Scholars also build a nation

I was lucky enough once to read an article about two remarkable books: The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, published by the Clarendon Press in Oxford, and The Early Poetic Manuscripts and Note-Books of Gerard Manley Hopkins in Facsimile, published by Garland in New York. I admire and rejoice in the poetry of Hopkins. A few of his poems are of an astonishing, imperishable beauty; I not only never get tired of reading them but each time I read one of these poems it seems quite new, different and better, more fully charged with the inexplicable wonder of what genius can do with words. If you have not ever read Hopkins go immediately to the National Library and discover him. Even the ordinary letters he wrote are full of extraordinary glimpses of truth and beauty in life.

But it is not so much about the poetry that I want to write, it is about the scholarship that  brought forth these wonderful books. Norman MacKenzie, the editor, devoted most of his adult life to indefatigable research into the Hopkins papers and the manuscript poems. He has produced what is in fact a completely new edition of the poems – every line, every letter, every correction meticulously checked in the original.  MacKenzie even called in aid Scotland Yard’s Fraud Squad and a machine named an Infra-red Image Converter which distinguishes between different inks and different ages of ink. The poems’ text has been authenticated down to the last comma and outride.

The editor faced a particularly daunting task because the manuscript poems had in many places been “corrected” by Hopkins’s mentor Robert Bridges and such “corrections” had to be carefully differentiated from the emendations made both before and later by Hopkins himself. Not only that, but Hopkins had very decided views on how his verse should be spoken and the later manuscripts, with their outrides, counterpoints, and sforzandos, are well on their way to becoming musical scores, with the result that the editor was obliged to assess every dash, dot, pen-rest and quill-track to decide what was accidental, and what was intentional, notation.

Such scholarship fascinates me. To see how a great poet changes a word and makes a magical difference is to get a glimpse of a writer’s genius. Equally marvellous is the dedication and love – there is no other word – that have gone into editing these manuscripts. The scholarship has preserved for posterity a great poet’s work in definitive form, has squeezed every last scintilla of authentic beauty out of the original text. Such scholarship is achievement of high and pure quality. It delights me to read about it.

What partly spoils my pleasure, however, is a thought that keeps obtruding – the state of our own scholarship. How compare the treatment of our written record with the meticulously careful, loving, scholarly care of historical material which these books about Hopkins represent? There is, of course, no comparison unless you wish to compare turgid night with bright day – or trash heap with a spacious and cultivated garden. Every time I read anything to do with deep and worthwhile historical research, scholarly attention paid to old authors and the elucidation of a country’s past, I at once get heart-burn thinking of how we neglect the records of our great men and women – except, perhaps, in the case of Dr Jagan whose Red House repository does his memory proud.

But what is the current position? Every few years an expert in the preservation and organization of historical material visits to advise on the keeping and utilizing of our nation’s records. It may be, miraculously, that the latest of these may actually have caused some action to be taken to rescue our history from philistine neglect and time’s inexorable vandalism. I think we would all like to know exactly what action has been and is being taken. It merits at least a ministerial statement or GINA media release.

I understand that the National Archives are in better shape these days. I am sure that those in day-to-day charge of the national records try their little noticed and under-remunerated best to improve the archives’ state and status. Their work and what they need to do the job properly deserves publicity. Does anyone care that they are keepers of the eternal flame? What is the state of the national archives? What preservation and cataloguing work is going on? Who is ultimately responsible for safeguarding and extending the archives?  Are they open to the public? On what basis do scholars have access to them? What plans are there for the archives? What is in the 2011 budget for work on the archives? What steps are currently being taken to preserve them, augment them, organize them, and store them with a minimum of scholarly decency? In particular, what is being done, on an organized basis, to acquire, catalogue, safely store and make available for scholarly analysis the papers and memorabilia of those men and women – and certainly not just the politicians – who have made outstanding contributions to our history?

We can’t expect the devotion that a Norman MacKenzie has given to the Hopkins archive, and a poor country can’t afford too many Infra-red Image Converters – but we should at least take that minimum of national pride to do the basic work of constantly improving, preserving, rehousing, augmenting and properly staffing our national archives so that current and future scholars are left with the material from which to seek the true history of Guyana and its people.

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