A Nice Question
— The case concerns my friend, who is at present suffering too severely to discuss it himself. Indeed, he maintains that it is not a case for discussion at all. If I so much as breathe the word “ casuistry,” he retorts fiercely, “ Common morality! ” and then goes on mumbling something about possession being nine points of the law ; at which I suspect him of getting off his own argumentative base. But I really think him nearer right when he is off than when he is on, and I am going to argue the matter from the point of view of long possession.
My friend kindly permits me to narrate his story, for which I thank him, as by this means the question can be better understood.
He wrote something, — no matter what, — introducing a stanza from a Great Poet, one who not long ago joined the choir invisible. He knew his poem well, had known it from early childhood, and quoted it as he had learned it. The article comes out in print, when he discovers that he is made to appear guilty of a misquotation. He hastens to apprise all his acquaintance that the error is not his ; he makes still greater haste to inform the editor of the ignorant carelessness of the—’s proofreader. “ I surely wrote so and so,” says he. To which Mr. Editor responds, “ Yes, you did, but the poet wrote thus and thus.” Then does my friend, chagrined yet positive, seek his own familiar edition, to find himself in the right ; but he is likewise in the wrong, for “ the latest, revised and testamentary edition ” reads just as the editor had said, “ thus and thus.” The early line was rich, resonant, virile, perhaps even a trifle rough, but so harmonizing with the rude, strong music of the rest of the stanza, which is full of forceful consonantal combinations and open-mouthed vowels. The later line is weak, flat, thin, and, without a commentary, senseless.
But this is neither here nor there. Let us suppose that the revision is an improvement. There yet remains the question, Has a poet any right, after a certain period of years has gone by, and his words have become familiar quotations to a whole generation and part of another, — has he any right to tamper with his own poems to the extent of altering well-known lines so that the peculiar melody which made them beloved shall be utterly destroyed ?
My afflicted friend, in a tone more objectionable than profanity, says No ; and, making every allowance for the temporary indisposition of his judgment, I must confess that I think he is correct.
Can there be a more ruthless proceeding than the destruction of a beloved association, particularly when it dates back to one’s infancy ? And this is what the favorite passages of our poets are to us. The very words and their cadences, apart from their meanings, come to have for us ein Klingen (if I knew a good English word for this, I would use it), which we hold dear as life-memories, and can no more submit to seeing changed than we could submit to a variation in the essential melody of The Last Rose of Summer.
What if Beethoven were to return, and insist upon rewriting the final bars of the Allegretto, eighth symphony, bringing it to a dead, formal stop on the tonic, before sailing forth on the smooth waters of the Minuet? What would the civilized musical world say ? This is what it would say : “ The eighth symphony is our property now, not yours. Hundreds of thousands of ears have been familiarized with the indeterminate, hemi-demi-semi-quaver flurry which finishes without finishing the eerie exquisiteness of this movement. None of us wish any improvement ; we prefer to have it sound just the way it always has sounded.”
Yet it would be a far less serious matter to change a musical composition than a poem, for the familiar quotations have passed into proverbs ; they have become incorporated in all literature. Would we not now resent an attempt on the part of Shakespeare to mend his metaphors, anachronisms, or even his geography ? We cannot give up that seaport in Bohemia ; we have no desire that Lear and the Fool should talk as kings and fools talked — according to the extant records of that time — in the year 800 B. C. ; we would favor no proposition to turn Sir Toby and his knightly Companion into veritable Illyrians; and we feel that it is far better to take arms against a sea of troubles, difficult as the feat might prove, than to have our most precious possessions taken from us. And that is what it really amounts to when we look into “a latest, revised and testamentary edition ” to find lines that were household words gone or altered past recognition. If this sort of thing is permitted, there is no telling where it may Stop. We are pretty sure of the dead, the long since dead, though the Spiritualists give us a scare now and then ; but it were well to keep a watch upon aged and declining bards. Suppose Lord Tennyson’s views to have modified during the last years of his lordship’s life, so that to him it should seem only good to be noble, coronets rising in his estimation as being superior to kind hearts. It is then conceivable that he might have sought to amend Lady Clara Vere de Vere in accordance with such views. From one standpoint he would have the right to do so ; but would we, his lifelong readers, concede him that right ? I trow not. Lesser men may do what they choose, but the Great Poet, by very reason of his greatness, has not this privilege. His words are gifts to mankind, and mankind resents “ Indian giving”
But one says, “ Would you then deny a poet all chance of bettering his verses ? Must there be no revised editions ? ” “ Certainly there must,” says my friend, who, though still suffering, acknowledges to some abatement of the agony, “but not after the poems have stood untouched for half a century. By that time they have become the spiritual and æsthetic chyme and chyle of the age ; you cannot root them out by reprinting them, any more than you can deprive a man of well-digested nourishment.” “ But at least,” continues the other, “ you are at liberty to read your old edition.” “Yes,” replies the Sufferer, “and so I always mean to ; you could n’t hire me to read anything else. But if you concede to the Poet the right to alter his poems ad libitum, that permission robs the old editions of his sanction, and, to that extent, of their essential flavor. It is like calling the divine William by the name of Francis ; he does not smell so sweet, argue as you may.”
At this point my friend walked suddenly away, as if unable longer to dwell upon the painful subject. I watched him enter a bookstore, and followed him. He was buying a certain “latest, revised and testamentary edition.”