Tuesday, April 13, 2010
The semester is winding down, I suppose; there're only a couple more weeks of classes, for the nonce I'm not facing anything that I have to grade, & I'm thinking forward to the Fall. Book orders, that is. I'm teaching a graduate poetry workshop, which is always fun, always an adventure. Between now & the end of July, I guess, I'll settle on a half dozen or 8 recent books of poetry to discuss. Suggestions for assigned texts would be welcome. (If you want me to consider your book, of course, I need to have read a copy – hint, hint.)
The undergraduate Milton class is a bit more of a challenge. I love teaching Milton, have done it maybe four times before. The first couple of times I assigned the more or less recent Riverside Milton, edited by Roy Flannagan; it's got all of the texts I'd want to teach (and many more), presents them in original spelling, and has fairly useful introductions to each selection. But the book, to be frank, isn't a patch on the Riverside Shakespeare and the Riverside Chaucer, two really landmark, rock-solid edition: where they have neatly segregated textual notes and super-clean glosses and explanatory notes, Flannagan bungs all of his annotations – textual, word-defining, interpretive, explanatory, speculative, and (occasionally) just plain wrong – into these huge blocks at the foot of the page. Hey, I live for this scholarly stuff, & even I'm put off by the way the book's presented. (I find I've blogged this same kvetch almost 4 years ago; sigh.)
So a couple of Milton courses back, I switched to Merritt Y. Hughes's John Milton: Complete Poetry and Major Prose, an edition that first came out in 1957, & that's now in print from Hackett. It doesn't have original spelling – which in the case of Paradise Lost may not really be an issue, given that Milton was blind at the time & didn't really have control over the orthography – but its annotations are rather lighter than Flannagan's (maybe too light), and its introductions are much sketchier.
What I'd really like to use is David Kastan's super-fine recent edition of Paradise Lost, plus a volume of the prose, plus a volume of the short poems. But the only semi-affordable prose I can find is Patrides's U Missouri edition of the Selected Prose, which seems to be running about $25 these days (for a wee paperback); and any available decent volume of the short poems is simply outrageously expensive. (You see, I'm thinking of my students.) I suspect I'll hie me to Barnes & Noble sometime in the next few days to check out the recent Modern Library Complete Poetry and Essential Prose, which looks pretty darned decent from what I can see of it in the Amazon preview.
Looking back over Milton again has made me think of that odd notion of "covering" or "mastering" an author. I've read all of JM's poetry, much of it multiple times, and I've probably been thru between 50% & 75% of his prose. There aren't a lot of writers I can honestly say I know the whole of. (Of course, I've read everything LZ ever wrote, but he's an exception.) I know all of WC Williams's poetry, but his fiction, plays, and much of his prose are terra incognita. I've read all of Shakespeare's plays and most of his other poetry, but there are a few items of the canon that I've managed to avoid. Faulkner, I know maybe 6 or 7 novels. Woolf, all the novels except 3, but very little of the stories or essays. There are large bodies of writing out there I'd love to plunge into, but am daunted by the sheer breadth and variety of achievement: Wyndham Lewis (I've read Apes of God and Tarr, but nothing else); George Eliot (Daniel Deronda and – too long ago – Middlemarch).
I can understand why some people become Joyceans and more or less get stuck there. It's a large and very rich universe, the big 4 (Dubliners, Portrait, Ulysses, & the Wake) & their minor outriders, but it's also a wholly manageable bigness. I could happily reread Ulysses every couple months till I die, if I had the time. Or Melville, for that matter, though there's a bit more variety there – a Dickens-sized corpus, rereadable on a yearly basis, if that's your inclination.
Which is why I'm fascinated and daunted at the same time by the big maroon monster to the left of my desk: the Ruskin Library Edition, all 39 volumes of hugeness. They probably average out to 500 pages or so apiece, and even after you shave off the 2 volumes of bibliography and index, that still leaves you with something like 18,000 pages of Ruskin to tackle. Quentin Bell, in the preface to his excellent little book on Ruskin, recalls spending an entire year reading thru the Library Edition – but he was careful to add, he wasn't reading anything else, either.
I've probably read more Ruskin than most scholars of 20th- & 21st-century poetry (maybe more than some Victorianists): several volumes of Modern Painters, all of Fors Clavigera, one of Stones of Venice, 7 Lamps of Architecture, Praeterita, all of the social & political volumes, and between a half-dozen and a dozen of thises & thats. Most of these have been read in other editions than the Library Edition, but I reckon I've covered the material in maybe 12 or 13 of the LE volumes. Which leaves a daunting amount of Ruskin still to be read. I'm not surprised that there are a few Ruskinians out there who seem to do nothing else – David Hewison, for instance, who at last count has published 6 or 7 books on Ruskin. And I'm not surprised that there aren't more, for the sheer bulk of the guy's output feels like a kind of vortex into which one can get sucked & never write about anything else again.
For heaven's sake, I've spent too many years being introduced as "the LZ guy" (why not, "that guy who writes for Parnassus," or "minor poet, not conspicuously dishonest"?); perhaps the only move I could make into deeper obscurity would be to become "the Ruskin scholar MS."
Tho, to tell the truth, "the Wyndham Lewis scholar MS" sounds even obscurer.