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Zachary Leader, Revision and Romantic Authorship. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. ISBN: 0-19-812264-0 (hardback). Price: £40.00

  • Andrew Bennett

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  • Andrew Bennett
    University of Bristol

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Zachary Leader argues that what he calls the 'Romantic attitude' to authorship involves a privileging of spontaneity and fluency in poetic creation and a devaluing of the 'secondary processes' of revision. Leader contends that much recent critical and editorial work on the canonical Romantic writers confirms this tradition by concerning itself with the earliest versions of poems rather than with later edited and revised versions: thus in recent years Wordsworth's 1805 Prelude has tended to be preferred over the heavily revised and edited 1850 text. 'When editors privilege early, often manuscript, versions of texts,' Leader declares, 'they assume a thoroughly Romantic view of the relation between writers, works, publishers, and readers' (15). Leader connects his argument for a renewed attention to later versions of texts and to the process of revision to a theory of authorial intention and personal identity: he maintains that we should attend to ways in which, for the Romantics, despite what the 'Romantic ideology' and such commonplaces as the 'apostasy' of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey might suggest, identity is taken to be a 'continuum'. The work of revision may therefore be understood as a refining of the earlier 'raw' text rather than as the sign of a transformation of the work of a separate, earlier 'self'. Leader argues that critics and editors have been too quick to privilege isolated comments by Romantic writers on spontaneity (Keats's declaration that 'if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all') and the degrading nature of revision (Byron's comment that 'I am like the tyger (in poesy) if I miss my first spring - I go growling back to my Jungle...I can't correct - I can't - & I won't'). In doing so, Leader suggests, critics have overlooked the practice even in such poets as Keats and Byron - despite the Romantic culture of spontaneity, of speed and fluency in writing - of refining and improving their work in revision. Leader seeks to expose the 'inadequacy or incompleteness of the Romantic view' and the apparent paradox that none of the writers that he discusses 'fits the stereotype most of them helped construct' (315).

For Leader, the 'Romantic' impulse - that of both the early-nineteenth and the later-twentieth century - is towards the construction of the 'solitary genius and authorial autonomy' (15). The consequence of such a view, according to Leader, has been the editorial practice - in, for example, the Cornell Wordsworth or the Oxford Clare - of printing the earliest 'complete' version of a poem and relegating later revisions, including those which eventually get into print, to the apparatus of the footnotes. But Leader also discerns what he sees as a 'backlash' to this 'primitivist' view in, for example, Jerome McGann's edition of Byron or in Jack Stillinger's work on Coleridge and others. Thus in the case of McGann's Byron, the 'most authoritative' version of each poem is chosen, whether or not it is the first complete text of a poem, while Stillinger has recently argued that each 'version' of Coleridge's major poems has its own integrity and significance and that one cannot automatically be chosen over another. Leader identifies both positions as what he variously calls the 'indeterminist', 'pluralist' or 'postmodern' view. Even here, however, Leader discerns a Romantic privileging of inspiration and spontaneity, since, by his account, such critics 'undervalue secondary processes, the sort that "finish" or "perfect" work' (15). It is from this perspective that Revision and Romantic Authorship discusses the cases of Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Clare and Keats, and investigates ways in which revision - whether by the author himself as in the cases of the first three writers, or as the product of a 'network of literary and social relations' (15) as in the cases of Frankenstein, Clare and Keats - may be said to enrich and complicate literary texts rather than compromise or degrade them.

