The Primacy of the Manuscript

As one who has spent, and continues to spend, many many hours of my life transcribing and editing works both literary and musical from manuscript for publication, I have developed an absolutist — some might say obsessive — need to be true to an artist’s scrawl; the words or notes they write; the definition and placing of every item of punctuation or articulation.  An artist’s manuscript is the most exacting source we have of their intentions, and any representation of a work must be true to the authorial sources available to us.

At present, my time is spent unpicking the poetry of Ivor Gurney — or as much as I am able in the midst of my current teaching commitments (a baptism of fire).  However, in the midst of this, I am at present trying to complete the last minutes of music for my War Passion — a chamber oratorio that is to be premièred at the Three Choirs Festival in July, and my absolutist need for accuracy has spilt over into that task, demanding textual accuracy in the poetry I am using.  (Some might argue that this mindset is at odds with the very act of setting a poem to music — a brutal act of artistic butchery — particularly so given my occasionally liberal way with the poetry I am using. But that is for another day.)

In a recent Oxford University Press (OUP) sale I ordered a book that I have had my eye on for a while: Vivien Noakes’s authoritative last word on the work of Isaac Rosenberg, in her ‘21st Century Oxford Authors’ edition of his poetry, plays and selected prose and letters.  This edition in some respects supersedes her Oxford English Texts (OET) edition, drawing upon manuscript material for Rosenberg’s poetry that only came to light after the OET.  I was fascinated to see one poem in particular in that edition; a poem that I have used in my War Passion, ‘The Tower of Skulls’ (see my blog-post about this setting, posted in April 2015).

At the time of the OET edition, which I have on my shelves, the whereabouts of the manuscript for ‘The Tower of Skulls’ was unknown, so that edition relied upon the 1937 published text.  Having learned that this manuscript was one of those that had come to light subsequent to that edition, I sought it out on the extraordinary and invaluable resource that is Oxford University’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive.  The manuscript threw up a few questions, the poem evidently having been doctored a little upon its first publication.  A repetition of text had been ironed out: ‘jargoning on’ should have been ‘jargoning on and on’, so this required some slight reworking of the setting I had, by June 2015, already completed.

There was one mightily intriguing change which also required some slight adjustment — although I was in a little doubt about my reading.  I have become quite adept at reading handwriting on manuscripts; but even so, there was just a niggle of doubt.  I had sufficient confidence in my reading to again rework the setting, but I wanted confirmation from Vivien Noakes.  The book arrived this morning, and I turned immediately to the poem, only to be disappointed: the reading given — although correcting the repeated ‘on and on’ — did not reflect my own reading of the manuscript.

The passage in question is the closing stanza of the poem.  In its published form it reads:

When aged flesh looks down on tender brood;
For he knows between his thin ribs’ walls
The giant universe, the interminable
Panorama — synods, myths and creeds,
He knows his dust is fire and seed.

However, in the manuscript, I read the second line as: ‘For he knows between his thin ribs walk / The giant universe […]’.  It is a curious thing.  Knowing those great vistas of possibility within one’s “thin ribs’ walls” is perhaps more likely; but might they also be said to walk there?  Or is there an apostrophe missing after ribs in the manuscript, added in the published version, suggesting that it is within the walk of his ribs — within the locus of his being — that those vistas are to be found?  Rosenberg’s locating the walk ‘between’ rather than ‘within’ suggests that the former reading to be the more probable: the vistas figuratively walk there, between his ribs.

Given that Noakes makes no concession toward my reading of the poem, I have again returned to Rosenberg’s manuscript, throwing aside my seminar planning for a few moments.  Returning to it afresh, I am yet more convinced that it is indeed ‘walk’ that Rosenberg wrote, and so my setting of the poem shall remain thus.  I have posted below the images of the manuscript, so that you might make up your own mind.

Detail of the line in question:
Rosenberg detail 1

Compare the ‘k’ of walk with the surround ‘s’s at the end of words, and also compare that last ‘k’ with the below detail from the same manuscript — the word ‘stark’:
Rosenberg detail 2

The whole manuscript is available to view here:

You might pity the afflicted who are so concerned with the exact representation of a poet’s or composer’s work from their manuscript, but I hope you might agree: sometimes it is worth being pedantic about these things.  The manuscript and wider authorial sources must have precedence and must be preserved.  It also serves as a warning for both editors such as myself and users of published material; warnings of care and of our fallibility, and that, even though it might be in print several times over, Trust Nothing!!  Even a fine, exhaustive and extraordinarily knowledgeable editor such as the late Vivien Noakes can miss something.


2 thoughts on “The Primacy of the Manuscript

  1. Pingback: Poetic Butchery: the Act of Artistic Appropriation | The Unknown Region

  2. Pingback: Poetic Butchery: the Act of Artistic Appropriation | The Unknown Region

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