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

  • Andrew Bennett

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  • Andrew Bennett
    University of Bristol

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 …