Leader's book takes a refreshingly sceptical view of contemporary editorial practices and critical assumptions, and provides a valuable antidote to what he convincingly argues can amount to a misleading fetishism of the spontaneous in Romanticism and Romantic studies. Leader is well-informed about texts and theories of textual editing, about the writers that he discusses and about the debates concerning their texts, and much of the value of his book resides in its careful readings of individual literary works. Leader is often both subtle and clarifying in his readings of writers' revisions. Moreover, there is a bracing iconoclasm about Revision and Romantic Authorship, a critique of some of the major recent editions of the Romantics and - to Leader's mind, at least - the predominant spirit of contemporary Romantic criticism. The book begins with a discussion of Stephen Gill's 1984 Oxford Authors selected edition of Wordsworth and of the Cornell Wordsworth. This chapter, part of which has been previously published in ELH, may be understood to provide the central impulse behind the book as a whole. The chapter is, as a consequence, one of the most cogent in the book not least because of the importance for current academic writing and teaching of the Oxford Authors and the Cornell Wordsworth, in both of which the earliest 'complete' versions of poems are printed as reading texts. Leader is therefore able to argue that both the most widely used student and 'general reader' edition of Wordsworth and the major contemporary scholarly edition fall into the trap of repeating a Romantic privileging of spontaneity with a consequent focus on early 'unrevised' texts. Similarly, the chapter on Clare focuses on the first complete edition of his poems: the Oxford English Texts edition of the poetry prints manuscript versions of poems as reading texts, thus returning Clare's poems to their (largely) pre-edited state before John Taylor's intervention 'corrected' and refined Clare's grammar, syntax, spelling and so on. Leader questions what he sees as the hegemonic spirit of 'primitivism' at work in this procedure by discussing ways in which Clare depended upon Taylor's revisions and assumed that such interventions would occur before publication. In the cases of both Wordsworth and Clare, Leader's critique is timely and forceful, reminding us of the appropriateness of a certain scepticism with regard to recent major editions of the two poets and - just as importantly - of the consequences of alternative choices.

When it comes to Byron, Coleridge, Mary Shelley and Keats, however, matters are more complex, not least because the major recent editions of these writers do not give such clear-cut authority to unrevised or apparently spontaneous versions. As already noted, McGann takes a 'pluralist' line in his edition of Byron and prints what he sees as the 'most authoritative' versions of poems, whether or not they are those that are finally published. In his chapter on Byron, therefore, Leader is concerned to correct what he sees as a misreading of the poet's revisionary practice and consequent misunderstandings of his sense of personal identity. Against the 'postmodern' arguments of McGann, Peter Manning, Jerome Christensen and others, according to which Byron resisted the construction of a single, coherent self and reflected such a resistance in his refusal to revise his work, Leader argues that this refusal is itself part of a carefully constructed self-presentation of the poet as multiple and discontinuous behind which is 'a voice or persona of for the most part flawless Identity and Integrity' (115). In other words, in an ingenious critical manoeuvre, Leader manages to suggest that the very presentation of the self as discontinuous amounts to a coherent and consistent expression of autonomous individuality. The case of Coleridge also provokes difficulties for Leader since J. C. C. Mays's forthcoming edition of the poetry is to take a similarly 'pluralist' line (indeed, if anything, Mays is even more radical in printing a 'synoptic' text with all major versions of the poems appearing together).And Jack Stillinger has argued forcefully for a 'pluralist' editorial practice in Coleridge and Textual Instability (1994): in the case of seven of the eight canonical poems that he discusses, he has printed as his reading texts the much revised versions from Coleridge's 1834 Poetical Works. This practice is also followed by H. J. Jackson in his 1985 Oxford Authors selection, and by E. H. Coleridge in his standard 1912 Complete Poetical Works: as far as texts are concerned, therefore, the main target of Leader's critique in this chapter is the now superseded 1972 Faber selection of Coleridge's verse by William Empson and David Pirie, a focus of attack which, lacking the contemporaneity of the Wordsworth and Clare editions, seems somewhat beside the point. More usefully, Leader's chapter accounts for a variety of critical positions on Coleridge's revisionary practices and sense of personal identity and persuasively argues for a certain 'complexity' in his thinking on both revision and personal identity. His sense that Coleridge is 'a radically divided or discontinuous apostle of unity and unified selfhood' (16) is, however, in effect a rerun of Stillinger's contention, quoted by Leader (p.128), that Coleridge, 'the most famous advocate of unity may in fact have been one of the most scattered and disunified poets in all of English literature'. In order to differentiate his own position from that of Stillinger (and Mays), Leader argues that Coleridge consciously and carefully worked towards a perfected version of a particular poem -and that his repeated revisions can be seen as an effect of his sensitivity to the 'publishing occasion' - rather than writing a series of discrete versions with equal value. The paradox with which Leader ends his discussion of Coleridge is that while it is 'hard to conceive of a writer' more realistic with regard to the difficulties of achieving a coherent self, it is also difficult to imagine a writer 'who strove so tenaciously' to produce such an entity (163). In the case of Frankenstein, once again Leader's focus has to shift away from the inadequacies of contemporary editions since both the 1818 and the 1831 versions of the novel are readily available in both cheap and scholarly editions, and the 1831 edition often preferred in critical discussion. Leader therefore directs his attention to what he sees as recent 'feminist' attacks on Percy Shelley's editorial interventions and the alleged effacement of Mary. Leader argues that Mary 'consciously, willingly welcomed Percy Shelley's contributions' (171) and that here we can see a revisionary practice (which critics have mistakenly identified as the concern of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron) which 'resists the conventional image of the authorial self as single and autonomous' (171). Leader's argument is provocative and, again, timely, and his detailed refutations of Anne Mellor's reading of Percy Shelley's revisions are largely persuasive. Nevertheless, it seems a little simplistic to suggest that by demonstrating that Mary Shelley welcomed and even encouraged Percy's revisions Leader can also demonstrate an unproblematic gender and power dynamic: to say that Mary Shelley approved of Percy's work on the novel is not in itself an argument against the potentially oppressive nature of that intervention (Mary Shelley herself writes about 'willing slaves, self-constituted subjects' in the context of a 'willing' subjection to monarchy in The Last Man). In the case of Keats, Leader is led to argue somewhat vaguely that 'the poet's relation to revision has been misrepresented' and that, despite his apparent reluctance to accede to their suggestions, Keats did eventually understand the value of the editing of his work by Richard Woodhouse and John Taylor and that he even approved of their attempts 'to propitiate public censure' (264). In this case, however, Leader returns to relatively well-trodden ground and is able to provide little evidence for his claim that critics have argued to the contrary. Indeed, the major scholarly edition of Keats's poems is Stillinger's 1978 Harvard edition which prints the 'final authorial intentions' - often the version eventually published after the editorial interventions of Keats, Woodhouse, Taylor and others. Similarly, in spite of the acknowledged fluency of Keats's poetic production, twentieth-century criticism of the poet has been characterized, at least since the work of Claude Lee Finney and M. R. Ridley from the 1930s, by an interest in the work of revision. Thus, much of Leader's lucid summary of the relationships between Keats's public, his critics, his publishers, and his revisions seems to be adding little to what we already know. The polemical thrust of this avowedly iconoclastic book, then, is largely restricted to the cases of editions of Wordsworth and Clare, together with a more general sense of a residual 'Romantic primitivism' in critics of the Romantic period. Leader's sense that textual 'pluralists' such as McGann, Stillinger or Mays are, in effect, still crypto-primitivists is nowhere fully argued, and what Leader would like to see as the monolithic 'Romantic' culture of contemporary criticism turns out to be rather more multiple, divided and nuanced.

