University of Virginia Library

1. Verbal Work

Works constructed of verbal languages are a useful starting point be-
cause they have been so extensively discussed in the literature of textual
criticism that for many people they constitute a natural frame of refer-
ence for textual questions in general. Yet (or perhaps not surprisingly) the
medium of language is the most mysterious of all media. It would not be
so if it were unquestionably oral, with tangible texts being only the re-
cords (like musical scores) by which the vocal work is recreated. Not only
is it possible, however, to have languages without oral components but
also—and more importantly for present purposes—it is common for au-
thors to expect their works to be read silently, without the spoken sounds
of the words being formed imaginatively in the mind. Of course, some


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writers (and not only poets) do wish the sounds to be heard internally;
but even in those cases, or most of them, the authors feel that the works
have been experienced in their intended medium whether read silently or
aloud. Whatever may be said about the origins of language, in practice it
is a medium that can exist apart from speech. But its written presentation
on a physical surface is not its primary form either: most writings, from
the point of view of their creators, are not visual works, for the works still
exist when presented in different handwriting or typefaces on different
papers. However difficult it is to define the medium of language, one thing
is therefore clear: the medium is intangible. Like all works in intangible
media, verbal works require performance of some kind (oral or internal)
for their realization; and because performances have duration, such works
consist of sequential texts, intended by their creators to be experienced
from a beginning to an end.

One of the problems that these conditions pose for textual criticism is
the likelihood of confusing the work with its means of transmission. When
verbal works are communicated on paper, readers (and even, at times,
the class of readers called textual critics) may think of the works as what
they see rather than as what they silently perform. They may automati-
cally correct a typographical error, for example, without realizing that
other places in the text may also be erroneous (from the point of view of
the author's or the publisher's intention). What textual critics and other
readers have available to them in documentary texts are various attempts,
from various past moments, to provide instructions for recreating a work.
The fact that words and punctuation on paper are perceived by the eye
does not in itself make the text a work of visual art, for the artistry of the
physical design is not normally a part of the intended verbal work. (Punc-
tuation is no more visual from this point of view than the words; it, like
them, is an element of linguistic meaning, transferrable into pauses and
intonations in recited texts.) Authors do at times, however, choose to use
visual effects, creating mixed-media works that employ both a tangible
medium (since the pictorial images and spatial arrangements exist in ink
on paper) and an intangible one (language). The relative proportions of
each medium can vary: at one end, for example, are primarily verbal
works in which some of the text is shaped (like George Herbert's bird-
wings and Lewis Carroll's mouse-tail, or indeed stanza indentations and
spacing), and at the other are primarily visual works in which language is
simply a significant element (like concrete poetry).

Textual criticism, which elucidates these conditions, controls the op-
tions for editors: in the first of these situations, new editions (with critical,
reset texts) are possible so long as the shaping is maintained; in the sec-
ond, where the work is totally dependent on physical presentation, only a
facsimile reprinting could be considered (and not even that if the quality


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of the paper were a part of the work and one were concerned with pre-
serving authorial intention). There is no doubt that the physical presen-
tation of a verbal work conveys information about the cultural milieu in
which the document was produced and can have an influence on readers,
regardless of whether any visual effects were intended by the author. But
many readers have always been interested in authorially intended texts
and make an effort to exclude documentary features that they suspect
were not so intended; thus authorial intention is a factor in the history
of reading. Textual criticism properly studies all these interchanges over
time, but any editions that result will inevitably follow different guidelines
according to whether the focus is on authorial intention or social-cultural

The intended texts of a verbal work and the varying physical texts
aimed at conveying that work are all worthy of study, but understanding
that "the texts of works" and "the texts of documents" are not synony-
mous phrases is central to clear thinking about the texts of works made
of language. This point applies equally to verbal works transmitted in
oral form (as in nonliterate societies, but not only in them), for each oral
rendition is a "document" and not necessarily the work. When the texts
of such performances are written down (as they often are at some point,
if only by anthropologists or other historians), a tangible documentary
record becomes available for analysis by textual critics, supplementing
any ongoing oral tradition.