This Newsletter was published on Wednesday 30 December 2009

To Modernize or Not to Modernize: Is It a Question?

by Joan Faust (Southeastern Lousiana State University)

In 1927, when H. M. Margoliouth published the two-volume Oxford English Texts Poems and Letters, the first-ever extensively annotated edition of Marvell’s complete works, Marvellians around the world breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, as Margoliouth assured in the “Preface to First Edition,” a “trustworthy text of Marvell’s verse and a complete commentary” that scholars the world over could consult and quote with confidence (I.vi). Margoliouth faithfully followed the text of the original printed editions except for most of the satires, for which he felt obligated to follow manuscript versions, “convinced . . . that they provide a text which is much more accurate than that of Poems on Affairs of State” (Margoliouth I. vi). Admitting his commentary was not as “complete” as he desired, Margoliouth nonetheless offered his annotations with the acknowledgement that he may have “raised rather than solved” some questions of authenticity (I.vi).

And some early reviewers agreed with Margoliouth’s admissions of inadequacy. F. E. Hutchinson expressed his regret that Margoliouth was forced to use the printed text of 1681 for the poems, a text that he deems “specially corrupt” for some poems, and that Margoliouth accepted this edition’s original punctuation for the most part, admitting, “[A] little freer use of emendation would have been a help to the reader” (Hutchinson 111). J. H. Lobban felt the need to recognize previous editors of Marvell’s works, including Campbell, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and Lamb (curiously omitting Grosart’s fourvolume 1872 edition), in an attempt to question Margoliouth’s claim that his edition was a result of a new admiration for Marvell’s poetry and prose (Lobban 486). Acknowledging Margoliouth’s “painstaking accuracy” as the “most valuable feature of both volumes,” Lobban judges the editor’s annotations as less than adequate: “To a singular degree he seems to be paralyzed by the effects of his own self-denying ordinance to refrain from anything approaching literary criticism,” offering little more than “a brief biographical or textual note” to interpretive cruxes in the poems (Lobban 487).

Certainly not all of Margoliouth’s reviewers have focused on deficiencies, and several have great praise for his edition, including E. R. Adair: “Mr. Margoliouth has undoubtedly produced a definitive edition of Marvell’s letters and poems, and is to be congratulated on a very admirable and scholarly piece of work” (490). For the most part, since 1927, Marvell scholars have utilized Margoliouth’s text as the definitive source for citations from the poems. Many would agree with the blurb on the dust cover of my own copy of the 1951 Second Edition: “It is a model of its kind . . . unlikely to be superseded” (Observer n.p.).

Unlikely, that is, until the appearance of Nigel Smith’s 2003 opus, The Poems of Andrew Marvell published by Longman Pearson, revised in paperback in 2007. Smith’s rationale in producing the edition, best explained by former Longman editor F. W. Bateson, is to “provide university students and teachers, and the general reader, with complete and fully annotated editions of the major English Poets.” The concern of the Longman Annotated English Poets series, then, is “primarily with the meaning of the extant texts in their various contexts” (Bateson, qtd. Barnard and Hammond xi). Like Margoliouth’s edition, Smith’s volume has elicited diverse reviews. Warren Chernaik extols Smith’s work as “a cornucopia of learning, an extraordinary achievement for a single scholar, fully deserving the general editors’ description as ‘a unique resource for the student of Marvell’s work and its age'” (Chernaik 782): “It is far superior to all previous editions of Marvell in several respects: its annotation of linguistic detail, the puns and verbal ambiguities so abundant in Marvell; its notes identifying possible sources and analogues, classical and biblical; its citation of parallel passages from the poet’s contemporaries; and its consistent attempts to situate Marvell’s writings in their historical context” (Chernaik 782). Derek Hirst, on the other hand, warns “readers seeking to understand Marvell through his writings” that they may be “disappointed” in Smith’s edition, faulting Smith for detailing the critical interpretations of others while withholding his own (699). Agreeing with Chernaik in the value of Smith’s “copious annotation and valuable introductory remarks about dating, . . . context, and genre” for each poem, Hirst qualifies his endorsement: “There is much here to ponder, but perhaps too much” (Hirst 699).

Though few others could fault Smith with providing “too much” valuable annotation to the poems, Smith’s version of the texts can prompt disagreement. Current General Editors of the Longman Annotated English Poets John Barnard and Paul Hammond offer two “main principles of the series”: the poems should be printed, as well as can be determined, in the order in which they were composed, and “the text should be modernized” (Barnard and Hammond xi).

