A Commentary on Commentary

“The art of writing consists of putting two things together that are unlike and that belong together like a horse and a cart. Then we have something far more goodly and efficient than either.”

––Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks (7.24)

One of the challenges of writing a complete commentary is gathering the textual history and relevant contextual information about a poem. If there is no useful commentary on the poem then I would recommend sticking with the poem and providing useful commentary.

As we have talked about in class, your commentaries are an opportunity for you to make a genuine contribution to the to the history of commentary on poems that will be published and available for students and scholars in the years to come. At the core of this project is your work as a contributor to the available information on poems by poets whose work is in the public domain. Rather than asking you to be a consumer of information on the web you are contributing valuable information to benefit others interested in or studying the literary and cultural history of poetry in the United States.

To have your work published in the book, however, your writing must be thorough and exacting––and your research both comprehensive and judicious. Gathering factual information about the textual history and contextual information will enhance any reading of a poem.

For example, for Emerson, we began with the primary writing and the textual scholarship that has been completed to date. Here is relevant material for all of your commentaries on a poem by Emerson:

Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson is the result of a fifty-year editorial process with the 2013 publication of the tenth and final volume of The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Harvard Belknap, 1971-13). The publication of the critically edited texts is a landmark for Emerson studies, and an indispensable resource for students and scholars of nineteenth century literary and cultural history. Each volume of the Collected Works (CW) has an introduction that offers reliable and authoritative textual and historical information. We are fortunate that Keene State College has added, at my request, this definitive edition to its holdings. Whether you are interested in his early sermons, essays and lectures, correspondence, or antislavery writing, you now have all of this textual material available.The call number is PS1600 .F71, a location in the library where you will discover shelves of Emerson materials.

More specifically, we are gathering information about specific poems. So volume Vol. 9: Historical introduction, textual introduction, and poem headnotes (Albert J. von Frank; text established by Albert J. von Frank and Thomas Wortham) will be most useful. “The Past” is on pages 472–73. There is a headnote to the poem, the textual history, and variants of the poem (information that may or may not be useful for your purposes).

The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson In the note to the poem in volume 9 of the CW there is a reference to The Poetry Notebooks (PN). In the Analysis of Poems section there is commentary on the drafts and manuscript versions that may be useful. In the Appendix you will find the particular notebook(s) in which the lines appear. For example the poem “The Past” shows up in the Notebook EL (pages 337–38 and 387)

A Concordance to the Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson  may also offer a useful way to gather evidence of how Emerson used and thought of the past. As it happens, Emerson uses the word “past” in twenty-six of his poems.

In most cases the primary sources and concordance above should be sufficient. For other poems by Emerson, one might consult the Journals and miscellaneous notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by William H. Gilman et al. or Walter Harding’s  Emerson’s Library a catalog of Emerson’s personal library based on M.C. Haviland’s card catalogue of the collection, now in the library of the Concord Antiquarian Society.

Photo credit: Randy Fath on Unsplash

Interpretive studies of Emerson’s poetry will be useful as well. For example, one might consult John Q. Anderson’s The Liberating Gods: Emerson on Poets and Poetry (U Miami P 1971) or consider the e-book by John Michael Corrigan American metempsychosis: Emerson, Whitman, and the new poetry (Fordham UP 2012). A check of the index to critical studies on an author, a literary work, or a body of work can turn up information (and the source of the information) that you can use, or perhaps to find a lead to trace back to the primary text(s).

Once you have traced the textual history of the poem you might browse the Primary and Secondary Sources in the Mason Library. A general key term search in the Mason Library holdings turns up 286 entries. An author search turns up fifty-three entries. Again, checking the index  of volumes (such as author biographies) will often turn up useful textual or historical information about a poem.

Recommended Electronic Resources Whenever you are introduced to an unfamiliar text, author or literary movement—or you are interested in gathering more information about a text, context or critical debate—the library makes available a range of electronic sources, subdivided into discipline-specific portals to the ongoing scholarly conversation about literature. Relevant e-sources are available at the English Library Guide page portal. It is your responsibility to know where the information is coming from. E-sources include peer-reviewed journals, web sites on particular literary sources, blogs and wikis, class notes, and so on.

Cambridge History of English and American Literature  Overview essays ranging from poetry, fiction, drama and essays to history, theology and political writing. 303 chapters and 11,000 pages on a wide selection of writing on orators, humorists, poets, newspaper columnists, religious leaders, economists, Native Americans, song writers, and non-English writing, such as Yiddish and Creole.

Literary Criticism Online Includes The Dictionary of Literary Biography overviews (7500-10,000 word) of the life, work and critical reception of literary authors. The Dictionary series runs to more than three hundred volumes and is organized by topic and period. The hardbound volumes are on the shelf in the reference section of the Mason Library (as explained in the Recommended Resources list above) or you can read entries on your desktop.

Electronic Resources and Archives A sea of information and materials lives (and dies) on the web. Some of it is useful. Some of it is not. This material is for the most part secondary, and often tertiary, as it is can be less reliable, as many of you have already discovered. In every case, your bibliography and further reading will not rest on the less reliable material.

Finally, I highly recommend––for the work we are doing on this project, and for the good of yourself and others––to consider strategies for using web-based materials. One of the best resources is my former colleague Mike Caulfield’s Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers. You can start with the sections Four Moves and Reading Laterally.

Thank you all for your good work so far. As we are discovering, writing short commentaries as part of a collective of contributing editors to a publication is challenging and rewarding intellectual work. As the general editor for this project I am ready and willing to meet with you to talk about a poem, work on an entry, or help trace information that may useful to you in your work.

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