Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shearsman’s new version of Tottel’s Miscellany

The miscellany (1557) was the first printed anthology of English poetry in English, one of the first examples of possibly dodgy editing practice and a wonderful book. Although it named Surrey on the title page, it also published Wyatt beyond his immediate circle of friends.

This edition, published on my birthday no less, is wonderful in the literal sense of that much overused word. Unlike the usual meaningless blurb the back cover is used to provide most of the necessary background information. This in itself deserves praise. My only real quibble with the whole book is that the afterword isn’t signed and we can’t thank who ever edited this version.
Tottle began with “The printer to the reader”:

That to haue wel written in verse, yea & in small parcelles, deserueth great praise, the works of diuers Latines, Italians, and others, do proue sufficiently.

The lyric was coming of age. Although there are beautiful anonymous pieces from the middle ages, with Tottel the short poem steps up, sometimes with the writer’s name attached, to be considered as “deserving great praise”. This new edition makes it possible to see the moment as it was.

As the quotation makes obvious, the spelling hasn’t been modernised. This isn’t a problem. I’m also grateful to the anonymous editor for deciding not to reproduce the heavy black type of the original. My second hand copy of the Scolar press facsimile is now almost unreadable.

In “The Modern Poet” Robert Crawford, discussing how the presentation of poetry has become subsumed into the academic process, points to the way modern editions of poetry from the past are likely to be edited by scholars who are academic experts in their field. This produces a familiar book where the poems, squashed between the critical apparatus, are presented as objects for study. The penguin Complete Wyatt has 262 pages of poems in very small font on grainy paper, squashed between 66 pages of introduction and 178 pages of notes.

I confess to being a compulsive reader of footnotes, endnotes, introductions glossaries forewords, afterwords and all the familiar paraphernalia of the critical modern edition. So there’s a delightful sense of unfamiliarity to open the Shearsman edition and find nothing but the poems on the page. Set out in a readable font on good paper, the book is slightly bigger than the usual paperback and that makes for a decent sized page.

At first sight it’s actually odd. The poems aren’t jostling for space or competing for attention. Stripped back to what it was, the book invites the reader to pay attention to the poems. This is what I imagine Graves meant when he said poets and readers need “clean reading copies” of poetry. And I like it. It’s pleasant to read. Rochester please?

It’s hard not to start by looking up favourite poems. Doing so misses some of the odder little pieces scattered about.
But being a fan of Sir Thomas, to page 48 to read the tottled version of “They flee from me”. What Tottel did to Wyatt has been well known since the mss versions of the poems were discovered in the 20th century and has been discussed at great length.

This means that modern editions of Wyatt usually include the almost obligatory discussion of “How to read Wyatt” with attendant attempts to show the editor’s favourite version of the metre or method Wyatt may have been using. Fortunately this edition does not do so and resists the urge to correct Tottel.

Reading the Totteled version not as a foot note or as extracts in a long essay is a strange experience. Tottel added titles. I haven’t read them all but he seems to have used third person titles to introduce first person poems. So the piece I know as “They flee from me” ”The louer sheweth how he is forsaken of such as he sometimes enjoyed”. (Which is an advance on the penguin complete’s LXXX)

I can see why people may prefer this version of the poem although the stanza break makes little sense. The poem lacks that familiar jaggedness (highly technical term!) I like in Wyatt. Instead of being forced to think about how to speak the lines, they just toddle along.

But the Tottel version not only adds words but changes them. The sarcasm of the ms “kindly”, which is in keeping with “I have leave to go of her goodness’ has been replaced by the more obvious “unkindly” and the understatement goes out the window. The last line in Tottel’s version is almost bland compared to the bitter whine of “I would fain know what she hath deserved.”

There’s nothing new to say about Tottel or Wyatt and if there is I’m not going to be the person saying it. So all this to say having a good reader’s edition of Tottel presents poems as things to read and enjoy not to study. Anyone interested in English poetry, or in the short lyric poem, should buy this book.

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