There’s the rub. Though Barnard and Hammond insist that the modernization is intended to reach “a balance between the sensitivity to the text in question and attention to the needs of a modern reader” and acknowledge that any change in punctuation was carefully analyzed, since “to impose modern pointing on the ambiguities of Marvell would create a misleading clarity” (ix), some modern Marvell scholars feel the need for soul-searching in the choice of a set text.

Smith defends his editorial choices in the “Introduction” of his Revised Edition of 2007. Using the 1681 Miscellaneous Poems as his primary resource, Smith chose to modernize spelling but to retain, for the most part, the original punctuation, explaining, “Very few points of interpretation, in Marvell’s verse, turn on old spellings: where they do, the original spelling is retained and explained in the annotations” (xiv). Acknowledging that “[t]he fashion for intense capitalization of the names of ideas, over and above personification, had not yet arrived in Marvell’s time,” Smith retains any erratic and inconsistent capitalization only if it was intended “for proper names and clear instances of personification” (xiv-xv). He also removes the original italics from the 1681 text and replaces missing syllables with apostrophes. Disagreeing with other editors like Donno, Ormerod, and Wortham, Smith refused to impose “modern preference” for commas and instead accepts the “rhetorically punctuated” aspects of the 1681 volume.

A survey of available articles, books, and dissertations on Marvell’s poems listed in the MLA Bibliography from 2003-2009, the years in which Smith’s edition has been available to scholars, reveals a divided choice of editions used. Of the thirty-two works consulted, fourteen utilized the Margoliouth edition for quotations, while fifteen quoted Smith’s edition. Others used George de F. Lord’s 1984 The Complete Poems and Kermode’s 1967 Selected Poetry, while one article compared spellings and so consulted several editions. Perhaps most evident of the divided opinion of text choices, the latest issue of Explorations in Renaissance Culture, a special issue on “The Social Character of Andrew Marvell’s Imagination,” features seven articles, three using Margoliouth’s edition and four using Smith’s (McDowell, ed.). One would imagine that if the journal were able to include one more article, the choice might be an even split.

In hopes of reaching some type of conclusion as to which edition is deemed preferable by present and future Marvell scholars, I sent email surveys to all listed members of the Andrew Marvell Society, requesting their choice of text and their reasons, assuring them they could remain anonymous if they wished. Responses arrived from areas as close to home as a neighboring Louisiana city and as distant as the UK, France, Turkey, and India. Four responses were firmly for Smith’s modernized edition of the poems, four strongly in favor of Margoliouth’s, and six admitting they are indebted to both, agreeing each edition proved essential. Those choosing to use Margoliouth do so primarily because of their preference for original spellings, though only two elaborated on that point. Suresh Frederick from Bishop Heber College in India offers three reasons for his choice of the 1681 spellings: students become familiar with early modern language, they “involve themelves more” in the meaning of these unfamiliar words, and the original spelling often opens avenues of interpretation (Frederick). Jean-Pierre Mouchon (Professor Emeritus, Marseilles, France) explains that the early spelling “allows the scholar to study the evolution of spelling and explain the oddities of Marvell’s language.”

Oddities and ambiguities, one might add. Some base their interpretations of Marvell’s poems on the uncertainty of meaning of words encouraged by the 1681 spelling. In “On a Drop of Dew,” in the original line 23, the spelling of “sweat” in “Shuns the sweat leaves” adds the image of drops of perspiration on the leaves mirroring the dewdrop, a possibility shattered with the updated “sweet leaves” in Smith. “Pan’s Quire” in line 30 of “Chlorinda and Damon” loses its possible meaning of a small book or pamphlet when modernized to “Pan’s choir.” The Nymph’s pet in “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn” has less a connection with mythological lustfulness than Margoliouth’s “Faun.” We can no longer question whether the Unfortunate Lover “speaks” or “assays” when “saies” in line 55 is modernized: “And all he says, a lover dressed / In his own blood does relish best” (55-56). And of course there is the quagmire of “To His Coy Mistress”: Margoliouth’s “youthful hew” to Smith’s “youthful glew” (line 33), “dew” to “glew” (34), and the crux of line 44, “the iron gates of life.” Though both editors agree on the spelling of “gates,” Smith provides almost a half page of notes detailing the opposing preference of “grates” (Smith 84, n. 44).

