Monday, October 27, 2008

"weft" settled (for jg)

A few weeks back I was kvetching in my tedious way about classroom editions of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (more specifically, about editions of the 1798 "Rime of the Ancyent Marinere"), with especial scorn meted out to Paul Fry's 1999 Bedford/St. Martin's "Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism" edition, in which Fry managed in his introduction to misremember practically all the details of a famous anecdote that is quoted in full in one of the essays, & to introduce a bunch of revised lines into the text of the poem as additions, thereby throwing off the line numbering.

And I mused on competing annotations for "weft" in the stanza
The Sun came up upon the right,
Out of the sea came he;
And broad as a weft upon the left
Went down into the sea.

Fry writes, "weft: Threads carried by a shuttle across the warp," while Richey & Robinson [of the New Riverside Editions Lyrical Ballads] give us "weft: a large flag used on ships for signaling distress."
I gave this one to Fry, with the proviso that I didn't have my copy of John Livingston Lowes's The Road to Xanadu on hand. Well – I guess I wrote too soon. (Still haven't found either of my copies of Road, by the way; one of the girls must have eaten them. The library copy, heaven knows, is half-eaten.) Lowes, whose book (published in 1927, mind you) tracks down the source of practically every word in the "Rime" & "Kubla Khan," has no fewer than nine pages on "weft," & makes it abundantly clear that the word, which STC could have come upon from any number of sources in any variety of forms (waffe, weffe, waif, waift, whiff, whift, wheft, wave, waft, weft), must be taken in the nautical distress sense.

So the next question: how did Paul Fry (William Lampson Professor of English and Master of Ezra Stiles College at Yale University) manage to so howlingly mis-gloss the word, when he had a voluminous commentary at hand in one of the foundational texts of Coleridge criticism? Let's face it, "Threads carried by a shuttle across the warp," which reads like the first definition of "weft" in a standard college dictionary, just doesn't cut it when you're annotating an 18th-century poem.


Michael Peverett said...

According to the rather interesting dictionary of Vexillology
Waft/Weft is "A term, how obsolete, for a flag tied in a knot and displayed at sea as a signal of some emergency (see also ‘flag of distress’). ..."
Is this sunset compared with a knotted flag? So many questions.. I know, I should look it up in Lowes... Anyway, I love these "tedious" edition ruminations, hope you do loads more...

Vance Maverick said...

You probably know this, but as a Yalie I have to put my oar in -- to be the master of a college, there, is an honor, but the duties are not primarily academic. (For "college" read "dorm".) So it's quite consistent with his being in the late stage of professorhood, let's say no longer having to prove himself. I know nothing of him directly, though.