Five Questions: Alison Lumsden on the Edinburgh Edition of Walter Scott’s Poetry

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NPG D16117; Sir Walter Scott, 1st Bt by Charles Picart, published by  T. Cadell & W. Davies, after  William Evans, after  Sir Henry RaeburnWalter Scott, by Charles Picart, published by T. Cadell & W. Davies, after William Evans, after Sir Henry Raeburn; stipple engraving, published 21 December 1811; NPG D16117; used under a Creative Commons licence (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Alison Lumsden holds a Chair in English at the University of Aberdeen.  She has published widely on authors including Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alasdair Gray, Nan Shepherd, Jackie Kay, and Robert Burns, but Walter Scott is the writer who lies at the heart of her research.  Her monograph Walter Scott and the Limits of Language was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2010 and she has edited or co-edited five volumes of the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels (EEWN): The Pirate; The Heart of Mid-Lothian; Reliquiae Trotcosienses: or The Gabions of the Late Jonathan Oldbuck Esq. of Monkbarns; Peveril of the Peak and Woodstock.  She is currently building on this research through her role as Series Editor for the new Edinburgh Edition of Walter Scott’s Poetry, which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in Walter Scott’s poetry, and what made you want to embark on a new edition?

I first became interested in Walter Scott when I began a PhD in Scottish literature in the 1980s.  It was the novels that really interested me then though, and I was looking at parallels between the ‘post-modernism’ of later twentieth century Scottish literature and the self-consciousness of the nineteenth century Scottish novel.  However, I have also had a more personal interest in ballads, traditional Scottish culture and folklore since childhood and so I was fascinated by Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and Scott’s poetry.  When I completed the PhD I was immediately employed as a research assistant with the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels team and quickly realised that I loved working on manuscripts and thinking about the ways in which a text evolved during the creative process.  When the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels was complete it seemed a natural next step to go back and edit Scott’s poetry.  I don’t think anyone could have imagined that there would be a market for this when EEWN was initially proposed, but in the last thirty years our ideas about Scott and Romantic poetry more generally have evolved and the time now seems right to edit Scott’s poetry.

2) How did you go about securing a publisher and putting together a team of editors for the ten volumes?

The Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels is published by Edinburgh University Press and they also publish the Stirling/ South Carolina Edition of the Works of James Hogg and the New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson.  As such they are the foremost publisher of Scottish scholarly texts and seem the natural home for the Edinburgh Edition of Walter Scott’s Poetry.  The Poetry Edition is envisaged very much as a sister edition to EEWN and we hope that people will feel that it will complete their set of Scott’s creative works, so we were delighted when EUP agreed to publish the poetry in a similar format.

Putting together a good team is one of the key aspects of any scholarly edition, as the process is a collaborative one and one that does not suit all literary scholars.  We had gathered a huge amount of expertise while editing the novels and I was keen to capture it and also to pass it onto a new generation.  I was therefore delighted that Professor David Hewitt, Editor in Chief of the EEWN was willing to come on board as part of the team along with Professor Peter Garside who has vast experience as an editor for both the Waverley Novels and the Hogg edition.  Dr Gillian Hughes of the Hogg edition was also keen to be involved and we were also extremely pleased to have her join us with the experience she could bring.  In addition Dr Ainsley McIntosh had completed a scholarly edition of Marmion as her PhD thesis at Aberdeen and as a pilot for the edition and she joined our team for the preliminary investigation and for the development of the early volumes.  Not all volume editors have been assigned yet and we very much hope that once we have published some of the edition new editors will get involved so that we can pass on some of the expertise we have here.

3) How different has the process of editing Scott’s poetry been from your previous work editing and co-editing volumes for the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels?

There are many similarities and our methodologies build on those of the EEWN but there are also sufficient differences to make this new project interesting.  One of the most significant differences is that while Scott published the majority of his novels anonymously this was not the case with the poetry.  As a result the creative evolution of the poems takes a very different form as readers engage in a dialogue with Scott about the poems both before and after publication and Scott at times responds to this when he writes or makes changes between editions.  This presents new challenges when editing them. In addition, while the majority of notes were added to the novels as part of the 1829–32 Magnum Opus Edition, the notes are intrinsic to the poetry from the outset.  The status and meaning of the notes thus has to be addressed, along with the fact that these tend to expand as the narrative poems go through later editions.

4) What can we expect to find when we open the first volumes of the new edition?

Our first volume will be Marmion and the format of the edition will very much follow that of the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels.  Scott’s poem and his own notes will take priority and this will be followed by an essay on the text explaining the evolution of the poem and how it has been emended for this edition.  We will also provide an emendation list.  An historical note and explanatory notes will follow that.  One of the significant changes from earlier editions will be the inclusion of Scott’s notes in a form that makes them readable; in the past they have often been lacking completely or in a font so small that they are virtually illegible.  The new edition will make the significance of Scott’s notes far more visible as they are clearly part of the longer narrative poems and not simply adjuncts to them.  The Shorter Poems will also be one of the volumes to come out early in the edition and this will, I think, significantly revise our understanding of Scott’s role as a poet and put paid to the idea that he stopped writing poetry when he began to write novels.

5) While there has been a recent revival of interest in Scott’s verse, it’s still relatively unfamiliar territory for many scholars and students of the Romantic period.  Which poems would you particularly recommend to those wanting to begin an exploration of Scott’s poetic oeuvre?

I would always encourage students to start with The Lay of the Last Minstrel.  It is the only one of the long narrative poems that you can read at one sitting and it engages with many concerns that we now recognise as central to Romanticism: the idea of the bard is at the heart of it and is linked to ideas of nationhood and the poem also incorporates elements of the supernatural along with wonderfully associative descriptions of landscape.  Over the years I have taught it many times and students have always loved it.  Marmion is perhaps a more intellectually challenging poem and The Lady of the Lake deals with the role of landscape and questions of political authority in truly innovative ways but as an entry poem into Scott’s oeuvre I would recommend The Lay.