[Milton-L] text questions

Derek Wood dwood at stfx.ca
Tue Feb 5 21:33:16 EST 2008

I was sorry not to see, in the course of this discussion, a defence of modern spelling editions of early modern texts. As an undergraduate, I liked the sense of "genuineness", the scent of history, the "closeness to the author's intentions" in an old spelling text. This was dashed a little when I learned that "Spenser's"or "Marlowe's"  spelling was actually the compositor's and that spelling was very often adjusted to justify the line. If he was running out of "l's" or "s's," the compositor might shorten the word; he might lengthen it if there were spaces unfilled in the line. "Welle" or "wel,"  "lesse" or "les" often only indicated the state of the font and line spacing. Learning more about early modern pronunciation and syntax and especially accentuation, I realised how misleading "old" spelling could be as far as sound as well as rhythm were concerned. -- as , indeed, could modern spelling. How to indicate the sound of "deserts of vast eternity" or " my dear time's waste" or "as in a net I seke to holde the wynde" or the pun on "I" and "aye." 
         As a teacher of undergraduates, I have to waken the interest in young people who find Lord of the Flies 
is a) "long" and b) "difficult". How then with The Faerie Queene in old spelling? First line
                           A gentil knyght was prykyng on the plaine
I wanted to talk about the warfaring Christian as mediaeval knight, his Red Cross, the cultural semantics of "gentle" but found I needed to explain "pricking" and wait for the snickering to stop.
Many old-spelt words are similar in sound and stress to modern equivalents; many are not; some modern spellings better indicate sound than old spellings. But the distraction and inhibition of reading a text in old spelling is negative for even a bright interested freshman; the weaker student simply remains with Coles notes. whatever the text. I remember as a 16 year old in an English grammar school, having to translate Chaucer unseen and coming  to the famous tuft of hair on the Miller's wart;
                           Red as the bristyls on a sowes erys.
I stopped embarrassed and thank God I did: I thought "erys" was "arse" ("ass", amer.). I had heard that Chaucer was bawdy and so . . If I had translated thus, I would have been part of the school's comedic mythology for ever. Old spelling inhibits reading aloud as well as silently and this is for no gain in appreciating pronunciation or prosody. I think M.A. and doctoral students should read all early literature, including Beowulf, in the best authenticated texts but undergraduates should have modern spelling texts with careful annotation about the sound as well as the meaning of the original, whether spelled by the author or the printer. Some old spellings must be retained: e.g. "nould," "note" etc. And how many early modern editors are experts in pronunciation? (Sorry!) I think this is what John Shawcross may be saying in his usual understated and tactful way: choice of text "depending on the level of the class and its interests and what the instructor thus aimed at. . . .it all depends on the instructor and the class, doesn't it?"
Derek N. C. Wood,
Senior Research Professor,
St. Francis Xavier University,
Canada,    B2G 2W5
e-mail: dwood at stfx.ca
phone: 902-867-2328 (w)
           902-863-5433 (h)
fax:      902-867-5400
web:     http://www.stfx.ca/people/dwood <http://www.stfx.ca/people/dwood/Welcome.html> /Welcome.html 

. . . I tried to stress my opinion that all were excellent choices for a teaching text depending upon the level of the class and its interests and what the instructor thus aimed at. 

I hope this is helpful: it all depends on the instructor and class, doesn't it?

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