Fixity and Instability in the Text of Johnson's Poems

James McLaverty

in Samuel Johnson

Published in print November 2012 | ISBN: 9780199654345
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191745003 | DOI:
Fixity and Instability in the Text of Johnson's Poems

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Johnson and Boswell suggest Johnson's poems arrived fixed and polished, with revision unnecessary, but in the Lives of the Poets Johnson recognized and praised an alternative mode of composition, one in which poems slowly developed to perfection. Examination of the history of Johnson's poems suggests both these conceptions are idealizations of complex practices. Short improvised poems survive with undecided readings or in different states; prologues, possibly the fruit of collaboration, were printed in theatrical and non-theatrical versions; the texts of the elegy on Levet represent different stages of composition; the Vanity of Human Wishes was published in versions appropriate to different times and shows incomplete attempts at revision. The chapter argues for editorial recognition of different valid versions of Johnson's poems and renewed attention to his manuscript practices.

Keywords: Samuel Johnson; textual instability; textual history; revision; versions; Johnson's poems; improvisation; prologues; Robert Levet; vanity of human wishes; manuscript practices

Chapter.  6137 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)

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