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Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment by Kristine Louise Haugen (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 45, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 258-260 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0006

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If it were true that poetry makes nothing happen, then the reputation of Bentley (as of his apostle Theobald) would not have been so long affected by the satire of Swift or Pope. Bentley has had notable modern apologists, from William Empson’s and Christopher Ricks’s acute defenses of the verbal intelligence of Bentley’s nonetheless eccentric Paradise Lost edition, through more recent examinations, by Joseph Levine, Jonathan Kramnick, and Simon Jarvis, of Bentley as the key figure in the development of an English literary canon and editorial tradition. There has certainly been a growing understanding in the academy of Bentley’s academic and intellectual importance. Now we have a full-scale study that promises to restore Bentley to the central though problematic position in the history of literature and scholarship that he deserves.

Ms. Haugen’s book is not a biography, not an updated version of Monk’s 1830 Life. Nor does Ms. Haugen undertake to cover every Bentleian theme in equal depth (the Boyle Lectures, for instance, are handled briefly). Concerned especially with the linguistic details of Bentley’s classical scholarship, and the informing context of the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century church and university, she focuses on Bentley the professional editor and scholar, “bringing classical study out of the scholar’s closet . . . into the drawing rooms,” and the profound questions his career in the academy and in public life raised for his own time, and continue urgently to raise for ours. Her narrative and her voluminous, learned, and often creative endnotes present Bentley’s Greek and Latin learning, his mastery of metrics, his scholarly methods, and (with a reservation I shall note) his editorial principles.

Bentley was one of the most complex and wide-ranging minds of his time, and any book which deals with his work with Ms. Haugen’s energy and decision will inevitably raise its own set of questions. One is Ms. Haugen’s understanding of the role, or rather the absence of a role, for interpretation in Bentley’s editorial methodology. Clear thinking on this issue is crucial to our sense of our Bentleian inheritance in textual scholarship. Ms. Haugen tells us of the “wholesale rejection of hermeneutics . . . distinctive to the English scholars,” but her next sentence suggests that by “hermeneutics” she has in mind aesthetic judgment, rather than verbal interpretation: “even as Bentley became more decisively literary in his scholarly interests, he would never abandon the seventeenth-century conviction that it was otiose and elementary to point out poetic ‘beauties.”’ Elsewhere, Ms. Haugen cogently points out that Bentley followed the Dutch critics in his concentration on “textual matters, avoiding historical or explanatory remarks about the poetry at hand”; Bentley’s avoidance of explanation, however, did not involve (and could not have involved) avoidance of interpretation. Ms. Haugen in fact regularly quotes statements by Bentley which confirm the foundation of his editorial method on verbal understanding, and his privileging of criteria of verbal coherence over manuscript evidence, including his well-known assertions in the notes to his Horace: “The meaning (sententia) is such as to overturn all the credit and authority even of two hundred copyists.” Ms. Haugen indeed acknowledges that his “will to correct continued beyond the linguistic form of the passages Bentley scrutinized, extending to their basic and literal meaning as well.”

The phrase “will to correct,” however, and Ms. Haugen’s separation here of linguistic form and meaning, scarcely do justice to Bentley’s fundamental editorial concern with sense. His early and vital understanding that text-editorial decisions must start with the author’s meaning, and the author’s choice of words to express that meaning, is at one with Housman and many later editorial theorists, though certainly Bentley would have been more in sympathy with Housman’s mockery of conservative editors who explain corrupt passages instead of correcting them, than with Housman’s balancing insistence on the use of linguistic and cultural knowledge to recognize and rescue possible witnessed readings. For similar reasons, Ms. Haugen is struck that Bentley’s “argumentative habits” in textual decision-making were much the same, whether pursued in defense of his independent conjectures, or of his choice among witnessed readings. Most modern...



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