Victorian Poetry 40.4 (2002) 409-431
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Hopkins, Hamlet, and the Victorians:
IN MARCH 1845, THE WESTMINSTER REVIEW CARRIED A LONG REVIEW ARTICLE by G. H. Lewes on "Shakspeare and his Editors." It reads as an extended lament. Over two hundred years since his death, Shakespeare still needed "able editing," a task which "to be fitly performed demands not only erudition and judgment, but the exquisite taste of a poetical mind":
Except Pope and Johnson, no man of preeminent intelligence has undertaken the task demanding an immense intelligence: the task of restoring a text almost hopelessly corrupt. Perhaps the worst evil of this corruption is the maggots it has generated. Had Coleridge disliked opium and possessed industry, he might have given the world an edition which would have endured. 1
As it was—and the conclusion scarcely disguises a strikingly dim view of the eighteenth century, "a prosaic age" with "prosaic tastes"—"the greatest of all poets has had no poet for an editor."
Lewes's complaint summarizes what has since become a commonplace about his generation and Shakespeare. Within that faint praise for Coleridge lay an admission of the malaise afflicting Victorian literary study. Coleridge's recently published Literary Remains (1836) had reminded the English reading public that the poets and philosophers of European Romanticism had produced character criticism of Shakespeare's heroes of a psychological acuity that Lewes's contemporaries could not match. On the contrary, those insights served to deepen the shadows enveloping Shakespearean editing and textual scholarship in the 1840s, and with it the larger world of early Victorian literary criticism. Aron Y. Stavisky has observed that "it is the response to Shakespeare more than to any artist of the past three centuries that illuminates criticism of an age," 2 and at least one of Lewes's eminent contemporaries shared his apocalyptic view of the state of literary criticism in England. "After Reading a Life and Letters," Tennyson felt moved to rehearse "Shakespeare's curse" by making his famous epitaph his own poem's epigraph: "Cursed be he who breaks my bones"; and he imagined the figure of a recently departed poet as one "For [End Page 409] whom the carrion vulture waits / To tear his heart before the crowd!" 3
Dead poets become dead meat; the treatment their textual carrion receives varies only in degree. For Tennyson, the biographer is the more obvious scavenger, and his maulings of a poet's life and mind attract a larger gallery. But a more insidious because less public consumption awaits the text from those editorial "maggots"—or the variously wayward and disputed readings that collected in the textual notes to the editions of Shakespeare he was reviewing—that Lewes pursued through the course of his jeremiad in the Westminster Review. For these were the surest symptoms of the corruption in contemporary textual criticism and scholarship of Shakespeare: evidence of an active degeneration, but of little more. Lewes's comments on the notes assembled in one of the editions he was reviewing, Charles Knight's twelve-volume edition of the works (1841-43), are framed to illustrate what happens when those "maggots" really get to work, crawling over and against each other and hatching into the kind of noisome knowledge that Lewes could have done without:
The perusal of the notes appended to Shakespeare's text, is not only the most wearisome, but the most profitless reading. Your curiosity is perpetually being stimulated, but never satisfied; there is no real, practicable, available information conveyed,—there is nothing but a sort of buzz. (p. 43)
This essay contests Lewes's view, by revisiting these notes and the activity they inspired in the generation of readers and scholars who came after Lewes. That generation certainly included its fair share of eccentrics and arbitrariness, and it generated material enough to justify the neglect into which Victorian Shakespearean scholarship has fallen, the wry amusement with which it now tends to be regarded. But this accumulation of carrion fed more than maggots. For at least one reader brought up on Charles Knight's...