Real Texts ver­sus the Duller Page

The London Magazine - - STEFAN HAWLIN -

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

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