Shakespeare’s Sonnets: An Original-Spelling Text, ed. Paul Hammond, Oxford University Press, 2016, 494pp, £19.99 (paperback)

John Donne, ed. Janel Mueller, 21st-century Oxford Authors series, Oxford University Press, 2016, 606pp, £95 (hardcover)

The first things we genuinely admire in poetry are not always the things we continue to admire. In my own case, at nineteen, it was this sumptuous passage from Tennyson’s ‘The Last Tournament’, as read out by an admired teacher:

And Arthur deigned not use of word or sword, But let the drunkard . . .
Fall, as the crest of some slow-arching wave, Heard in dead night along that table-shore, Drops flat, and after the great waters break Whitening for half a league, and thin themselves, Far over sands marbled with moon and cloud, From less and less to nothing.

There is little here in the actual text to cause problems of appreciation. As we go back in history, however, texts become more problematic: six- teenth- and early seventeenth-century verse exists in a swirling world of manuscript copies of poems, pirated texts, the strain of slow, hand-worked presses (with different impressions of the same work), printings of poems after the poet’s death, printers’ and copyists’ corruptions, and so on.

Lyric poetry of that era is probably, along with Shakespeare’s plays, the core greatness of English literature, that which might confidently be held up to wider European standards of greatness. Yet at first many just don’t ‘get’ Wyatt, Spenser, Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Milton, and the others. There are obvious reasons: youth, inexperience (not least large inexperience of bad art!), lack of a sense of linguistic nuance, poor teaching, and so on, but looking back it now seems obvious that, for me at least, one of the blocks was the heavily modernized texts in which I encountered these poets. This is why I find so exciting the trend of the last two decades towards more ‘original spelling’ and partially modernized texts. What we were seeing before, as though through a pane of frosted glass, now becomes so much clearer. I would compare the effect to the cleansing of colour in some Renaissance paintings, or to the playing of early music on period-specific instruments.

Christopher Ricks was one of the first people to signal this matter within the context of a relatively far-reaching publication, his introduction to The Oxford Book of English Verse (1999). The bug-bear idol here is ‘accessibility’, the demand to dumb things down and ostensibly make them easy – a thoroughly postmodern obsession (as Geoffrey Hill has claimed). Ricks resists the lure of accessibility:

I have weighed the gains and losses [of modernization] differently from my predecessors here. While it is true that there is a loss of immediate accessibility in this retaining of old spelling (including old capitalization, punctuation, italicizing of names, and other conventions), it is not necessarily a bad thing for a reader to be mildly slowed down. And there is after all a different kind of accessibility gained by not modernizing, in that a duller page – and modernizing does have a dulling effect, a bland levelling – has its own quietly powerful way of being inaccessible.

The last point is so true: pretending that these poems don’t belong to a world so different from our own, trying to remove the resistance to us that that inevitably implies, actually makes them less real, blandizes them (to coin a verb) in a distorting way.

The first time this came home to me was via editions of Milton’s poetry, Barbara Lewalski’s Paradise Lost (Blackwell, 2007), which reproduces the spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and italics of the 1674 Paradise Lost, and the companion volume edited by Stella Revard, Complete Shorter Poems with Original Spelling and Punctuation (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

In her fine introduction Lewalski makes clear the effects of the way mod- ernizing editions (i.e. most editions) override the characteristic ‘light punctuation’ of the original: ‘Supplying modern punctuation often breaks rhythmic patterns readers are intended to hear and can learn pretty quickly how to read. Also, such modernizing may force a single reading where the lighter punctuation accommodates others’. This is just one loss, though. On page after page of these volumes the reader finds herself surprised into apprehending Milton differently.

This year there are two wonderful additions to original-spelling texts of work from this period: Paul Hammond’s edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: An Original-Spelling Text (OUP, 2012) has finally become available in an affordable paperback, and OUP have also issued a new John Donne in the 21st-century Oxford Authors series, edited by Janel Mueller (though at the moment this is only available in hardback).

Paul Hammond, in section five of his introduction, ‘Reading an Original- Spelling Text’, demonstrates conclusively its advantages but is also surprisingly defensive: no doubt some within OUP, kowtowing to the god ‘Accessibility’, or with the usual reverence for that other god ‘The Bottom Line’, have made him suitably nervous that his project might not sell, that it is aesthetic or recherché:

The accidentals of Q [i.e. the spelling, punctuation, capitals, and italics of the original Shake-speares Sonnets (1609) ] . . . while not directly attributable to Shakespeare himself, do reflect the writing and reading practices of his day, and can tell us some important things about the poems – their meaning, sound, pace – which may be lost in a modernized text.

This is deliciously understated. The thoughtful reader, turning these pages through well-known poems, will be surprised again and again by the nuance to which this text gives access. There are so many examples that I pick a few at random from the middle of the sequence: sonnet 62, where Shakespeare looks at himself in the mirror and, contrary to his beautiful young friend, sees his own face ‘Beated and chopt with tand antiquitie’ (which is smoothed out in modern versions to ‘Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity’), or the moment in sonnet 63 when Shakespeare dreads the time when his young friend will get old, ‘when his youthfull morne / Hath trauaild on to Ages steepie night’. When ‘trauaild’ is modernized to ‘travelled’ then the double sense of ‘travelled’ and ‘laboured’ is lost, as well as something of the beauty of the sound. Here, though, is a full example: sonnet 65, Shakespeare’s most brutal and beautiful lament for time and ageing:

Since brasse, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundlesse sea,

But sad mortallity ore-swaies their power,

How with this rage shall beautie hold a plea,

Whose action is no stronger then a flower?

