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Text Genetics in Literary Modernism and Other Essays

Hans Walter Gabler


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1On the front and back covers of this collection of essays is shadowed, and across the ensuing opening we discern, the entire evidence in writing of John Milton’s composition of the poem he began under the title Song and developed by stages of revision into At a Solemn Musick. John Milton is not a modernist author. Yet this double-page spread in his autograph of his earlier writing preserved as ‘The Milton Manuscript’ ’(shelfmark R. 3.4) in the Wren Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, shows every characteristic of authorial drafts from later times in later hands.

2Owing to a large tear in the leaf, a long set of line openings or middles of lines from the first writing attempt is lost, but the line fragments remaining indicate a draft in a sequence of thirty lines predominantly in pentameter, though intermittently shorter. There are frequent and significant revisions in wording — the last line goes through several permutations — as well as of line lengths. With a wholesale crossing-out of the block of writing in the page’s upper half, the second attempt commences in the white space below. Twenty-two lines towards a second draft of the poem, inclusive of two lines at the bottom of the page that show in the manuscript as heavily deleted, are here accommodated. Short lines segment groups of full pentameter-length lines into what appears to be a considered patterning. Verbal revision is again frequent. The second draft is brought to an end with eight lines that form the uppermost of three blocks of writing on the second manuscript page. Before the heavy deletion of the bottom lines on the first manuscript page, the second draft once more totals thirty lines.

Fig. 1 John Milton, Song, in process of revision towards At a Solemn Musick.

3The second block of twelve lines on the second page revises the eight-line block above it and represents what material evidence the manuscript provides for a third draft of the poem. This third draft was not separately written out in its entirety, but is mirrored in the fair-copy text of At a Solemn Musick resulting from it. The last block in the lower half of the second page constitutes that fair copy. Relating the second draft and the fair copy to one another reveals the extent of the recomposition of the second draft into the third draft. The rewrite involved, implicitly, a cutting of the second four lines of the second draft on page one, and also confirms the heavy deletion of the last two lines on page one. The revision of the upper block into the middle block of page two evidences both significant variation of preexisting text and an expansion from eight to twelve lines. After the wholesale crossings-out of all second-draft and third-draft writing blocks, the fair copy alone, uncrossed-out, concludes the writing on the manuscript’s second page and ends the composition of the poem, except only for one significant revision of its last line when the poem appears in print. The manuscript line ‘To live and sing with him in endlesse morne of light.’ becomes in the published text: ‘To live with him, and sing in endless morn of light.’ This, besides muting the homeliness of living and singing along with Him, reproportions the line’s 3: 3 stresses in the fair copy into 2: 4 stresses in the published poem. This reproportioning instantiates for an additional and final time the 1: 2 ratio of the double octave by which the poem is multiply structured. In the fresh-text addition to the second version, the proportion is conceptualised by its recondite technical term in Greek as ‘perfect diapason’ (line 23 of At a Solemn Musick). In reenacting in its last line that double-octave relationship, the poem climaxes prosodically in its heightened vision of sharing with the heavenly hosts anew ‘the faire musick that all creatures made | To thire great Lord whose Love thire motion sway’d’ (lines 21–22). This solemn music is what the poem is about.

4To understand how the two versions differently articulate the Song and envision the Solemn Musick, it is the numbers of Milton’s composition that crave attention. Numerological significance had strong roots in Hebrew erudition and Christian religion, as well as in the philosophic thought of Antiquity. For John Milton, numbers and number proportions were still semantically charged: theologically, philosophically, indeed musically. Writing Song in thirty lines and segmenting these as twenty-two plus eight lines reflects the fact that Milton knew twenty-two as the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet by which Old Testament Scripture, and thus the old dispensation, could be signified. The number eight, by contrast, stood for the day of Christ’s resurrection, to which for example the octangular design of baptismal churches and fonts symbolically relate, and thus signifies the new dispensation of the New Testament. In terms of the number division of its lines, Song articulates through its form the subject that it sings. The revision of Song into At a Solemn Musick represents a rethinking of how to articulate the poem through its numbers. Its Solemn Musick becomes insistently expressed through musical proportions, now less of Biblical and Christian than of Platonic and Pythagorean origins. The dominant proportion is that of the octave and double octave. Milton’s strategic use of short lines to group the poem’s regular pentameter lines ensures that the poem’s structuring by musical numbers be recognised, allowing the reader stage by stage to follow the poet in dialogue with his writing, and responding to how the emerging text established its modifications of form and enriched its significance. The key to such a reader’s recognition of Milton’s creative mind in action is that lines 8, 15 and 16 are short lines. Sixteen lines add up to two octaves. Within this additive arrangement, fifteen lines, delimited by the short line 15, represent two octaves intoned or played in succession, that is, with the last note of the first simultaneously the first of the second octave. Exactly this interstice is marked by line 8, the poem’s first short line. It elevates the centre from which all creation — thus ultimately, too, this very poem — springs: ‘To him that sitts thereon’ (i.e., on the ‘sapphire-colour’d throne’ around which all the heavenly host in their solemn music-making are gathered to sing the Creator’s praise). This double patterning of the octaves of lines 1 to 16 underscores the significance of the octave proportions. In Platonic-Pythagorean philosophy of music, the octave is the ‘perfect diapason’ apostrophised in line 23 of At a Solemn Musick. In Hebreo-Christian numerology, moreover, it is elevated: here, the 2: 1 proportion of the double octave expresses the relationship between creator and creation. Hence, the 2: 1 reproportioning of the poem’s last line for the published text represents the final touch to a rich and semantically charged numerological patterning of the poem in its entirety. Its second phase of twelve lines, too, plays through several options of Pythagorean musical numbers. The numerological climax of the poem’s structuring is its total length now of twenty-eight lines. That the Song of thirty lines becomes At a Solemn Musick in twenty-eight lines is deeply meaningful. Twenty-eight is a perfect number: a number whose factors (1, 2, 4, 7, 14) add up to itself. Extending to twenty-eight lines, the poem thus expressly figures, even as it envisions in ‘high-rays’d phantasie’ (line 5), its solemn Musick as the ‘perfect diapason’ of consonance — of ‘pure concent’ (line 6) — between Creator and Creation.


