleases when 'tis read,"--and was it the sneezing Donne? Was it Donne's semi-educated curate? Was it the admiring Catholic lady who lived down the street? Was it a dogsbody clerk who was suffering from the first symptoms of plague? Was it Professor Grierson's ironic teenage daughter, who one night sneaked into his study and made a little change that no one ever noticed but me?


David X. Novak said...

I tried in vain to find the source of my original recollection. Sometimes "as close as we can get" is as close as we can get. I've heard Shakespeare is particularly problematic, and that age seems especially volatile whereas some of the ancients probably have a more stable text.

The older I get, the more I feel: we're lucky we have anything at all.

But I resent how hard it has become for a common person to get their hands on the latest scholarship. The public library won't have it (here in Chicago, at least) and it seems a paperback one or two years old will list for $100 or so online, as I found when I was trying to research Marlowe not long ago.

David X. Novak said...

There is a positive side (alas) to not being widely read. There in my Complete Penguin (edited by A.J. Smith) was the passage that I remembered reading, if not as histrionic as in my memory. In a note to "A Letter to the Lady Carey, and Mistress Rich," which was, at least in 1980 (probably about the time I read it) the only copy of a poem by Donne that we possessed in his hand.

I will post the relevant part of the editor's note below:

David X. Novak said...

The real value of our possessing Donne’s autograph text of the poem is that we can now see in this one instance exactly how Donne set out his verse, and what relation his own copy bears to MSS and early editions we have. Neither the 1633 edition nor any of the early MSS give the poem just as Donne wrote it. His text challenges our accepted grouping of the earlier versions, for they all have a seemingly unpredictable scatter of incorrect and correct readings. The verbal differences between the original copy and the version of 1633 are slight, as the notes below show. Moreover 1633, with all the other versions, gives the correct final reading of line 41, which Donne evidently changed from his early draft as he was writing out the copy to be sent, for he has first written ‘Which is but little’ then crossed out ‘but little’ and put ‘scarce’ above it.

But the striking difference between Donne’s copy and any other version is in the punctuation. Donne pointed the poem far more meticulously and subtly than his scribes and editors convey, so as to control its movement and intonation. Thus in 1633 the first line reads ‘Here where by All All Saints invoked are,’ where Donne actually wrote ‘Here, where by all, all Saints invoked are,’. Again, 1633 gives the second stanza as follows:

Yet turning to saints, should my humility
To other Saint than you directed be,
That were to make my schism heresy.

Donne’s own pointing is incomparably sharper:

Yet, turning to saints, should my humility
To other Saint, than you, directed be,
That were to make my schism heresy.

Pause and elision, so delicately placed, become part of the dramatic syntax of the poem, sensitively articulating the argument for the speaking voice. Donne seems to have sought his own way, too, of conveying the sense of the onward sweep of the argument in a tight dialectical progression; for he sets out the poem in stanzas which are marked off by oblique strokes in the margin rather than by a wide gap between them.

David X. Novak said...

The letter's discovery was announced in 1970, but I don't know if there's been any more to the story.

David X. Novak said...

Except my typing of Donne's "sharper" version of the quoted stanza contains typos: as he wrote it, "Saints" should be capitalized but "saint" should not.

Dawn Potter said...

This is an outstanding discovery, David. Oh, those commas! I can't stop looking at them.