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OVER the years, Oxford University Press has shown an admirable willingness to revisit its coverage of seventeenth-century poetry in the Oxford English Texts (OET) series. It has both replaced its older editions of some authors (Donne, Milton, Herrick), and commissioned editions of other writers (Fairfax, Sylvester, Fanshawe, Suckling, Rochester, Oldham, Buckingham) who had not previously been included in the series. Three notable omissions from the OET have been Abraham Cowley, Charles Cotton, and Edmund Waller. An OET edition of Waller by Timothy John Raylor and Michael P. Parker, we are told, is currently in hand. (At present, the poet still has to be quoted from the Muses Library edition of G. Thorn Drury, published as long ago as 1893.) Oxford University Press were presumably discouraged from commissioning a Cowley because of the existing edition from the University of Delaware Press, which began promisingly in 1989, but unfortunately has not yet progressed beyond Volume 2. The third poet, Charles Cotton, has now been afforded a full and splendid OET edition by Paul Hartle, the long-awaited product of many years of painstaking and productive research. Hartle’s is the first properly scholarly edition of Cotton’s poetical works ever to have been published. Cotton’s poetic oeuvre is remarkably diverse in genre, tone, and style, encompassing love-lyrics, pindaric odes, commendatory and topographical verses, verse-epistles, poems of Horatian and Waltonian retirement, scurrilous epigrams, a short epic (The Battaile of Yvry), imitations of French and classical verse, comic narratives, burlesques of both Virgil and Lucian, and a full translation of Pierre Corneille’s play Horace. Cotton’s burlesques, together with his contributions to later editions of Isaak Walton’s Compleat Angler, were his most popular works through the eighteenth century, but his shorter poems underwent something of a revival in the early 1800s. They were praised by Wordsworth for their ‘rapidity of detail and … profusion of fanciful comparions’, by Lamb for their ‘hearty’ and ‘cheerful’ qualities, and by Coleridge for their ‘excellence of thought, image, and passion’. Cotton’s poems, Coleridge thought, are ‘so worded that the reader sees no one reason either in the selection or the order of the words, why he might not have said the very same in an appropriate conversation, and cannot conceive how indeed he could have expressed such thoughts otherwise, without loss or injury to his meaning’. Hitherto, readers seriously interested in Cotton’s work have had to refer to the posthumously published Poems on Several Occasions (1689), to the early editions of the Virgilian and Lucianic burlesques and of the topographical poem The Wonders of the Peake, and to a number of other early printed sources containing poems of Cotton’s not included elsewhere. The only modern editions of Cotton’s verse have been the collections by John Beresford (1923) and John Buxton (1958) and the separate edition of The Valiant Knight and Scarronides by A. I. Dust (1992). Neither Beresford’s nor Buxton’s edition is complete, and neither has either the detailed textual information required by scholars or the explanatory annotation needed by students and general readers. Beresford’s edition was compiled without reference to the Derby manuscript (D), now regarded as the principal source for those poems of Cotton’s which it contains. Beresford omits most of the translated verse, the burlesques, and The Wonders of the Peake. Buxton includes The Wonders of the Peake but also omits the burlesques. His selection is based confessedly on his personal preferences rather than on any larger consensus about which parts of Cotton’s work might be thought the most significant. He uses D, but provides virtually no explanatory commentary, declaring that any information about such matters as Cotton’s sources will merely ‘weary the reader’. The only editions of Cotton to have appeared more recently are the short paperback selections by Geoffrey Grigson (1975) and Ken Robinson (1983)—useful for students, and valuable in keeping Cotton’s memory alive, but too selective and too lacking in explanatory commentary to give an adequate representation or understanding of Cotton’s art. Interestingly there is some, but by no means a complete, overlap between the items selected by Grigson and Robinson. This suggests a persistent uncertainty about what represents ‘the best of Cotton’. Neither selection, significantly, includes any of the burlesque material. Hartle’s new edition presents ‘as entire a collection of Cotton’s verse as is practical’. The only exclusions are a handful of dubiously-attributed lines, and the verse-translations included in Cotton’s version of the Essays of Montaigne (1685–86). Cotton’s Montaigne was once widely admired, and was frequently reprinted (sometimes in a revised form) throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Leigh Hunt observed, in terms which also have some relevance for Cotton’s verse, that the translation manifests a spirit that is ‘frank, good-humoured, a mixture of the jovial and melancholy, with a careless, but strong and natural style, suitable to [Cotton’s] mental vigour and personal dislike of artifice and elaboration’. Hartle’s exclusion of the verse quotations in the Montaigne is understandable. The passages are not all by