  • 1 See further: ‘Poetry in Numbers: A Development of Significative Form in Milton’s Early Poetry’, Arc (...)

5In these draft manuscript pages of John Milton’s I first encountered and closely engaged with the material traces of the dynamic dialogue of writing-and-reading-and-writing giving evidence of the invention and progressive composition of the text and texts of a work of literature.1 Irresistibly for the future, I became aware of the significance and interpretative power of compositional genetics. This engagement matured over the years into wider conceptualisations of the writing processes in authors’ draft manuscripts, their critical interpretation, and their representation in the digital medium. The essays assembled in this collection indicate landmarks on itineraries during the past decade and a half through fields of particular interest to me: Joyce, Woolf, Shakespeare and Bach studies, principles and theory of textual scholarship and digital editing, history of editions as books, or the possible impact of scholarly editing on the cultural awareness of canons.

  • 2 The essay was originally published in a series of booklets the National Library of Ireland issued i (...)
  • 3 In practical terms, this second essay in the present collection is a fresh publication, since the c (...)

6The first four essays are James-Joyce-bound. Together with the essays on Virginia Woolf in the volume’s second half, they justify the book’s title, ‘Text Genetics in Literary Modernism’. Opening the collection, ‘The Rocky Road to Ulysses’traces the progression of Joyce’s writing towards that first culmination of his oeuvre.2 Questions of how Joyce perceived everything he encountered as essentially textual and how he ‘chronicled with patience what he saw’ and read and experienced, I scrutinise more closely in ‘“He chronicled with patience”: Early Joycean Progressions between Non-Fiction and Fiction’.3 Turning perception into writing comprehensively involves interpretation. Enterprisingly, Joyce, in his early Irish, as well as his Austro-Hungarian years in Italians-peaking Trieste, articulated his Irishness in translations between cultures and politics in Europe, which the collection’s third essay, ‘James Joyce Interpreneur’, surveys. The fourth essay fell into place as the present volume was nearing publication: ‘Structures of Memory and Orientation: Steering a Course Through Wandering Rocks’ ventures to show just how James Joyce constructed Wandering Rocks to the template of Jason’s and the Argonaut’s hazardous passage through the symplegades; and how, to accomplish the desired homeomorph formations, he drew inspiration from Jason’s navigational ruses as well as from Leopold Bloom’s idiosyncratic notions of ‘parallax’.

  • 4 Paul Eggert, Securing The Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  • 5 Brian Vickers, The One King Lear (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2016).