O how shall summers hunny breath hold out,

Against the wrackfull siedge of battring dayes,

When rocks impregnable are not so stoute,

Nor gates of steele so strong but time decayes?

O fearefull meditation, where alack,

Shall times best Iewell from times chest lie hid?

Or what strong hand can hold his swift foote back,

Or who his spoile or beautie can forbid?

O none, vnlesse this miracle haue might,

That in black inck my loue may still shine bright.


That is not so different perhaps, you think – but then look closer. A modern text tends to give ‘o’ersways’ (in the second line), whereas the original hyphenated ‘ore-swaies’ weighs the two syllables more evenly and gives subtle emphasis. In the beautiful line 5, modern texts often insert a comma after ‘O’, whereas the original lets us drift far more subtly from ‘O’ into the rest of the line, and ‘hunny’ picks up the u in ‘summers’ and somehow magnifies the loveliness of the phrase to the mind’s eye. In line 6 ‘battering days’ (the usual modernization) is a real problem: sensitive readers will, of course, not read three syllables (‘batt-er-ing’), yet actual standard modern pronunciation keeps at least a half ghost of that third syllable. The stark disyllable ‘battring’ can’t be missed and tautens the line. Time here is personified as some aggressive soldierly aristocratic, with a treasure-chest of valuables in which he will eventually lock up the beautiful youth, and a muscular physique which means that no rugby tackle can stop his progress. But then there is line 12, where actually, what we are used to – the eighteenth-century emendation of ‘or’ to ‘of’ – gives us something relatively flat and uneuphonous: ‘Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid’. Hammond trusts the original text, ‘Or who his spoile or beautie can forbid’, and notes, following Capell, that ‘or’ is almost certainly ‘o’er’, the contracted form of ‘over’. Time’s destructive pillaging ‘over’ Beauty works better because it goes with the image of the battering siege by which Winter overcomes ‘summers hunny breath’: that muscular soldier Time simply smashes over Beauty in the way the besiegers swarm on a lovely citadel.

The new edition of Donne furnishes a myriad of these same kind of nuances and insights, though it is not as completely unmodernized as the Shakespeare. Personally I wish Janel Mueller had gone further in staying true to the ‘original character’ of Donne’s texts. Yet we must still be grateful. Here, in what will eventually be a widely available paperback, is a text that really foregrounds the Dowden and Westmoreland manuscripts, and which, via ‘light modernization’ and even some photographs, gives us a real sense of the original seventeenth-century texts from which it is made. There is not too much smoothing out. The poems now resist the modern eye just enough to give us that experience of another world, which should be such a vital part of reading them, preventing too easy an assimilation into our own (limited) modernity. I give just one example: Donne’s exquisite ‘The Ecstasy’ – in this edition ‘The Extasye’ – his witty Neoplatonic exploration of ‘what Love really is’, based on his reading of Leone Ebreo’s Dialoghi d’Amore (1535), a popular Renaissance text. Such Neoplatonism is so distant from some aspects of contemporary sensibility that one critic even went so far as to suggest that the poem is a covert sexual seduction – which is reading against the grain with a vengeance!

Donne sits his young lovers side by side in a conventional May time setting, on a mound covered with violets. They are holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes, and in this intense time their two souls seem to leave their bodies and join up to make one higher ‘new Soule’, which then speaks out to us – or rather (in the poem’s terms) to a sly Platonist who may or may not just happen to be passing by! Just so ridiculous we may think, but actually this scenario is exploring something which still happens, and which we still know all about: the experience of two people profoundly in love, feeling that something more than earthly attends their feelings. In the poem’s terms, it is a love that overreaches sex, ‘a “perfect love” born of reason and having for its objects the virtue, intelligence, and beauty that we perceive in each other’ (this is the editor, glossing the poem from its Neoplatonic source). It is what we might now call an out-of-body experience. At the height of the speech made by the higher joint Soul of the two lovers, this is what it says – in a modernized text:

But, O alas! so long, so far

Our bodies why do we forbear?

They are ours, though they are not we; we are

The intelligences, they the sphere.


We owe them thanks, because they thus

Did us, to us, at first convey,

Yielded their forces, sense, to us,

Nor are dross to us, but allay.

Their bodies must be thanked for actually bringing them together, for surrendering their lower ‘forces’ of movement and perception just so that the lovers’ souls can now meet in the ‘ecstasy’ of their higher ‘new Soule’. Their bodies are that ‘allay’ (alloy) which allows their higher purer be- ing to exist. Now compare this with Mueller’s less modernized, more conservative rendering of the Dowden manuscript:

But oh Alas, so long, so farr

But bodies why doe wee forbeare?

They are Ours, though they’ are not wee; Wee are

Th’Intelligences, they the Spheare.


Wee owe them thanckes, because they thus

Did us to Us at first convay,

Yeilded theyre forces, Sense, to Us

Nor are drosse to Us, but Allay.

Much could be noted here, but take just those three capitalized instances of ‘Us’ in the second stanza, one per line, cumulatively adding a subtle em- phasis. This transforms the verse, for it makes clear the way in which the two souls now speak of themselves as a unified ‘Us’, a totally united entity, and it is this ‘Us’ that must proceed back into their bodies, and love and appreciate those bodies. The capitalization, rather than extending the space between us and the seventeenth century, suddenly closes it down. The ending of Der Rosenkavalier comes to mind. Janel Mueller and other editors of original-spelling texts should indeed be thanked for taking us away from Ricks’s modernized ‘duller page’.

By Stefan Hawlin

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