Among the many mechanisms we have devised to discipline and instruct ourselves is the bibliographical reference, something we scarcely notice now that we have it. A footnote sending the interested reader to a source relies on their being a source there when the reader, next week, next year, next century, decides to go alooking. It’s all very well for me to argue with you that satellite data over the last twenty years call into question the very idea of global warming. In a conversation I can get away with it by saying it in an authoritative tone, firmly, loudly and often. If I (or Ted Cruz) print my remarks, I will however have to back up my assertion with a reference to my source — a maneuver which instantly flags the fact that I am talking bunkum, so of course one I’ll be damned if I will indulge in. There’s quite enough to debate in the worlds of science and politics (or whatever) without wasting time on untethered talk. Show me the evidence: “Print settles it”.
Coleridge is alleged to have first said this, though as I can’t find the reference I hesitate to assert this too strongly. Hazlitt too has been cited as originator. Susan Howe, in The Nonconformist’s Memorial seems to implicate Massinger. Charles Lamb certainly did say it, in a footnote which he seems subsequently to have suppressed. He (no doubt self-mockingly) reports himself as appalled by all the revisions he found to have been written into Milton’s manuscript of Lycidas. “There is something to me repugnant at any time in written hand. The text never seems determinate. Print settles it.” He doesn’t attribute the words to Coleridge, who may along with the others be being given credit because of someone’s subsequent faulty, unreferenced, recollection. The idea that a poet will not rework their first draft — any writer for that matter — is obviously nonsense. Different drafts are almost a precondition of poetry. Even the oral bard would doubtless run over in his head various different ways of telling his tale. Once it gets printed though we all take some sort of ownership in the poem, and get upset at the author’s having second thoughts.
”We must love one another or die” Auden wrote in September 1, 1939 — “trash he was ashamed to have written” as he made Penguin Books say later. He changed the line later by altering “or die” to “and die”, something one can well see an older man deciding on. The immortality of youth tends to qualified by experience. Now of course the poem exists in its two printed versions: early Auden collections and later (more authoritative?) editions. He had it excluded from his Collected Poems. Are a poet’s revisions always improvements? In this case: the first version has the advantage of utterly unrealistic youthful romance, while the second is so “true” it’s almost not worth saying. My German teacher refused to let us read Goethe’s final version of “Willkommen und Abschied” because he found the Sturm und Drang passion of the “original” so much more moving. That version was the one given (in manuscript) to Friederike Brion, to whom the poem was addressed, though it wasn’t included in printed texts till Erich Trunz’s 1929 edition. The revised poem is the one usually printed now. Obviously print doesn’t settle anything here. Both versions exist, and neither is better than the other. We may prefer one version to the other, but having both is better than having none. We are all free to chose which one we’ll read.
The Robert B. Silvers Lecture for 2015 was delivered on December 8th at New York Public Library. Helen Vender’s topic was “Poets as Editors”. As she told us, W. B. Yeats pointed out to people who would complain to him about his revising his poems “It is myself that I remake”. The poet at forty-five is a different person from the poet of the same name who was once a twenty-year-old. Wallace Stevens wrote “Some of one’s early things give one the creeps”. The older Goethe, classicist statesman rather than romantic youth, may have been a bit embarrassed at his lustful impetuosity. We should be happy he rewrote without destroying the originals.
So one may have to conclude that although print settles many things, it doesn’t settle all.
This title was suggested by Jeremy on 8 November, in response, I suspect, to my remarks on the evanescence of digital referencing in Plagiarism.