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Occasional Lecture Series

Report on Robert Whalen's Talk

January 8, 2010



Under the Occasional Lecture Series of the Forum on Contemporary Theory we organized a talk by Professor Robert Whalen, Associate Professor of English at Northern Michigan University at 4 pm on January 8, 2010 at the Centre for Contemporary Theory. Professor Whalenís publications include The Poetry of Immanence: Sacrament in Donne and Herbert (University of Toronto Press, 2002) as well as articles on Renaissance literature in Renaissance Quarterly, Early Modern Literary Studies, and in several other journals and collections. He spoke on his current work The Digital Temple: A Documentary Edition of George Herbert's English Poems.

The talk by Robert Whalen was an introduction to the project that explores significant differences among multiple versions of George Herbert's poems. Whalen argued that the conventional eclectic editionís concern to establish a single text is based on a faulty premise: the idea that a poem is a stable, pristine artifact. He illustrated this idea by drawing attention to varying uses of words, phrases, rhyming patterns and the like in different versions of Herbert's poems such as  ' The Altar', 'The Church Porch' , 'Easter Wings' and 'Evensong'. The Digital Temple, the project for digitizing these poems does full justice to all these versions and also makes it easy to understand each of them by providing the equivalences of words in contemporary English. The Digital Temple's editorial principles are based conversely on Jerome McGann's notion of the "social text," his observation that all texts, especially literary texts, are created within institutional spaces and bear traces of multiple agencies. Whalen observed that in Herbert's case, these include the author himself, an amanuensis, additional scribes, and the printers at the Cambridge Press, Thomas Buck and Roger Daniel. He humorously stated that the purpose in revealing this instability in Herbert's poems was not to treat him a la Michel Foucault, but rather to foreground difference as an exciting place to begin in reading and understanding them. Audience asked questions about the sources of these different versions and the feasibility of doing such exercise with the works of other authors. Whalen spoke in detail about the sources which he had used in his project. In his opinion, such an exercise on the works of prolific writers like Donne whose poems do have multiple versions would be a life-long task.

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