"True Impossibility": Editing Byron

By Stabler, Jane | Wordsworth Circle, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

"True Impossibility": Editing Byron


Stabler, Jane, Wordsworth Circle


The title of my paper is a grateful salute to Jerome McGann and it refers to what he said about editing the Clarendon Byron: "having at last learned what scholarly editing entailed, I began to realize the true impossibility of the task I had [...] undertaken." (1) Earlier this year I signed the contract to edit a seven volume edition of Byron's poems for the Longman Annotated English Poets Series: the last volume is due to be submitted in 2037. The Longman edition is a standard reference work for all scholars because of the scholarly annotation. F.W. Bateson's principles of modernization mean that the texts are brilliant reading texts for students, but are not used for academic citation. My co-editors (Andrew Nicholson, Gavin Hopps and Peter Cochran) and I will be editing the texts afresh from manuscript to provide a consistently modernized version. We decided that the advantages afforded by the Longman annotations outweighed the disadvantages of producing a modernized text. In the Longman edition, editorial notes appear on the same page as the lines to which they refer, thus removing the main draw-back of the Clarendon edition which is the relative inaccessibility of the notes at the back of the volume and the limited space for annotation. The Longman will be a return to the more generous footnote tradition of the E.H. Coleridge edition when gentlemen editors worked in what one of James Joyce's Dub-liners calls "more spacious times."

The existing volumes in the Longman series set a high standard for the quality and extent of the literary annotation. In the Fowler Paradise Lost, the poem often dwindles to a ribbon of three or four lines at the top of the page while the rest of the page supplies Biblical, Homeric, Virgilian, Spenserian, collateral doctrinal and OED definitions that cluster around richly allusive phrases such as "loss of Eden." References to other works of literature are quoted in full from the original and in the case of non-English language texts are now supplemented with a translation so that readers can compare sources on the spot rather than being given a bald act, scene, line number. Biographical sources like letters and journal entries are quoted in full; newspaper and periodical articles can also be included. This is, therefore, a glorious opportunity but it also opens the question that I want to examine: how do we gauge, the correct level of editorial tact--to borrow Janet Todd's phrase for the challenges of annotating Jane Austen. I like the word "tact" because Byron identified it as one of the cardinal virtues: "A man (said he) may have prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude: yet wanting tact may, and must, render those around him uncomfortable (the English synonym for unhappy) [...] I consider tact the real panacea of life [...] To possess tact it is necessary to have a fine perception, and to be sensitive; for how can we know what will pain another without having some criterion in our own feelings, by which we can judge of this? Hence I maintain that our tact is always in proportion to our sensibility." (2) How can we be sure as editors that we are saying the right thing at the right time?

Editorial tact means being in touch with the feelings of both poet and readers--doing what Byron trusted his own editors to do with the text which is to transmit his meaning to the audience of the day and to ensure that all the readers in the room feel comfortable (the American synonym for happy). Byron's 19th century editors did this in slightly different ways as does the Clarendon Edition, which uses early printed editions authorized by Byron in Volumes I-V and then from the latter parts of Volume V and Volume VI onwards, reverts to the manuscript as copy text. This means that diverse systems of establishing substantive readings as well as various systems of accidentals operate across all seven volumes.

The aim of the Longman is to produce a consistently modernized text from the last manuscript of each poem - wherever possible, the corrected fair copy, including the verbal revisions that were made in proofs of and letters about the first edition.

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