Even with an acknowledgment of advantages of Margoliouth’s 1681 spelling and punctuation, however, almost all email respondents saw Smith’s edition as a valuable tool. Jean-Pierre Mouchon offered the main argument of those supporting Smith: “From a practical point of view, students and the general public who are not disposed to strain themselves, certainly prefer a modernized text which turns out to be readable.” Christopher Baker concurs: “By way of comparison, practically all Shakespeare scholars have no hesitation in using modern spelling rather than, say, the Folio spelling, and I see no reason not to employ such a practice in Marvell studies . . . provided [the edition] offers a solid textual apparatus.”

Those admiring and using both editions offer the obvious compromise that Smith is the clear choice for teaching and for annotation, while Margoliouth’s text is useful for scholarly reference. A respondent from the UK finds Smith’s edition “invaluable in every way and would not be without it,” though when reading for her own pleasure, she prefers Margoliouth’s original spelling. Another anonymous respondent strongly recommends Smith’s edition for undergraduates: “It’s hard enough to get them to understand the poetry with[out] asking them to stumble around over archaic spelling.” The respondent adds, however, that, “since Marvell did not see his poems through the press, the spellings are at the discretion of the printer,” an often haphazard decision, “[s]o we should always remember that in commenting on original spellings, we are probably commenting on a printer and not on Marvell.”

Nigel Smith himself responded to the survey, reiterating Longman editors Barnard and Hammond’s explanation of the policy of the Longman Annotated English Poets Series–to “modernize spelling and retain original punctuation” (Smith, “Re: Marvell ‘survey'”). Much of his meticulous annotation serves to “explain puns and other meanings that were lost in modernization” so that, though the text may look modernized, the history of the original spelling is not lost. Smith explains that the edition “was designed for advanced students (undergraduate and graduate)–helping them comprehend quickly was the goal” (Smith, Re: “Marvell ‘survey'”). Since most of the respondents of the edition survey who approved of Smith’s edition did so because of its helpfulness in the classroom, Smith’s goal has obviously been reached.

Apparently, a definitive answer to the question of the “best” edition of Marvell’s complete poems is not given here, but I hope this sharing of opinions of colleagues of the past and present might help us to make a personal choice, or, perhaps preferably, to utilize the excellencies of both. As Margaret Tarratt from the UK concluded in her response, “I strongly believe there is a place for both in appreciating Marvell’s genius.”

Joan Faust

Works cited

  • Adair, E. R. “Review.” The English Historical Review 45.179 (July 1930): 490-91. JSTOR. Web. 1 October 2009.
  • Baker, Christopher. “Re: Marvell ‘survey.'” Message to Joan Faust. 11 August 2009. E-mail.
  • Barnard, John and Paul Hammond. “Note by the General Editors.” Smith, ed. xi.
  • Chernaik, Warren. “Review.” The Modern Language Review. 100.3 (July 2005): 282-83. JSTOR. Web. 1 October 2009.
  • Frederick, Suresh. “Re: Marvell ‘survey.'” Message to Joan Faust. 12 August 2009. E-mail.
  • Hirst, Derek. “Review.” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies. 36.4 (Winter 2004): 697-700. JSTOR. Web. 1 October 2009.
  • Hutchinson, F. E. “Review.” The Review of English Studies 5.17 (January 1929): 110-112. JSTOR. Web. 1 October 2009.
  • Lobban, J. H. “Review.” Modern Language Review 23.4 (October 1928): 486-89. JSTOR. Web. 1 October 2009.
  • McDowell, Sean H., ed. Explorations in Renaissance Culture 35.1 (Summer 2009). Print.
  • Margoliouth, H. M., ed. The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell. 2nd ed. Vol. 1: Poems. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1952. Print.
  • Mouchon, Jean-Pierre. “Re: Marvell ‘survey.'” Message to Joan Faust. 17 August 2009. E-mail.
  • Smith, Nigel. “Introduction.” Smith, ed. xii-xvii.
  • —. “Re: Marvell ‘survey.'” Message to Joan Faust. 11 August 2009. E-mail.
  • —, ed. The Poems of Andrew Marvell. Rev. ed. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2007. Print.
  • Taratt, Margaret. “Re: Marvell ‘survey.'” Message to Joan Faust. 14 August 2009. E-mail.