Thursday, September 02, 2010

"Sixteen of the politer love poems"

I loved everything about Paul A. J. Davis's TLS piece on a new scholarly edition of Rochester's poems, but particularly its repeated references to a readership of specialists - it gives me this wonderful vision of an abstruse and tiny yet committed nation of scholars toiling in archives across the land. Anyway, here's a taste, where Davis contemplates the "full-blown eccentricity" of the editors' choice to use as copy-text for "Upon Nothing" "the 'separate' of the poem which Germaine Greer discovered in 1993 in a box of Chancery documents in the Public Records Office and identified as featuring corrections in the hand of Rochester’s mother (the documents relate to disputes about the Dowager Countess’s estates)":
[W]hat most conclusively tells against Fisher’s conjecture [that the Countess might have amended the poem to Rochester's dictation] is comparison of the readings in Lady Rochester’s copy against the lists of variants given by Love (who for some reason did not collate it) and Walker. This reveals that the Countess left uncorrected a number of obvious scribal errors, including a hypermetric line (with Rochester dictating?) whose probable “authorial” forms can be found in other copies. Meanwhile, all but one of her corrected forms are shared with an identifiable subgroup of manuscripts – and not the one which, in Love’s judgement, offers the best guide to what Rochester may originally have written.

The sole exception comes in the highly unstable line “Thou from the virtuous, Nothing, take away”, where (according to Fisher) she corrected the ending to “durst delay”. That is an otherwise unattested and potentially attractive reading – but it is not what Lady Rochester wrote. Other personal writings which have found their way into the same Chancery box (her recipe for face-water” and some scraps of penitential reflection) provide ample evidence of the Countess’s distinctively spiky and discontinuous hand, and particularly of its most salient characteristic: difficulty in joining up the circles of “e”s and “o”s. What she corrected “take away” to was not “durst delay” but “doest delay” – one of the commonest readings in the other witnesses. In all likelihood, then, Rochester’s mother amended her copy of “Upon Nothing” not at the dictation of the poet himself, but from another manuscript. Then again, the fact that she did this is interesting enough in itself.

1 comment:

  1. And that "abstruse and tiny yet committed nation of scholars" is pouring all this obsession into dirty, scatological verse! All the more amusing!