Latest Revision: 30 August 2019

One project stands out with particular though regrettable distinction from the listings of Oxford English Texts (OET), Neville Rogers' The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Volume I, 1972, Volume II, 1975). Of four projected volumes only two were published, the edition being abandoned due to extremely critical reviews. It is true that there are other incomplete multi-volume sets in the OET lists, but these are still in progress (Browning, Wilde, and so on), and none have, at least officially, been abandoned (one does wonder about the Browning). The Rogers Shelley is an exception. I remember one of my friends, a specialist in the field, telling me, more than twenty years ago, that this OET edition was a "fiasco", but not being much interested in Shelley I accepted the view and thought no more of it. However, whilst working on the history of the series in some detail I began to wonder about the underlying causes behind this exceptional cancellation. No other edition seems to have failed in quite the same way. I was, of course, aware that the passage of time has left some of these works, outstanding in their day, well behind the frontier of knowledge, and that some, Saintsbury's Caroline Poets (1905, 1906, 1921) for example, were never regarded as completely reliable. I knew that not everyone liked the punctuation of the Darbishire Milton of 1955, and that, to summarise a long list of such observations, there are the usual scholarly niggles and reservations in regard to almost every single edition, perhaps all of them. But the Rogers edition of Shelley is, as far as I know, the only one that fell to earth and under intense attack. So unusual is it that the entire episode and the principal critical reviews are notorious within the field of textual study:

Kenneth Neill Cameron, Studies in Romanticism 12/3 (Summer 1973), 693–699. Review of Vol I.

Donald H. Reiman, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 73/2 (April 1974), 250–260. Review of Vol. I

Kenneth Neill Cameron, Studies in Romanticism 13/3 (Summer 1974), 271–274. Reply to Neville Rogers' comments on Matthews 1973.

Judith Chernaik, Modern Language Review 73/1 (January 1978), 166–169. Review of Vol. II.

A few quotations will give the flavour:

"an egregious example of how not to edit poetry" (Reiman)

"wrongly conceived and poorly executed" (Reiman)

"inadequate in respect to canon, bibliographical information, textual notes and explanatory notes" (Cameron 1973)

"fundamentally flawed [...] a major disaster for the Clarendon Press [...] no choice but to withdraw it and begin anew" (Cameron 1974)

"a disservice to a great English poet and a scandal to British scholarship" (Chernaik)

"the only sensible course would be to withdraw the volumes now in print and start over from the beginning" (Chernaik)

The TLS (2 March 1973) called it a "preposterous" edition, and another review referred to Rogers' "baroque love for fiddling and amending" (both  quoted in Cameron 1974). Rogers' handler at the Clarendon Press, Dan Davin, who had commissioned the Complete Poetical Works in the early 1950s and had nursed the financially insecure Rogers with advances and support over the two decades the work had taken to complete, thought the reviews "unfair", but he was now so senior in the Press that he was not well-placed to protect it further, an oddity of many hierarchical structures (see Dan Davin, "Neville Rogers", The Keats-Shelley Review, 2 (1987), viii–x). The late 1970s was also a very difficult time for OUP, and shortly after Davin's retirement in 1978, they undertook what he described as "severe financial retrenchment", with what he believed to be, with perhaps only a little exculpatory exaggeration, serious consequences for the Rogers' text:

“Influenced by this and to some extent by the hostile reviews which my successors took too seriously, it was decided by the Press not to continue with the remaining volumes. Much as I regretted this, there was nothing I could now do. Neville was justifiably indignant but was helpless also.” (Davin 1987)

Davin’s retrospective interpretation must be allowed some merit: “During the long gestation of the edition, a new generation of scholars and editors had appeared” and these people not only had “new notions of text and editorship” but  “tended to be ill-mannered in their expression”. In effect the edition was unsaleable, and though the third volume was completed it was not published. The Clarendon Press gave up, and the volumes already issued were quietly forgotten. Today they are out of print and even unlisted in the otherwise voracious Oxford Scholarly Editions series. Remarkably Rogers only admitted defeat in about 1985, four months before his death in that year (this and the following biographical details are derived from the University of Ohio library catalogue entry online, or from Davin 1987 cited above).

By then Rogers was a retired academic in Ohio, with many scholarly publications, almost all Shelley related, to his name. But he was not a lifetime university professional, a fact which may explain much. Born in London in 1908, Rogers studied classics at Birkbeck, and started his working life as a schoolteacher before serving in Royal Air Force intelligence during the second war. Demobbed, he returned to teaching classics in London grammar school, but also became associated with the Times Literary Supplement, and his enthusiasm for Shelley appears to have been the outcome of an acquaintance with Edmund Blunden formed while on TLS business in Rome. In 1951 Rogers published a series of articles discussing in some detail the recent donation of Shelley papers to the Bodleian:

"The Shelley-Rolls Gift to the Bodleian," Times Literary Supplement, 27 July 1951, p. 476; 3 August 1951, p. 492; 10 August 1951, p. 508.

