American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

In Praise of the Variant

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One of the more depressing things I’ve read lately:

Jo Ann Boydston, the editor of the complete thirty-seven-volume edition of John Dewey’s writings, dolefully reports that to her knowledge not a single study of Dewey has ever referred for evidence to the enormous end-of-volume apparatus of rejected variants.

That’s from D. C. Greetham’s 1996 PMLA article “Textual Forensics,” a nice summary of the state of textual studies at the end of the last century.

Boydston’s comment gave me an idea for a new feature here … “Variant of the Month.” A chance to draw some attention to the unsung labor of editors, and a chance also to share to some of the delights of a scholarly edition.

With specific regard to nineteenth-century American poetry, the pool of available authors will not be very large. But there are still some options. Dickinson and Whitman, of course; and Emerson too. Also Stephen Crane, Jones Very … and there’s an interesting variant noted on occasion in a reading edition. I may even mention a variant I’ve discovered on my own.

But since Melville’s poems have only just been published as part of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville, I thought I’d begin with something from that volume, which was edited by Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Reising, and G. Thomas Tanselle. [1]

One of Melville’s most complex and most interesting poems is “After the Pleasure Party,” from Timoleon. It begins with a full-cap subtitle, followed by an introductory poem in italics:


Fear me, virgin whosoever
Taking pride from love exempt,
Fear me, slighted. Never, never
Brave me, nor my fury tempt:
Downy wings, but wroth they beat
Tempest even in reason’s seat.

The long text that follows (151 lines) “records,” as Douglas Robillard says, “the revenge of love on the pure search for knowledge.” More than too, of course, but that’s the gist.

From the notes we learn that the poem was at one time called “Urania or After the Pleasure Party” and also “A Boy’s Revenge or After the Pleasure Party.” Both titles are folded into the poem in the stanza that reads (lines 105-12):

One knows not if Urania yet
The pleasure-party may forget;
Or whether she lived down the strain
Of turbulent heart and rebel brain;
For Amor so resents a slight,
And hers had been such haught disdain,
He long may wreak his boyish spite,
And boy-like, little reck the pain.

But the different titles aren’t the alternative I want to highlight here. Instead, I want to draw attention to “an ink-inscribed fragment on the verso of the patch on leaf 290 of ‘Billy Budd,’” a fragment that was subsequently “canceled with pencil and blue pencil.” It reads:

I heard, I [? heard], [the rest of the text-line is scissored away]
Of jilting quick caprice within[?.][2]

A number of things make this fragment noteworthy, beginning with the fact that it makes a connection between the poem and “Billy Budd.” Interesting too is the uncertainty of where it fits (other fragments from the same stage of composition are more easily coordinated with the finished text). The editors key this passage to lines 46-47:

In dream I throned me, nor I saw
In cell the idiot crowned with straw.

But they add the qualification “perhaps related to … lines 27ff.” This second possibility is even more interesting, as it places the variant in a much more crucial part of the poem. Lines 27-32 read:

“Now first I feel, what all may ween,
That soon or late, if faded e’en,
One’s sex asserts itself. Desire,
The dear desire through love to sway,
Is like the Geysers that aspire —
Through cold obstruction win their fervid way. …” [3]

I’m note sure why the editors’ write “27ff.” instead of “27-28.” It may be a way of saying that the variant lines — if they do indeed mark an earlier version of the stanza — require a different continuation. More likely, it’s a way of saying that the variant is incomplete. I can see why the editors might think so. There are other manuscript fragments, also written on the back of “Billy Budd” material, that correspond to lines 13-23 and 46-49. It’s reasonable to imagine that the two-line variant is part of a longer, rejected version of the stanza as a whole (if it is, indeed, that stanza that they belong to; keyed to lines 46-47, the variant becomes a superseded version of a draft that then continues from line 46 to 49). In any case, replacing lines 27-28 with the variant yields this:

I heard, I [? heard], [the rest of the text-line is scissored away]
Of jilting quick caprice within[?.]
One’s sex asserts itself. Desire,
The dear desire through love to sway,
Is like the Geysers that aspire —
Through cold obstruction win their fervid way. …”

Which is very piquant, as Maria Damon might say. For one thing, it puts a lot of weight on the passage that was scissored away. Much more so than when the line is keyed to 46. There, the absence is a minor mystery. Here, because the context is so important, a powerful one.

More I won’t say. The poem is too complicated for a whole reading on the fly, or even for a whole reading of what the variant might mean. What I want to show, more than anything, is that an editorial apparatus is worth looking at. Here, the apparatus tears away some wallpaper and reveals a hidden door — a door to a room that no longer exists. You pry open the door and discover … what? A brick wall that might reveal further secrets? Or some sky, where there used to be an addition? It’s a mystery.

And that’s one kind of variant. I’ll try to find another kind for next time.


1 [Back to text] The role each editor played in the apparatus — and also the roles played by others involved in the project — is outlined at the start of the “Editorial Appendix” (pgs. 325-27).

2 [Back to text] As explained by the editors’ list of “Symbols, Abbreviations, and Terms” (pgs. 622-23), “brackets enclose editorial matter” and the “prefixed italic question mark indicates conjectural report.” Hence, in the two lines cited above, the second “heard” is conjectured, and also the period at the end of the passage. The bracketed note is in italics to distinguish it from Melville’s writing, which is in roman. The question mark is in italics for the same reason, to distinguish it from the conjectured period. A conjectured question mark would thus be written “[??].” Which is doubly redundant, since the italic question mark and brackets both mean that the roman question mark has been supplied by the editors — the roman question mark and the brackets both make, but in different ways, the italic question mark redundant. Which is not a bad thing. It makes the meaning unmistakable.

3 [Back to text] The quotation that begins with line 27 does not actually close until line 104.

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