Cotton, and are, anyway, so integrally embedded in the Essays that excerption would be difficult. But one hopes that some enterprising publisher, perhaps inspired by the present edition of the poems, might be persuaded to reissue, in its entirety and stripped of its later accretions, the Montaigne—a keystone in Cotton’s oeuvre, and one of the greatest English prose translations of any period. Hartle divides the canon of Cotton’s verse neatly across his two large volumes. In Volume 1, he prints all the poems preserved in D, plus (in a separate sequence) those poems which appeared in Poems on Several Occasions (1689) but were not included in D. Volume 2 includes the Virgilian and Lucianic burlesques, The Wonders of the Peake, Cotton’s translation of Horace, and a number of miscellaneous poems from printed sources other than 1689. An important feature of the new edition is its partial rehabilitation of 1689. The collection has sometimes been dismissed, on the strength of family testimony recorded in the ‘Publisher’s Preface’ to Cotton’s Memoirs of the Sieur De Pontis (1694), as an unauthorized and slovenly publication. But Hartle shows convincingly that, despite incidental imperfections (some poems, for example, are rather ineptly printed twice) 1689 derives from a manuscript ‘which must have been almost a twin of D’, and speculates that the family’s disparagement of 1689 may have had its origins in acrimonious disputes about rights over the impoverished and debt-ridden poet’s literary remains. In terms of both its textual analysis and its rich explanatory commentary of over 600 pages, Hartle’s edition is an achievement of impressive substance. A complete checking of Hartle’s texts against their sources would, of course, involve as much exacting labour as he has expended himself. Suffice it to say that spot-checks against printed sources, together with the general thoroughness and judiciousness of the volumes’ editorial contributions, give one every confidence that the totality of Cotton’s poetical output has now been presented with unprecedented accuracy. One could occasionally have wished for even more annotation, particularly in the form of glossing of unfamiliar terms, usages, and spellings. I was surprised, for example, to find no comment on the rhyming of ‘Rythme’, ‘prime’, and ‘time’ at the opening of ‘Ode. ’, even though the 1689 variant ‘Rhyme’ is given in the apparatus. But the edition represents a quantum leap in our understanding of the (sometimes very obscure and/or elaborate) meaning, contexts, and sources of Cotton’s verse. In the case of Scarronides, Hartle has made the sensible decision to omit the references to and quotations from Virgil which appeared as footnotes in all the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century editions of the poem, and to replace them with a table (keyed to the Loeb edition) indicating at every point the particular Virgilian passage being parodied. One feature of the edition, however, may puzzle, and one may annoy, potential readers. Hartle’s decision to separate the poems appearing in D from those unique to 1689, and to base his texts on the two very different sources (sometimes supplying titles from 1689 to poems which are untitled in D) has meant that the two parts of what is essentially a single body of verse appear in Volume 1 in two very different guises. As is made clear, the punctuation in the texts based on D is ‘almost always lighter and more rhetorically orientated than that of the printed texts’. Hartle has, moreover, ‘attempted always to preserve the punctuation of the copy-text, except in cases of manifest error’. Consequently, in his texts based on MS Hartle sometimes reproduces wayward punctuation (‘To pay my Love to thee … / Were, to write better, of thy, life than can’), and preserves features not normally included in modern editions, such as double hyphens (‘a Free = State Bound in Fetters’). A missing number for Stanza 3 in ‘Forbidden Fruit’ may reproduce a flaw in D (if so, why was it not emended from 1689, where the number clearly appears?). But in texts based on printed sources, the diplomatic rigour of the transcriptions from MS has not always been employed. Drop-capitals from the early editions, in particular, have not been preserved. This gives an odd appearance to the first line of many poems (‘GOod Cupid, I must tell you truly’, ‘ANthony feigns him Sick of late’). Such a procedure, though it produces odd effects, is understandable—and, in the case of the drop-capitals may, anyway, represent a decision made by the publishers rather than the editor. The one annoying feature of the edition is that, although it contains an Index of First Lines, it lacks an Index of Titles of the individual poems in Vol. 1. The contents of D and 1689 are, to be sure, listed in full. But these lists are printed in small type, and striped continuously across the page. The page-references which they supply, moreover, are to D and 1689, making it impossible to locate particular poems within the present edition without leafing it through page by page. This is an unfortunate omission—which, one hopes, might be remedied on reprinting—in an otherwise superb edition. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. 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Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 7, 2018
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