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Ursula Bethell

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Note on the Text

from Ursula Bethell: Collected Poems, 2 nd ed. edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria UP, 1997)

Vincent O’Sullivan

The text in this edition [VUP 1997] differs at times from that in earlier Ursula Bethell volumes. The reason for this goes back to the poet’s extraordinary deference in her dealings with publishers, and accepting their right to emend her punctuation. In the draft of a letter to Sidgwick and Jackson, the London publishers of her first volume in 1929, she not only authorises an English friend – Arthur Mayhew, brother of Lady Ruth Head, the ‘Ruth’ of ‘Foreword’ – to correct her proofs; she also writes that ‘My MS was typed by a girl unused to literary work. I think I have noticed and corrected most of her mistakes but the faults in and absence of punctuation are my own ignorance. Proofreader please supply.’ Between the book’s reader and the text then there stood that chain of unskilled typist, in-house editor, and English proofreading friend. But Bethell did retain a carbon copy of the typescript she sent to London. This does not include such correction as she may have communicated by letter but it does preserve a better sense of that volume’s original punctuation than do the printed pages. It usually seems preferable to trust the typescript. On the other hand, the publishers’ corrections of obvious errors have been accepted. I have also followed the publishing conventions of hyphenating compound adjectives, although the poet usually did not, and setting foreign words or quotations in italics. However, this does not apply to those listings of botanical names in Latin. Ursula Bethell as a matter of course called her plants and shrubs by those names, and in her typescript as well as manuscript drafts she saw no reason to distance her everyday enthusiasms by the use of italics. So here her roman has been retained. Titles are occasionally corrected against Bethell’s.

When she submitted Time and Place to Denis Glover and the Caxton Press in 1936, at least poet and publisher were in the same town, and one assumes that the book as it stands carried out her intentions. But again how unproprietorial she is about her own work. After listing a number of spelling errors in the book, she says to a friend ‘There may be others. . . . I could not see proofs being away at Mt. Harper at the time – so D. Glover deserves much praise for turning it out so well.’ (To J.H.E. Schroder, 27 May 1937.) Glover’s correspondence with ‘Miss Bethell’ over the volume is a combination of muted respect and jaunty high-handedness, as he attempts to influence her over a number of points from the book’s title to accidentals. The surviving typescript that she submitted three years later for Day and Night, and from which Glover set, shows how in that volume he frequently altered her punctuation. No doubt any changes in matters as large as wording or the italicising of lines were at the poet’s suggestion, for this time she did read proofs. But I have opted for her own typescript punctuation when this seems superior, or what the poem clearly intends. Her more explicit titling in poems which indicate months and dates has also been restored. The poems of By the River Ashley, printed here in full for the first time, are from typescripts among her papers. Sections 1, 4, 7, 18, 19 and 21 were chosen by Charles Brasch to be included in Collected Poems, 1950.

Peter Whiteford has brought to my notice the changes in punctuation introduced by the printer in several of the hitherto uncollected pieces in the posthumous Collected Poems. Thanks to this I have restored Bethell’s own intentions.

Vincent O''Sullivan

Last updated 4 April, 2005