21 June 2006

That's "flea," not "slea": The Argument for Modern Typefaces

John Donne's Poetry. Arthur L. Clements, ed. 2nd. ed. New York: Norton, 1992.
Donne's Poetical Works. H.J.C. Grierson, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912.

Donne's collected poetry was first published in 1633, two years after he died. Since Donne didn't prepare his work for the press, controversy over his intended meanings seems inevitable. These two critical editions, however, agree that the first record of a poem the one least likely to have been corrupted; both use the 1633 edition as their base of authority. Poems not published in 1633 take authoritative readings from either the first published edition or the manuscripts.

Which means that both editions present, generally, the same text. Now listen: Donne's collected poetry was first published in 1633, two years after he died. These lines are more than 350 years old. While they are good, and are important in the development of English poetry, enough is enough.

The Norton Critical Edition is enough. In a single paper-back volume, it presents the greatest bulk of Donne's work, with selected criticism to help focus study and to place him in a historical context, an extensive selected bibliography to guide further study, an introduction explaining the textual concerns, and notes, at the back, listing major deviations from the text as printed and their sources.

Grierson's two-volume tome, on the other hand, is too much for all but the most hardened scholars. It not only sorts, classifies, and notes all versions of all the poems attributed to Donne, it also delineates the sorting, classifying, and noting process. The introduction and commentary are extensive; they require an entire second volume. The poems, printed in volume one, are done in their original fashion: no spelling--or even symbol--changes have been made to accommodate the reader, meaning 's' can be read as 'f,' or 'u' as 'v,' if one does not already know how the lines run. Notes on textual differences, however, are instantly accessible at the bottom of each page.

The Grierson edition is for someone who already knows Donne well. For those already acquainted with him, it makes intimate conversation possible. For those just trying to meet him, though--even for those who don't mind close friendship, but don't need to know every secret--the Norton will serve as well, and will cost much less.


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