Sunday, October 05, 2008

editors asleep at the wheel, pt. 437

Paul H. Fry is William Lampson Professor of English at Yale, & author of at least 4 books on English poetry & criticism. He's also editor of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism (Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999). I'm not teaching from this text this semester (for the record, I'm using William Richey & Daniel Robinson's New Riverside Edition of Lyrical Ballads), but I was casting my eyes over the various essays & introductions over the weekend, only to be arrested by this from Fry's opening chapter on "Biographical and Historical Contexts":
Anna Letitia Barbauld, in a famous exchange recorded in Coleridge's Table Talk, complained that the "Rime" "has no moral".... Coleridge's snappy response to Mrs. Barbauld was that there was too much moral, and then he compared the poem unfavorably in this respect with the tale from the Arabian Nights in which a merchant is subjected to an excruciating penance for having thrown a date pit over a wall and accidentally killed the son of a genie. (22-3)
So Fry's an old hand at Romantic poetry, & this is indeed a famous anecdote – so famous that even I've heard it. But there comes  a point when paraphrasing from memory is tantamount to just plain faking it. For god's sake, Fry could at least have re-read the Frances Ferguson essay he includes in his own collection, which quotes the actual anedote:
Mrs. Barbauld once told me that she admired the Ancient Mariner very much, but that there were two faults in it, – it was improbable, and had no moral. As for the probability, I owned that that might admit some question; but as to the want of a moral, I told her that in my own judgment the poem had too much; and that the only or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of such pure imagination. It ought to have had no more moral the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a geni starts up, and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date-shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the geni's son.
Exercise: correlate the two accounts & add up Fry's misremembered details. [FOUR, by my count, in a single sentence.] Pronounce on the fitness to carry out editorial work – on an edition intended for undergraduate students of literature & theory – of an editor who commits so many easily corrected gaffes in his opening summary.

I will spare the rant – who edits these things? where was Ross Murfin (series editor) when this thing went thru proofs? who's at the wheel of these ubiquitous "teaching editions"??
Fry does point me towards a sentence by my critical darling William Empson, who sums up the poem's ostensible "moral" in his inimitably pithy way: "don't pull poor pussy's tail."


mongibeddu said...

I find it amusing that you praise Empson after unloading on Fry. Fresh in my head is an essay by Fredson Bowers, "Textual Criticism and the Literary Critic," that has fun with Empson for equivalent inexactness. Seems there's a reading of Eliot in Seven Types of Ambiguity that's based on a typo. Writes Bowers, "I should dearly like to know whether Eliot blushed, or laughed, when he read Empson on this poem and its non-existent point." And more damningly: "When a critic arrives at conclusions about the point of a poem that are reached through the interpretation of printer's errors in the text, we may see how readily white may be made black, and black white, and we may be forgiven if we treat his opinions in general with some reserve." That Bowers, he funny.

Ben F.

Mark Scroggins said...

Great! I'd forgotten Bowers' little whale-up on Empson (tho I remember his job on Delmore Schwartz & "soldier Aristotle"). But not quite "equivalent inexactness," given that WE was working from a typo-flecked 3rd or 4th edition of Eliot, while Fry can't be bothered to remember the details of an anecdote that one of his own contributors quotes verbatim.

Plus, & most importantly -- Fry writes absolutely zero zingers.

mongibeddu said...

True, though at least Fry's errors wouldn't have made Coleridge blush, or laugh. Which is too bad!

"AMSOD" the word verification is telling me, and it's true, I am a sod.