Real Texts versus the Duller Page
Shakespeare’s Sonnets: An Original-Spelling Text, ed. Oxford University Press, 2016, 494pp, £19.99 (paperback)
John Donne, ed. 21st-century Oxford Authors series, Oxford University Press, 2016, 606pp, £95 (hardcover)
The first things we genuinely admire in poetry are not always the things we continue to admire. In my own case, at nineteen, it was this sumptuous passage from Tennyson’s ‘The Last Tournament’, as read out by an admired teacher:
And Arthur deigned not use of word or sword, But let the drunkard . . . Fall, as the crest of some slow-arching wave, Heard in dead night along that table-shore, Drops flat, and after the great waters break Whitening for half a league, and thin themselves, Far over sands marbled with moon and cloud, From less and less to nothing.
There is little here in the actual text to cause problems of appreciation. As we go back in history, however, texts become more problematic: sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century verse exists in a swirling world of manuscript copies of poems, pirated texts, the strain of slow, hand-worked presses (with different impressions of the same work), printings of poems after the poet’s death, printers’ and copyists’ corruptions, and so on.
Lyric poetry of that era is probably, along with Shakespeare’s plays, the core greatness of English literature, that which might confidently be held up to wider European standards of greatness. Yet at first many just don’t