Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The 1850 Prelude and the Ethics of Editions

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The 1850 Prelude and the Ethics of Editions

Article excerpt

In the Penguin edition of The Prelude (1995), Jonathan Wordsworth called the 1850 first edition "a fact, of literary history" and proposed that after the steady editorial refinement of the poem in the 20th century, "the time may now be right for a return to the version originally printed" (lii). The comment is nostalgic, as if such a "return" is warranted, even necessary, before readers wholly lose touch with the "fact" of the 1850 first edition and the place it has in "literary history." After fifteen years, with debates about different versions mostly quiet and the standardization of certain 20th century editions seemingly settled, I believe it is time to make this "return." Specifically, I contend that a new scholarly edition of the 1850 Prelude without emendation and without parallels to earlier manuscript versions will successfully recover the text "originally printed" in 1850. The rationale for such an edition would be based on book history, treating the 1850 Prelude as a book and a text that served Victorian culture in discrete, material ways. As a thing done, as a truth known by observation and testimony, the 1850 Prelude is important because it is the first publication and because it reveals how Victorians circulated and disseminated the poem in forms such as Poetical Works editions, reviews, biographies, and critical assessments of Wordsworth. For example, in the Memoirs of William Wordsworth (1851), Christopher Wordsworth tries to create competent readers of Wordsworth's poetry by tying it to Wordsworth's life, using The Prelude more than any other poem for evidence and assuming that readers have the 1850 edition for reference. A new scholarly edition the 1850 Prelude would thus recover the "version originally printed" and the original socio-cultural context of reception--a part of 19th century literary history often marginalized and obscured. Moreover, a scholarly edition of the 1850 Prelude would illustrate how editions communicate meaning and the ethical responsibilities of editions in representing and constructing literary history.

For a scholarly edition of the 1850 Prelude to convey the meanings of its Victorian context, the reading text should take the form of what Greetham called a "diplomatic transcript": 'The diplomatic transcript ... dispenses with any attempt at ... scrupulous fidelity to appearance, and concentrates primarily on the textual content of the original, reproducing the exact spelling, punctuation, and capitalization (usually) of the diploma (the document), bur transcribing the text into a different type-face, with different lineation (except in verse, of course) and different type-sizes." (350) This edition, therefore, reproducing the 1850 text, would include errors, problematic readings, and typographical features such as capitalizations, the leading between lines and verse paragraphs, or the style of headers. This edition would add line numbers, which are not provided in the 1850 publication, and indicate the 1850 page numbers so that a reader could cite or even recreate the 1850 edition. Annotations would explain historical, geographical, and biographical references, and identify literary allusions and debts; however, they would also note errors and disputed passages in order to make readers aware of the questions and issues raised by 20th century editors. Appendices could then address a range of contextual materials and matters: parts of the poem published during Wordsworth's lifetime, such as "There Was a Boy" and "Vaudracour and Julia"; published references to The Prelude, before 1850, such as Coleridge's discussion in Table Talk (1) and his poem "To William Wordsworth"; excerpts from contemporary reviews and key Victorian-period comments on The, Prelude; from relevant letters of the Wordsworth circle about The Prelude; and, finally, from Christopher Wordsworth's Memoirs. Such an edition would aim to put readers in contact with The Prelude as it was read and experienced from 1850 into the early 20th century: The Prelude, that Susan Wolfson has acknowledged carries "historical validity as the form in which the poem was read in the nineteenth century" (113). …

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