7From the fifth essay onwards, the subject matter alters. The horizon opens onto realms of principles, even theories, of textual criticism and editing in our day, and towards a future of the digital edition as digital research environment, anchored in text and in processes of text-invariation. ‘Editing Text — Editing Work’ declares the fundamental distinction I make throughout: ‘text’ is always grounded in the materiality of transmissions, while ‘work’ is conceptually always immaterial. Under given situations of transmission, moreover, ‘work’ comprises multiple instantiations of material text. The essay that follows, ‘Theorizing the Digital Scholarly Edition’, should be seen, when read today, as an early attempt to grasp fundamental problematics of rethinking scholarly editing as it migrates into the digital medium. Its concerns will be found reiterated throughout the collection. Among them is the demand for a thorough reconceptualising of the scholarly edition as a relational structure cross-linking its several and diverse discourses; another, the call for reviving for fully-fledged scholarly editions the functions of mediation that formed the core of the business of editing through the ages but were distinctly marginalised throughout the twentieth century. ‘Thoughts on Scholarly Editing’ is by its occasional origin a review article of Paul Eggert’s Securing the Past.4 Inspired as it was by the comprehensiveness and provocations to thought of the book reviewed, the essay should contribute to heightening an awareness of textual criticism and scholarly editing in the present era, which is witnessing the refocusing of these twin disciplines severally and together. ‘Beyond Author-Centricity in Scholarly Editing’ goes yet a decisive step further in querying, in terms of their historical contingency, the core concepts of editorial scholarship: authority, authorisation, or the primacy of the author’s will. I see and argue the need to split the terms ‘author’ and ‘authorship’ into a pragmatic versus a conceptual aspect. The essay questions the elevation of ‘the author’s (final, latest) intention’ to a, or the, leading principle for textual criticism and editing, as it has specifically characterised the Anglo-American school through the second half of the twentieth century. What I identify, too, is the historical moment when an all-out author orientation replaced the traditional text orientation of textual criticism. The shift amounted to substituting an orientation towards a retrospective vision of an ideal text, the ‘archetype’, with a prospective orientation towards the opposite ideal of ‘the text of the author’s final intention’. Since the primary exercise ground for developing principles and practices of editorial scholarship in the twentieth century, at least in its Anglo-American province, was the textual criticism and editing of Shakespeare, it has seemed fitting to insert at this juncture in the sequence of the present essays the gist of a very recent review of Sir Brian Vickers’ fresh study of The One King Lear.5 Admirable within its strict confines of bibliographical methodology, the book is yet inconclusive since it strictly avoids engaging critically with the text(s) of Shakespeare’s King Lear. This points to the underlying dilemma of Shakespearean textual criticism of two and three generations ago articulated in my essay’s title: ‘Sourcing and Editing Shakespeare: the Bibliographical Fallacy’. Fittingly, moreover, the reflections on whether we have or have not preserved traces of two authorial versions of King Lear widen historically rearward (from Milton’s At a Solemn Musick) the collection’s interest in the genetics of writing and of texts.

8What remains lacking for Shakespeare, of course, is the authorial manuscript, or manuscripts: evidence preserved, as seen, for Milton’s poem. The draft category of the authorial manuscript becomes ubiquitous in transmissions of the past two hundred years or so and has been studied with particular intensity for texts and works of European Modernism. Hence, I have, with the essay ‘The Draft Manuscript as Material Foundation for Genetic Editing and Genetic Criticism’, placed my argument for the categorical, and indeed ontological, uniqueness of the draft manuscript precisely between the essays concerned with principles and theory, and the succeeding group focused on genetic editing and genetic criticism. These now concentrate on writings of Virginia Woolf’s: ‘A Tale of Two Texts: Or, How One Might Edit Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse’ meets the challenge of genetic editing still under the medial assumption of print and the book. ‘Auto-Palimpsests: Virginia Woolf‘s Late Drafting of Her Early Life’ observes Virginia Woolf in a biographic mode of writing in dialogue with her memories of herself in childhood and youth. By contrast, ‘From Memory to Fiction: An Essay in Genetic Criticism’ confirms her as in the fictional mode totally committed to the autonomy of the imaginary in fiction. In terms of the thematics of my interest in the present collection, these latter two essays mirror and contrast what ‘He chronicled with patience’ explored of James Joyce’s negotiations between his biography and his art along the borderlines of non-fictional as against fictional writing.

9The last essays in the collection branch out into three distinct directions. ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’s Two-Choir Passion’ (not fortuitously the fourteenth in sequence), brings to bear the genetic perspective of creativity in art under numerological auspices in Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion. ‘Argument into Design: Editions as a Sub-Species of the Printed Book’ sheds retrospective light on the interdependence of editorial argument and the techniques and art of book design. How editions, as the products of scholarship they are, present themselves intelligibly to their readers and users depends decisively on the intellectual and technical achievements of the printing house. The final essay, ‘Cultural versus Editorial Canonising: The Cases of Shakespeare, of Joyce’, reflects upon the relative position scholarly editing holds in relation to cultural definitions and redefinitions of canons and canonicity, towards securing and carrying forward our cultural heritage through generation upon generation of writing and text.

Munich, 22 November 2017


1 See further: ‘Poetry in Numbers: A Development of Significative Form in Milton’s Early Poetry’, Archiv, 220 (1983), 54–61, My latest excursion in pursuit of compositional numbers is the fourteenth essay in this collection: ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’s Two-Choir Passion’, p. 301.

2 The essay was originally published in a series of booklets the National Library of Ireland issued in 2004 to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the fictional date of Ulysses.

3 In practical terms, this second essay in the present collection is a fresh publication, since the conference volume intended for its first instantiation (in slightly different form) has been delayed. The volume Joyce’s Non-Fiction Writings: Outside His Jurisfiction, ed. by James Alexander Fraser and Katherine Ebury, is expected in 2018 (London: Palgrave Macmillan).

4 Paul Eggert, Securing The Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

5 Brian Vickers, The One King Lear (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2016).

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1 John Milton, Song, in process of revision towards At a Solemn Musick.
Fichier image/jpeg, 680k
Fichier image/jpeg, 643k


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