As we have seen, the second half of the title to Leader's book refers to his desire to connect questions of revision to issues of personal identity. Part of the problem here is the way in which Leader tends to ascribe certain assumptions to critics and editors which they may or may not hold (and which they may or may not know that they hold). At one point in his chapter on Mary Shelley, for example, Leader seems to be suggesting that according to the Romantic theory of revision and personal identity the notion that Mary 'grew more conservative with age' is tantamount to believing that she became 'a different person' (200). In other words, there are points in the book where the radical contingency and eventfulness of identity for which some 'postmodern' critics are said to argue looks very much like what would elsewhere (within the terms of, say, a humanist theory of the autonomous self) come under the category of the development of personality, and where Leader's opponents begin to look like straw men. A comment on Wordsworth produces a not unrelated problem when Leader attempts to ground his argument for the coherence and consistency of Wordsworthian identity over time. 'In addition to wishing to be a single and continuous person over time,' Leader comments on Wordsworth, 'in some respects - certainly more than are today acknowledged - he reveals himself in his revisions to have been one, continuing to identify with the aims, aspirations, thoughts, and feelings of earlier poems, by attempting to bring them to a more perfect expression' (73). What is curious here is the slippage which takes place as the argument moves from an assertion of the 'perfecting' process of revision towards an affirmation of a particular kind of personal identity: one might imagine a different person altogether - a friend or editor, for example - attempting to revise the poems of early Wordsworth and 'continuing to identify with the aims' of that earlier poet, so that Wordsworth's continuing identification with his own work reveals very little about personal identity. Indeed, the very notion of 'identifying with' certain 'aims, aspirations, thoughts and feelings' suggests a division of self which would work against Leader's sense of continuum, consistency and singularity since, it might be argued, one can only 'identify with' (rather than be) that which one is not. If, as we have learnt from Lacan and others, identity is a matter of identification (or misidentification), then the very foundation of that personal identity which Leader wants to assert as continuous and single is split, divided at source. As this might suggest, perhaps, behind Leader's resistance to 'textual primitivism' is not only an argument against certain editorial practices and 'primitivist' critical assumptions but also a very different challenge to poststructuralist theory. Leader is concerned, as he repeatedly makes clear, to reconfirm the value of authorial intentionality and of writing as an expression of the individual and the autonomous subject: Leader is concerned to privilege what he sees as the desires, thoughts and intentions of the author. And while his overt target in this polemic is the 'Romantic' editorial and critical practices of 'textual primitivists', there is also a less explicit and more occasional attack on poststructuralist theories of the subject. Leader's antagonism towards 'theory' and towards 'poststructuralism' is evident in his references to the 'fastidiously postmodern' (117), the 'more "advanced" or theoretically minded critics' (124), and the 'post-structuralist defiance of "the tyranny of clarity"' (216 - an interestingly unattributed quotation). Leader's attack, then, is also directed against 'poststructuralist' indeterminacy ('intermediacy' as it appears to get called at one point [p.33] - or is 'intermediacy' what is intended here? - the context, one could say, is indeterminate).

