So to illustrate the idea of textual criticism I drew this crummy picture for a short presentation about a year ago:
Somewhere over on the left is a mythical-romantic-ideal world where the true text lives, following the True/Authentic Author’s Intention (or some other silly thing).
But in our real world, ALL we have is a bunch of imperfect manifestations—each a little different. We know that transmission introduces all sorts of errors, alterations, and versions (accidental or intentional).
So we gather up all the existent “witnesses”, try to understand their relationships, and using a bit of art and science reconstruct/craft the best possible text (traditionally defined as “the closest approximation of the original”).
Combine this text with the editor’s “critical apparatus” (the list of manuscripts collated, analysis, notes about variants, etc.) and you get a Critical Edition. (Of course this project is not aiming at a critical edition, so we definitely won’t have the apparatus, or even worry much about the variant readings or “authentic” text, but I want to be thoughtful anyway…).
The words in the drawing are from a real example, Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress (~1650). Wilfred L. Guerin, et al., A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature 5th edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) explains that the existing witnesses had four variants for the last word in the second line of this passage:
Now therfore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning [glew; glue; lew; dew].
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Basically, the original manuscript had the word “glew” which later editors couldn’t make sense of—they thought it was a alternate spelling of “glue” and thus a non-sense mistake. Some editors changed it to “lew” (dialect for warmth) and others to “dew”. Nearly all editions, textbooks, anthologies, and websites still give it as “dew” today (for example, check out the full poem on Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173954 )
However, the most recent critical editions restore the text to “glew”, arguing it is actually a dialect word for “glow.”
But why are Critical Editions so important to scholars?
- they provide the raw materials for study.
- they create an authoritative common text that can be referenced.
- prestige, they can personally make their mark on an author.
Once you have one critical edition why would you ever need another??
- new evidence is discovered.
- new interpretations of the evidence.
- there is always copy-editing errors, text reproductions continually degrade.
- editorial techniques, styles, and conventions change over time–this is an art!
Critical understanding of the transmission of a text illuminates the life of the work.
Editing [scholarly or otherwise] is part of keeping a text alive.