Monday, 8 September 2014

The Wreck of the Deutschland

That is the title of a long poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, born in 1844, with whom the rest of poetry has still not caught up. (Quite how to avoid ending that sentence with a preposition I’m not sure.) In one of Anthony Burgess’s novels there’s a film director who, with typical Hollywood crassness, wants to make a film of the Wreck of the Deutschland, but of course the poem is no more ‘about’ a shipwreck than Moby-Dick is ‘about’ a big fish. (Melville himself has a chapter in the complete version in which he ‘proves’, to his satisfaction if not ours, that a whale is a fish.)

I have several editions of Hopkins’s poems, and just now I’m reading – at the rate of a verse a day; it’s a very demanding poem of 35 8-line verses – that very poem, in a very elegant quarter-leather-bound slip-cased Folio Society edition. Now the penultimate line of verse eight is:

To hero of Calvary, Christ,’s feet —

(Almost all — he would have said all — Hopkins’s poetry is markedly Christian.)
And Hopkins, even more than most poets, was one of those who would spend all morning putting in a semi-colon and all afternoon taking it out again; like all good poets he cared deeply about such ‘minor details’.

I have always had a low opinion of copy editors — once an American editor of a poem of mine that mentioned the Cossacks marching down the Odessa steps in Eisenstein’s film ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ printed it with the surreal ‘Cassocks’ marching down the steps — and that opinion has just dropped further. One might expect better of the Folio Society, but no, that line is printed:

To hero of Cavalry, Christ,’s feet —

The idea of Christ in armour on a horse, leading Christian soldiers into battle like Joan of Arc, is perhaps one that might have appealed to Hopkins. But it’s not what he wrote, and doesn’t appear like that in any other edition I have ever seen. Shame on you, Folio Society, and shame on all copy editors.



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