While Leader mounts a series of persuasive arguments against the privileging of the originary, 'spontaneous' outpourings of poets, then, his defence of what he sees as the author's intentions are less convincing - not least because of the privileging of final intentions over any other. At one point, Leader draws a parallel with the legal status of a last will and testament, and argues that 'ignoring or denying authorial agency and intention [by which he means to privilege an author's latest intention] means ignoring or denying one's responsibility to persons,' a responsibility which 'ought to apply as much to dead persons - of the person one once was - as to the living' (76-7). The argument is distinctly odd in view of the radical difference, in practice, between the legal status of the last will and testament on the one hand and other kinds of statements made prior to death on the other, and in view of the uneasy slippage that occurs here between legal and ethical responsibility. Indeed, respect for the wishes of the dead is precisely a legal requirement of certain kinds of statements (those ratified by a number of specific procedures and made under certain conditions). We do not necessarily (and do not necessarily feel any obligation, moral or legal, to) respect those statements which are not made under those particular conditions. Literary criticism, of course, and literary editing do not and never have respected the will of the dead: to do so would be radically to impoverish literary history (think of all those 'private' letters left unread, those poems burnt or never published, those 'personal' details of an author's life left unrevealed and unremarked). But to 'obey' the putative 'final intention' of the author would also be radically to limit the kinds of speculation that all critics, including Leader, engage in when they do literary criticism. It seems to me that Leader is at his least convincing and least consistent when he attempts to ground this argument for acknowledging the work of revision in an ethics of reception. In his chapter on Coleridge, for example, Leader does distinguish between the legal and ethical status of the living and the dead when he comments that 'with the demise of all interested parties, a strong case can be made for publishing both versions' of that peculiarly personal and private poem (or poems) the 'Dejection' ode (153). Rather differently, in the next chapter Leader appears to contradict his ethics of authorial intention when he argues that 'Byron made constant reference to this fluidity [of personal identity] - thought the fixed or stable self an illusion - yet could only, in the end, present himself as unified and autonomous' (117). Here, Leader reads (very properly, it seems to me, and with commendable ingenuity) against the grain of the author's supposed intentions in order to expose the 'essential, singular, and irreducible identity' of Lord Byron (117). Ironically, perhaps, Leader shows himself to be very good at reading against what he takes to be the author's intentions. Respecting 'persons', in the form of accepting what is defined as 'authorial intention', then, would appear to be an appropriate and ethical response only to the extent that the supposed intentions of those persons accord with one's own views. Respecting 'intentions' depends on how you interpret those intentions, on reading. Leader's book, for all its insight and scholarly acuity, presents, against its own best intentions, a kind of shadow-case against the privileging of authorial intention, since one of the things that Leader does best is to read against what he takes to be the conscious intentions of authors. In other words, the performative force of the book appears to resist Leader's intentions by opening a space for a reading of his book as an argument for interpretative 'indeterminacy'. And who are we to say that this is not what Leader intended all along?