In the previous post I described the Hutchinson 1904 text of Shelley as largely 'obsolete', even in the form revised by Matthews in 1970. I was certainly trying to be in the swim, to show that I understood the value of all the subsequent and complicated textual revision, but this was not an empty gesture. – I am genuinely sympathetic to those who work on manuscripts to produce what they hope are better or at least equally valuable if different texts. I think we can safely presume that no one, mischievous pirates aside, and certainly no dedicated scholar, ever prepared a text with the explicit aim of making it worse than those that already existed. And they are usually successful, by their own lights at least. When competent editors go to work the result is generally an improvement. The Matthews and Reiman editions of Shelley, still in progress, are almost certainly superior.
But 'obsolete' was a bad word, and I am tempted to go back and provide an alternative. However, the word is certainly defensible from the point of view of university employees. A text that is no longer au courant in the field is a liability to the career of anyone carelessly quoting from it without very good reason. But that is a narrow professional concern, and indeed would not worry all professionals; those established in their positions might positively relish the ability to cite such antique sources without neurotically trotting down to check punctuation and layout in the university library copy of X, Y, and Z's recent edition, acclaimed in all the journals as 'definitive' (until next week when A, B, and C, publish their own text). Reference to the authoritative source is an arbitrary mark of academic rectitude, and ever-shifting as such absolute standards of quality tend to be. – The passwords have to be changed regularly, otherwise Tom, Dick and Harry might wander into the conversation without being identifiable, and if A and all professors through to Z can agree about anything it is that free and unimpeded access of this kind would never do.
All those considerations aside, is there any justifiable sense in which an old text, such as the 1904 Shelley, can be said to be obsolete? It is true that new editions sometimes bring forth previously unpublished and valuable work. But this happens very rarely, and, as I have noted elsewhere on Libellus, such research generally delivers the MRM, the Mechanically Recovered Meat, of literary scholarship, which is valuable more for bulk than flavour, and is unpalatable unless mixed with other more muscular tissue. Then again, an edition sometimes recovers censored text, or makes significant changes to accepted attributions. But these are special cases, hardly ever deeply important, and in any case infrequent. In the core, everyday instances, those representative of the central endeavour of text preparation, Hutchinson's 1904 edition of Shelley say, or the 1905 Sampson edition of Blake, the question is much harder to answer with confidence. Are these obsolete texts? Would you rather have the Hutchinson of 1904, reset in 1905, and again in 1935, frequently reprinted, read by everybody until Matthews corrected it, and still being read since there are so many of them in circulation. Or would you prefer to have Matthews 1970, which rather fewer people have read, or either of the editions by Matthews and Reiman and their collaborators, which are as yet incomplete, hard to come by in public libraries, and very expensive indeed to buy. The four volumes of Matthews et al. so far published would cost over £500 new in paperback; second hand copies are still priced at half that handsome figure. The three volumes of Reiman et al. come in at £350 in hardback, which in this weird company actually seems like a bargain (but I am, so far, resisting).
Expensive, but are they worth it? Yes, and then again, perhaps not. In one sense these editions are clearly better than Hutchinson 1904 and its reprints, and when themselves complete they will actually be more a Complete Shelley than Hutchinson, but that merit is years off, so for the present we commend them for being better annotated, closer to the manuscripts, as well as more carefully checked and ingeniously emended to bring out a sense. These are real attractions, but on the other hand they have the major disadvantage that they are not the Shelley known between 1904 and the date of the current editions. Indeed, even now in the public domain they are almost unread outside the universities. For practical purposes one suspects that they are as yet unread by anyone except their editors; they have almost no historical, populational standing whatsoever. Insofar as they differ from Hutchinson, and they must differ very significantly otherwise why undertake all this work, then they are a Shelley that no one yet knows. On the other hand, Hutchinson, for all its faults, is part of the cultural tradition. Many people have read it; it is the Shelley of the twentieth century. And before that, there is the historical standing of Rossetti's edition, and Mary Shelley's, and the Galignani texts, to mention only a selection. These texts are all obsolete in one sense, and then again indispensable to anyone wanting to understand the following that Shelley's poems acquired and which made it seem worthwhile for Hutchinson, and Matthews and Reiman after him, to spend decades editing them for new readers. Is there such a thing as an obsolete edition? From this perspective, clearly, no. But in reaching this decision, which ought to be a truism, we also arrive at the much less obvious point that some books are genuinely and in a powerful sense irrelevant, and these can be, paradoxically, the best editions available.