One of these articles in particular, a discussion of "To a Sky-lark", caught the attention of the relatively inexperienced press editor Dan Davin, himself not long out of the armed services. Davin sought the advice of H. W. Garrod and F. P. Wilson, who had also read the TLS articles. They interviewed Rogers in Oxford, took a liking to him, and on the basis of a detailed research proposal were persuaded, apparently without much difficulty, that he was the right man to produce an Oxford English Texts edition to replace Hutchinson.

Rogers resigned his school teaching post, surviving on the advances on royalties that Davin secured, grants from academic foundations, a post, presumably temporary, at the University of Birmingham, and what Davin mysteriously calls “other less equitable expedients”. Some form of stable life was eventually secured when he moved to the United States to work at the University of Ohio, becoming a full professor in 1966, and from which he was recently retired when the edition eventually began publication in 1972. It would seem to be no exaggeration to say that his whole life, after accepting the commission of the Clarendon Press, was directed and dominated by the editing of Shelley.

With this level of dedication the ultimate debacle is all the more surprising. Many academic projects run into the sand, but this one burst into flames just as it was landing to what were expected to be fanfares of adulation, a sort of Hindenburg of an edition, the captain stalwartly declining to abandon his vessel. What went wrong? Firstly, the Press staff seem not to have given Rogers the sort of commonsense and cold-hearted criticism essential to an editor with his head down in manuscripts. Intense, desk-bound intellectuals think only what they want to hear, and it was the duty of his publishers to provide a cool preview of the way that the scholarly market might legitimately respond. But, as I have noted elsewhere in my comments on the Oxford English Texts, the series does not seem to have been administered in a rigorous or businesslike way – Davin admits to doing a fair amount of his work from the Victoria in pub in Walton Street, near the press offices – and the strength and uniformity of the reaction apparently came as a surprise to Rogers, and presumably also to the Press itself. It should not have done. Rogers, as Davin notes in his memoir, had long engaged in controversy with his colleagues, this being one of the reasons the work took so long. Davin and his staff could easily have inferred that there was likely to be resistance to Rogers' approach. But with managerial responsiblities now consuming his energy, Davin admitted, perhaps more than a little ruefully, that he had had no time to read Rogers “enormously long and closely argued letters […] about his antagonists in Shelleyan controversy and their heretical views”. Davin's successors, if they read the letters, presumably took the edition on trust – it had after all been part of the Clarendon Press furniture for decades – and if the editor had any doubts, and I rather think he was incapable of uncertainty, he would have assumed that since the publishers were happy, all must be well.

With the benefit of hindsight and also disengagement (I don't care for Shelley and have no professional face to save or to paint) I conclude that Rogers fell foul of two curses, one inevitable given his views, and the other avoidable. Reiman's remark, "wrongly conceived and poorly executed" sets out the ground. Taking the second of these two points first, it seems that the edition is indeed poorly executed. Rogers made a lot of mistakes, both of commission and omission. This was avoidable, but it is not surprising. Shelley is evidently a difficult author to edit, as witness the fact that since the termination of the Clarendon edition in 1975 there have been two separate attempts to undertake the same work, and both are still underway in 2019.

The Longmans Annotated English Poets edition, which began publication fourteen years after Rogers' second volume, has so far issued:

1989. The Poems of Shelley. Volume 1: 1804-1817: Volume 1 Edited by Geoffrey Matthews (Editor), Kelvin Everest (Editor)

2000. The Poems of Shelley. Volume 2 Edited by Kelvin Everest and Geoffrey Matthews (Editor), with contributing editors: Jack Dononan, Ralph Pite, and Michael Rossington.

2011. The Poems of Shelley. Volume 3: 1819–1820. Edited by by Jack Donovan (Editor), Cian Duffy, Kelvin Everest, Michael Rossington, with the assistance of Laura Barlow.

2013. The Poems of Shelley. Volume 4: 1820-1821. Edited by Michael Rossington, Jack Donovan, and Kelvin Everest, with the assistance of Andrew Lacey and Laura Barlow.

A fifth volume, The Poems of Shelley, Volume Five: 1821–1822, edited by Michael Rossington, Jack Donovan, Kelvin Everest, and Francesco Rognoni, is intended to complete the series. This final volume was announced in 2017 but then rescheduled for 2021. Overall, the Longmans text has so far taken over thirty years, and the labours of, all told, nine editors.

The other edition is published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, and commenced  publication 25 years after Rogers' last volume:

2000. The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Volume 1. Edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat.

2005. The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Volume 2. Edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat

2012. The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Volume 3. Edited by Donald H. Reiman, Neil Fraistat, Nora Crook, Stuart Curran, Michael O'Neill, Michael J. Neth, and David Brookshire

These three volumes, issued over thirteen years and involving seven editors, cover Shelley's output up to 1818. Shelley died in 1822, so there is a fair way to go, requiring, I imagine, at least one more volume and perhaps two or even three.

Extraordinary as it will seem, since neither of these attempts are finished, the standard complete though largely obsolete text remains that of Thomas Hutchinson, published in 1904 (discussed briefly in my note on the OET 1900 to 1939), and released in a revised and corrected form by Geoffrey Matthews in 1970.

