Hugh Kenner

[On Old Spelling Texts]


A word on the texts. I have distinguished "u" from "v," "then" from "than," "i" from "j," and replaced the old long "s" with the modern form, but have otherwise retained old spellings. The student who finds getting used to this an effort deserves to be told why.

Modern spelling, essentially a set of printing-house usages imposed by printers, represents a gain not in logic but in consistency. Consistency, however, is a technologist's virtue, not a rhetorician's, and to impose it on the writings of minds technology had not yet Mesmerized can be positively misleading. For Donne, for Jonson, for Carew, for Marvell, the written lines are a speaker's memorandum; when we find in Donne's text,

. . . Here I unsweare, and overswear them thus . . .

it is the voice that is shaping the utterance, not the printing case. "Sweare" elbows "swear" not out of quaint exuberance but in keeping with a pragmatic conviction that any orthography will suffice that preserves the sounds. It will be for a later age to think of printed words as standardized parts, interchangeable like the cubes of lead from which they are composed, obdurately identical whatever the scheme of rhythm or intonation that courses round them.

Donne's readers, in short, did not feel as we do that a word's identity is inextricable from its spelling; hence the naturalness, in their utterances, of what we uncomfortably feel to be "puns." "Sun" and "son" are for us two different words which sound alike; so are "Donne" and "done"; and we think a writer who exploits the similarity of sound does something brash and a little disreputable. For the seventeenth century Dean of St. Paul's, however, "sunne" was imprimis an utterance, vocalic not typographic, which in denoting both the Second Person of God and the fire of heaven touched on a mystery distinctions of spellings might analyze but not resolve; his great "Hymne to God the Father" does not so much play upon words as meditate on such mysteries. To normalize the spellings in such poems is to obscure something essential, their vocalic base; and in making his way through lines which he must sound out because the words look unfamiliar the modern reader is repeating, more closely than he knows, the experience of the readers whose lips first moved in the presence of these pages.

Santa Barbara, California
February, 1964


[from the "Introduction" to Seventeenth Century Poetry: The Schools of Donne and Jonson (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964).


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