- A Question of Punctuation and “ear[s] for dissenting voices”Introduction to Textual Cultures 1.2
Due to the mechanics of publication in the transition to Textual Cultures in 2005, the publication of Sylvia Plath’s restored Ariel passed in silence among the pages of Text. After the chilling account in Lynda Bundtzen’s Preface (2001) of the nature of property rights and the oversight of Faber & Faber and Plath’s estate in not granting permission to quote from Plath’s and Hughes’ works, the appearance in 2004 of the HarperCollins’ edition of Ariel: The Restored Edition: A Facsimile of Plath’s Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement seemed an answer to the original edition of Ted Hughes in light of the searching investigations of scholars such as Lynda Bundtzen and, even before the publication of Plath’s Collected Poems (1981, edited by Hughes), Marjorie Perloff (1979). A simple reader—and certainly not a specialist—of Plath’s work, I will leave it to those far better prepared in the analysis of Ariel’s variants to discuss the interpretative implications of the “restored edition”, notably marked as a “first edition” (p. vi). It is hard not to be struck by Frieda Hughes’ elegant and moving Forward to the edition. Tough, intimate, searching, forgiving, it reminds us of the delicate nature of editing in general, but especially for those—in this case her father—so close, perhaps even too close, to the artistic process and/or the artist.
In the face of such questions and the enticement of Plath’s poems in their original—and seemingly intended—form and order, of particular interest are David Semanki’s “Notes” (199–211), which detail the variations in word choice, spelling, and punctuation between Hughes’ edition of her Collected Poems (1981) and her own typewritten and corrected manuscript. A careful [End Page 1] look at Plath’s typescript reveals her extraordinary attention to punctuation, some of which is critical to shifts in meaning and structure: the insistence of the restored exclamation point at the close of v. 25 of The Courage of Shutting-up (“pierced in its time!”), the parallel full stops restored in Purdah’s vv. 18–20 (“like a mirror. [. . .] Lord of the mirrors.”), saving the poem’s sole exclamations uniquely reserved for the repeated “Attendants” (vv. 37, 40, and 48–49 [“Attendants! / Attendants!”]), the restored exclamation that concludes v. 32 of Berck-Plage (“what salt in the throat!”) rather than Hughes’ original incorporation of Plath’s editorial mark-up (“. . .” below punctuation) which, as Semanki explains (199), reflected her desire to restore the punctuation originally struck.1 Many of these restorations of punctuation and even variants—such as the return of “unnatural” for the 1966 edited form of “natural” in Berck-Plage, v. 91 (describing the fatness of lime leaves)—encourages fresh readings especially in light of Plath’s scrupulous attention to and revisions of her punctuation in Ariel and other poems. Even the edition’s use of the term “variants” for Plath’s restored original forms will, or should, cause lively discussion among textualists given the fact that “editorial variants” circulated in published form long before the appearance in print (2004) of Plath’s original (comprised of poems written between 1961 and 1962).
But the useful service that Semanki offers in his Notes is itself troubled by its punctuation; witness the first entry for Morning Song:
Line 4: A period has been removed following the word “statue.”
The confusion is seemingly resolved, however, in the second entry, also for Morning Song:
Line 8: The spelling of “distils” replaces “distills.”
An examination of the exemplars reveals that the periods (“.”) after “statue” and “distills” are not Plath’s; the period after “statue” in the 1965, 1966, and 1981 editions was Hughes’. The periods we see now after “statue” and “distills” are Semanki’s, or better yet the product of a convention that tends to separate American publications from much of the world’s punctuation practice. If one could argue that after careful study it takes only a slight adjustment [End Page 2] to sort out which punctuation belongs to the author, which to Hughes, and which to Semanki...