Editorial injustice in the raw

July 21, 2000

Zachary Leader urges academics to oppose the restriction by copyright of John Clare's poetry

Last July, an English lecturer from the University of Dundee edited a selection of the love poems of the 19th-century poet John Clare, who is best known for his nature poems and the poems written in his 25-year incarceration in Northamptonshire asylums.

Four months later, Simon Kovesi and his publisher received letters from a firm of solicitors claiming that they had infringed "the copyrights which are owned by Professor Eric Robinson in those works written by John Clare which were not published during his lifetime" - at a conservative estimate, some 3,500 poems.

Robinson, the letters said, was entitled to damages and to a written undertaking against future "infringements". Unless Kovesi and his publisher complied, they faced "immediate legal proceedings".

Eric Robinson is a historian at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, a vice-president of the John Clare Society and Clare's principal editor. In July 1965, he secured from the descendants of Clare's last publisher, Joseph Whitaker, the copyright to all Clare's unpublished writings for Pounds 1. Whitaker's claim to the copyright was purchased in the year of the poet's death, supposedly from John Taylor, Clare's previous publisher. Taylor's claim was itself uncertain, and the records of Whitaker's purchase are confused and incomplete. Whatever its legality, neither Whitaker nor his descendants ever invoked the claim.

When Robinson sought to buy the copyright, the head of the firm did not know of the existence of the rights. Robinson, however, researched the matter and they conveyed the rights to him with a deed. Anyone who wants to publish Clare has had to get Robinson's permission - and has had to undertake to publish the poems in a form he approves.

No scholar has played a more important role than Robinson in ensuring Clare a place in literary history. By deciphering and transcribing Clare's notoriously difficult manuscripts and by tirelessly promoting his poems, Robinson and his co-editors helped engineer Clare's ascent to near-canonical status. But along the way they imposed an editorial orthodoxy on Clare's texts, one now seen by many scholars and poets as limiting and distorting.

Robinson is a "textual primitivist". He insists on reprinting raw or unedited manuscript versions of Clare's poems, even of poems that appeared in Clare's lifetime in published versions the poet himself read in proof. By this, he claims to be retrieving Clare's true voice. That Clare would have approved these versions - unpunctuated, ungrammatical, misspelled, metrically defective, poorly structured, repetitive - to those printed or to versions edited for clarity (an important value to him) is open to question.

Even if it were not, there are strong reasons for making available versions that were known to their original intended audiences or that are simply more readable than manuscript versions. Kovesi's edition challenges Robinson not only because it is "unauthorised" but because its poems have been "lightly punctuated and regularisedI to make Clare as accessible and readable as possible".

Recently, protest against Robinson's textual primitivism and his copyright claims has increased. In an influential review-essay of my book Revision and Romantic Authorship, Hugh Haughton endorsed the case against Robinson's editorial primitivism. He argued powerfully for a plurality of editions, as have other scholars; resistance to Robinson's authority, in several senses, is gathering strength, spearheaded by Kovesi's edition. I urge all academics to support this resistance.

Zachary Leader is professor of English literature, University of Surrey.

* Should Eric Robinson relinquish control of the copyright on John Clare's poetry? Email us at soapbox@thes.co.uk.

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