This week’s readings and their focus on editing and editions took me back to a problem I experienced last semester. While researching and writing an essay on the Romantic femme fatale, I had every intention of referring to John Keat’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” yet was surprised to learn that there are actually two very different versions of this poem: one taken from manuscript and one that was published. In terms of my paper on the femme fatale, the first, manuscript version was a much better fit. Furthermore, there seemed to be more credibility (this is perhaps not the correct word) given to the manuscript “knight” version as this was the one published in the Norton anthology. For my final paper, I choose to only concentrate on the manuscript poem and to simply make mention in a footnote that while I was aware there was another version of this poem, I had chosen to focus only on the manuscript poem in my literary analysis. However, this still kind of bothers me, and brings me to my main questions: As literary (rather than bibiliographical) students, how much responsibility do we have to acknowledge and/or analyze the various versions of texts?
This questions seems almost silly to me, yet significant at the same time. Obviously, it would be almost impossible to acknowledge every different edition of a text, given that some might differ only in terms of punctuation or a word here and there. Yet, as in the case of the femme fatale in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” changing a word here and there does make a dramatic difference. The same could be said of punctuation, as I’ve read arguments that at times hinged on the use of a comma rather than a semi-colon. If this particular comma is so significant, does the literary student have a responsibility to figure out where exactly that comma came from, whether from the author’s manuscript, the first published copy, or an editing decision? And if, say, the comma came from the printer or editor rather than the author, does the argument then lose some of its value? This comma example is admittedly rather extreme but I find it useful in making my point, which is to ask how much responsibility do we have to question the origin of textual elements.
McGann seems to offer an answer when he writes, “Of course, each of these versions may be usefully studied as a singular example of a creative process, as may the two texts of King Lear, or the multiple versions of Stoppard’s plays” (69). However, I find I’m not quite satisfied with this response . . .