Attributions and intertexts: ‘Wrinching and spraining the text’

Recently I posted about my idea to teach a computer to look for allusions to the Oxford English Dictionary in poems. A while ago I came across an instance of intertextual reference in a poem by Geoffrey Hill which illustrates really well several of the issues that arise when dealing with the OED, which is itself not only multiauthored, but also integrally intertextual, relying as it does on six million or so quotations to illustrate its definitions.

The poem is “ON READING Milton and the English Revolution“, from A Treatise of Civil Power (the first poem in the Clutag edition, reproduced on pp. 4-6 of the Penguin edition). The lines are from section VI:

wrinching and spraining the text for clown-comedy
amid the pain, the inward and irremediable
disposition of man
– this I can live with.

The poem announces its intertextuality in several ways: in its title, referring to the book by Christopher Hill, and within the text in the form of italicized quotations. You might not recognize the two italicized quotations in the bit excerpted above, but pop them into the google with quotes around and you quickly learn that they come from Milton’s Of Reformation and The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, respectively. So this is a poem ‘on reading’ which is itself reading a book on Milton as well as two tracts by Milton himself. Plenty of intertextuality to think on, including reference, quotation, and probably allusion as well.

But then it occurs to you to look up ‘wrinching’ in OED to make sure it’s really a variant spelling of ‘wrenching’ (and how long it was in use in that form, who else used it, etc.), and because your hunch tells you that it’s the kind of word Hill might be attracted to, on account of its intrinsic properties. And you find, under ‘wrench v., 7a’ (‘To twist, alter, or change from the right or true form, application, or import; to wrest, pervert, distort.’):

1641   Milton Of Reformation 65   These devout Prelates‥for these many years have not ceas’t in their Pulpits wrinching, and spraining the text.

So, that’s interesting. You then think to look up ‘sprain, v.’, and in the first sense, but marked ‘fig.’, you find:

1641   Milton Of Reformation 65   These devout Prelates‥for these many years have not ceas’t in their Pulpits wrinching, and spraining the text.

Murray’s people evidently liked this quotation so much they figured it could do double duty. The presence of this quotation in OED, for both key verbs, raises the possibility of another path to intertextuality in Hill’s poem. Hill has written about ‘brooding’ over the OED, and has described consulting it as ‘almost second nature’, so it’s not absurd to imagine that it was this work that drew the poet’s attention to those lines of Milton’s. After all, you remember from Hill’s poetry notebooks (held at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library archive), that it was the quotations in the OED entry for ‘tautology’ that led Hill to quote William Gouge (‘vain repetition’) and paraphrase Wittgenstein, in The Triumph of Love (LW, quoted in OED: ‘The tautology‥is unconditionally true’; GH, in ToL: ‘Tautology | for Wittgenstein, manifests the condition | of unconditional truth’. The poem actually appears to misattribute poor Gouge’s old phrase (a.1653) to Wittgenstein – perhaps Hill misread his own notes).

So what do you do? Well, you book a flight to the UK and make your way up to Leeds to have another look at Hill’s Notebook 62, where in due course you find the words ‘wrinching and spraining the text 101’ scrawled out, and above them ‘Patrides Milton’. Another gander at Google Books lets you know that in Patrides’s 1985 Selected Prose those words do in fact appear on page 101.

Problem solved. Now the question of source attribution is pretty much a cinch, and obtained by archival evidence sourced the old-fashioned way.

But as a literary critic I’m less interested in the problem of forensic  attribution than I am in the ways that texts talk to each other, and I don’t think the question of intertextuality is so easily put to rest. In a reduced way, perhaps, but I think in a nontrivial way, OED remains a part of the intertextual field that includes “ON READING Milton and the English Revolution“, Milton and the English Revolution, John Milton: Selected Prose, Of Reformation, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, and possibly other works.

That is, every one of these works is implicated in a set of relationships which form part of each work’s context, and some of those works’ ‘contexture’ (to use a Hillian word). I think this is especially true in the case of Hill’s work and the OED, since his poems embed the Dictionary so deeply and so intricately. I have some work to do before I can abstract or generalize this idea into some enhanced theory of poetic intertextuality. This I can live with.


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