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Reviewed by:
  • Text as Process: Creative Composition in Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Dickinson
  • Domhnall Mitchell (bio)
Bushell, Sally. Text as Process: Creative Composition in Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Dickinson. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2009. $55.00

"This book is about the literary text before it becomes a completed work of art. It takes as its focus the prepublication work, the draft materials that constitute text as process" (1). Over the course of (first) three theoretical chapters, which survey French and German genetic criticism and an Anglo-American debate on principles of textual editing, and (second) three further chapters that function as case studies on William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dickinson (respectively), Sally Bushell seeks to evolve "a methodology for the study of draft materials" that attends to the latter not just as paths that lead to more celebrated destinations, but as creative objects fully worthy of being studied in and for themselves. There is a great deal to admire here, not least the range and depth of Bushell's scholarship and her achievement in uniting the fields of textual editing and literary criticism, but also the repeated deftness with which she handles the allegiances of the theoretical and the pragmatic—especially when she acknowledges that ideas of intentionality are delusory but then insists that they are necessary to both the process of composition and its understanding. The best of many impressive moments in this book occur when Bushell performs a kind of archaeology of compositional performances, reconstructing the course of drafting and redrafting to reveal poetry emerging in a dialogue of originating and subsequent ideas: with The Prelude, for example, she shows how "a revisionary act on the manuscript page can reveal a creative development to the author that he had not consciously intended" (98).

Not surprisingly, given that she is co-director of the Wordsworth Centre, where she has collaborated on the splendid digital Wordsworth ("From Goslar to Grasmere: William Wordsworth—Electronic Manuscripts"), has co-edited the [End Page 104] Cornell University Press text of The Excursion (2007) and written Re-Reading The Excursion (2002), the most compelling sections of this book are on Wordsworth and Tennyson. She is especially strong on the former, and on long poems that were long in the making: The Prelude took some seven years to write, The Excursion (probably) eight years, for example, and Bushell meticulously teases out how they paradoxically emphasize both spontaneity and the spoken over the patient toil and craft with which they were wrought. And her carefully argued defence of Tennyson's Idylls against the charge that it is mere versification of Thomas Malory's prose is valuable and welcome. The section on Dickinson, however, is curiously flatter and less innovative than her previous fine work on Dickinson published in these pages in 2003 and 2004. True, Bushell avoids the extremes of manuscript debates: she does not claim either that they are largely irrelevant to an understanding of Dickinson's lyrics or that they are key to understanding her poetics. But she does seem to edge close at times to reinventing what are fairly old positions—for example, that Dickinson increasingly left poems unfinished because in this way she expanded the meaning-making apparatus of her verse (an alternative view would be that Dickinson became less able to finish or even to start poems). Thus, the draft of "Your thoughts dont have words every day" (Fr1476) is presented as one of three model examples of a compositional practice whereby revisions are retained alongside originals without preferences being recorded, thus opening up meaning and allowing for a "creative optionality" (197). And though Bushell is a careful and convincing textual scholar—producing intricate reconstructions of the draft that distinguish between different stages of revision and trace Dickinson's hand (and imagination) as it moves at various times across the page (186)—as a textual interpreter she occasionally strays into the more speculative territory of the iconic manuscript, repeating the idea that a text's visual appearances match its contents. Her reading of Fr1476 is not always convincing: the phrase "signal esoteric sips" is pronounced "contradictory" (204), for example, on the grounds that signals are public and visible while esoteric is deeply...


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pp. 104-107
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