It is obvious from this history that Neville Rogers took on an extremely difficult task, probably without quite appreciating its "formidable" nature (Davin 1987). Indeed, so exhausting has it proved that not even large teams of what one must presume are adequately funded and electronically supported professional scholarly editors have so far succeeded in bringing it to a close. Taken together, those teams comprise sixteen individuals. Assuming that both Reiman and Matthews, eminent and long-standing scholars of the poet, were interested in attempting the editing of Shelley as soon as they were aware that Rogers' edition did not address their requirements, in 1973 perhaps, these projects have taken over forty years each, eighty scholarly years in total, quite probably more. These are multi-generational undertakings, not unlike a medieval cathedral.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that even the life work of one man on such an extensive textual problem proved to be inadequate. A new edition of Shelley implies the construction of a vast textual edifice. To attempt such work without modern machinery and engineering qualifications is an affront to public safety. Or at least, it would seem so to rigorous and prudent textual masons such as Reiman or Matthews, who soon put a stop to the absurdly unprofessional and dangerous adventure of the dedicated but still in their eyes absurdly presumptious Neville Rogers.

I don't think Rogers understood this at all. Judging from his responses, and indeed his introductions, he didn't even feel that he was actually undertaking a completely new edition. Instead, he believed he was attempting to make an incremental contribution to the established tradition of editing Shelley, taking the Hutchinson text of 1904 as his starting point, as indeed Matthews had done in his relatively unambitious revision of 1970. All previous editors were, thus, his collaborators; he wasn't alone, he was part of a tradition. Rogers saw himself as adding his own research and, crucially, his poetic and textual critical judgment, a key term for him, to that of his predecessors in a cumulative effort. In this attempt he believed he was relying on the wisdom of A. E. Housman, whose essays on this subject are mentioned and praised in the Introduction to Volume I (p. xlvi) as a "permanent source of guidance about textual principles". Housman emphasised the supremacy of a transcendent editorial judgment in textual criticism, particularly the emendation of texts, which is a "gift of nature" not a learned skill: "criticus nascitur, non fit", writes Housman ("Textual Criticism", in John Carter ed. A. E. Housman: Selected Prose (Cambridge 1962)). I infer from this that years of immersion in Shelley's texts had convinced Rogers of his own gifts in this regard, and he emended Shelley's poems with the confidence of one who knew himself to be born to this business and not just taught. The friendships with Blunden, in Rome of all places, and with Garrod the legendary Merton scholar and editor of Keats, may have created a further intimation of apostolic succession. In this respect, assuming that I am right, Rogers was an aberrant exception to the norms of his time, which rejected such openly and mystically aristocratic claims to authority. Contemporary scholarship was (and still is) marked by something rather closer to Year One thinking, and has a consequently much greater confidence in the power of reason and scientific method in text editing, and correspondingly little time for the sense of mystical insight into the author and his text that Rogers seemed to be claiming. Mutual and utter incomprehension was all but certain.

However, the texts as published demonstrate that even when approached in his own peculiar way the undertaking had been too much for Rogers, and he blundered frequently, very frequently and very badly according to his critics. Housman would doubtless have been even more severe on these errors than the reviewers, taking it as sure proof that Rogers had a false sense of election to the craft. Approaching the matter more sympathetically and with reference to the glacial progress of subsequent and undoubtedly competent scholars, it seems that Rogers was overwhelmed. Misled by years of intense commitment to the mission, and comforted by a belief in his own calling, he just couldn't see the tangled muddle developing beneath his hands, and indeed never came to recognise it. Rogers' contemporaries, of course, not only found the flaws contemptible but also rejected the informing concept of a collectivist yet aristocratic and intellectually transcendent, quasi-mystical, engagement with text and author, part empathy, part tradition, part cold-hearted observation and steel-trap logic. In contrast, Reiman and Cameron thought editing was largely a question of the diligent application of learnable skills involving hard work of the sort that consumes decades of human lives, as it has in their own editions of Shelley. I tend to agree with them, and it is, in fact, possible to interpret Housman in such a way as to suggest that he would have done so too, perhaps protesting that by nascitur, non fit, he only meant that the ability to learn those skills, and the patience to apply them was rare and beyond teaching.

At first sight, the fiasco of this edition, as my friend called it, seemed to me a matter of mere incompetence. That isn't, I now think, quite right. The work was certainly beyond the abilities of one editor, but more importantly this was a clash of two incompatible views of mind and text, one bureaucratic, sober and cautious, the other emotionally enthusiastic, in the technical sense, and mistakenly reliant on a mystically inspired judgment to overcome what we now know to be editorial problems of an extreme difficulty. It is a very much stranger story than it appears to be at first glance, and while I do not feel sorry for Rogers, I no longer think it legitimate to despise him or his wrecked edition. At worst, Rogers was self-deceived, and his bizarre text of Shelley, essentially his own creation and surely a collectable psychological specimen, the mechanical product of a collision between delusion and reality.