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XXI. William James Rolfe

The “man of one book” (homo unius libri) whom St. Thomas Aquinas praised has now pretty nearly vanished from the world; and those men are rare, especially in our versatile America, who have deliberately chosen one department of literary work and pursued it without essential variation up to old age. Of these, Francis Parkman was the most conspicuous representative, and William James Rolfe is perhaps the most noticeable successor,--a man who, upon a somewhat lower plane than Parkman, has made for himself a permanent mark in a high region of editorship, akin to that of Furnivall and a few compeers in England. A teacher by profession all his life, his especial sphere has been the English department, a department which he may indeed be said to have created in our public schools, and thus indirectly in our colleges.

William James Rolfe, son of John and Lydia Davis (Moulton) Rolfe, was born on December 1, 1827, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, a rural city which has been the home at different times of a number of literary and public men, and is [316] still, by its wide, elm-shaded chief avenue and ocean outlook, found attractive by all visitors. Rolfe's boyhood, however, was passed mainly in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he was fitted for college in the high school. He spent three years at Amherst College, but found himself unable to afford to remain any longer, and engaged in school-teaching as a means of immediate support. A bankrupt country academy at Wrentham, about twenty-five miles from Boston, was offered to him rent free if he would keep a school in it, and, for want of anything better, he took it. He had to teach all the grammar and high school branches, including the fitting of boys for college, and his pupils ranged from ten years old to those two or three years older than himself. He was the only teacher, and heard from sixteen to twenty classes a day. Besides these, which included classes in Latin, French, Greek, and German, he had pupils out of school in Spanish and Italian, adding to all this the enterprise, then wholly new, of systematically teaching English with the study of standard writers. This was apparently a thing never done before that time in the whole United States.

So marked was the impression made by his mode of teaching that it led to his appointment as principal of the pioneer public high schools at [317] Dorchester, Massachusetts. He there required work in English of all his pupils, boys and girls alike, including those who had collegiate aims. At this time no English, as such, was required at any American college, and it was only since 1846 that Harvard had introduced even a preliminary examination, in which Worcester's “Elements of history and Elements of Geography” were added to the original departments of Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Rolfe's boys enjoyed the studies in English literature, but feared lest they might fail in the required work in classics unless they were excused from English. To relieve their anxiety and his own, their teacher wrote to Professor Felton, afterwards President of Harvard, telling him what his boys were doing in English, and asking permission to omit some portion of his Greek Reader then required for admission. Professor Felton replied, in substance, “Go ahead with the English and let the Greek take care of itself.” As a result, all four of the boys entered Harvard without conditions, and it is worth noticing that they all testified that no part of their preparatory training was more valuable to them in college than this in English. It is also noticeable that the late Henry A. Clapp, of Boston, long eminent as a lecturer on Shakespeare, was one of these boys. [318]

In the summer of 1857 Mr. Rolfe was invited to take charge of the high school at Lawrence, Massachusetts, on a larger scale than the Dorchester institution, and was again promoted after four years to Salem, and the next year to be principal of the Cambridge high school, where he remained until 1868. Since that time he has continued to reside in Cambridge, and has devoted himself to editorial and literary work. His literary labors from 1869 to the present day have been vast and varied. He has been one of the editors of the “Popular science news” (formerly the Boston Journal of Chemistry ), and for nearly twenty years has had charge of the department of Shakespeareana in the “Literary world” and the “Critic,” to which he has also added “Poet-lore.” He has written casual articles for other periodicals. In 1865 he published a handbook of Latin poetry with J. H. Hanson, A. M., of Waterville, Maine. In 1867 he followed this by an American edition of Craik's “English of Shakespeare.” Between 1867 and I 869, in connection with J. A. Gillet, he brought out the “Cambridge course” in physics, in six volumes. In 1870 he edited Shakespeare's “Merchant of Venice” with such success that by 1883 he had completed an edition of all the plays in forty volumes. It has long been accepted as a standard critical authority, being [319] quoted as such by leading English and German editors. He was lately engaged in a thorough revision of this edition, doing this task after he had reached the age of seventy-five. He has also edited Scott's complete poems, as well as (separately) “The Lady of the Lake” and “The lay of the last Minstrel” ; an Edition de luxe of Tennyson's works in twelve volumes, and another, the Cambridge Edition, in one volume. He has edited volumes of selections from Milton, Gray, Goldsmith, Wordsworth, and Browning, with Mrs. Browning's “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” He is also the author of “Shakespeare the boy,” with sketches of youthful life of that period; “The Satchel guide to Europe,” published anonymously for twenty-eight years; and a book on the “Elementary study of English.” With his son, John C. Rolfe, Ph. D., Professor of Latin in the University of Pennsylvania, he has edited Macaulay's “Lays of ancient Rome.” He has published a series of elementary English classics in six volumes. He has also supervised the publication of the “New century edition de luxe” of Shakespeare in twenty-four volumes, besides writing for it a “Life of Shakespeare” which fills a volume of five hundred and fifty pages, now published separately. It is safe to say that no other American, and probably no Englishman, has rivaled [320] him for the extent, variety, and accuracy of his services as an editor.

This work may be justly divided into two parts: that dealing mainly with Shakespeare, and that with single minor authors whose complete or partial work he has reprinted. In Shakespeare he has, of course, the highest theme to dwell on, but also that in which he has been preceded by a vast series of workmen. In these his function has not been so much that of original and individual criticism as of judiciously compiling the work of predecessors, this last fact being especially true since the printing of the Furness edition. It is in dealing with the minor authors that he has been led to the discovery, at first seeming almost incredible, that the poems which most claimed the attention of the world have for that very reason been gradually most changed and perverted in printing. Gray's “Elegy in a country Churchyard,” for instance, has appeared in polyglot editions; it has been translated fifteen times into French, thirteen into Italian, twelve times into Latin, and so on down through Greek, German, Portuguese, and Hebrew. No one poem in the English language, even by Longfellow, equals it in this respect. The editions which appeared in Gray's own time were kept correct through his own careful supervision; and the changes in successive [321] editions were at first those made by himself, usually improvements, as where he changed “some village Cato” to “some village Hampden,” and substituted in the same verse “Milton” for “Tully” and “Cromwell” for “Caesar.” But there are many errors in Pickering's edition, and these have been followed by most American copies. It may perhaps be doubted whether Dr. Rolfe is quite correct in his opinion where he says in his preface to this ode, “No vicissitudes of taste or fashion have affected its popularity” ; it is pretty certain that young people do not know it by heart so generally as they once did, and Wordsworth pronounced its dialect often “unintelligible” ; but we are all under obligation to Dr. Rolfe for his careful revision of this text.

Turning now to Scott's “Lady of the Lake,” which would seem next in familiarity to Gray's “Elegy,” we find scores of corrections, made in Rolfe's, of errors that have crept gradually in since the edition of 1821. For instance, in Canto II, 1. 685, every edition since 1821 has had “I meant not all my heart would say,” the correct reading being “my heat would say.” In Canto VI, 1. 396, the Scottish “boune” has been changed to “bound,” and eight lines below, the old word “barded” has become “barbed” ; and these are but a few among many examples. [322]

When we turn to Shakespeare, we find less direct service of this kind required than in the minor authors; less need of the microscope. At any rate, the variations have all been thoroughly scrutinized, and no flagrant changes have come to light since the disastrous attempt in that direction of Mr. Collier in 1852. On the other hand, we come to a new class of variations, which it would have been well perhaps to have stated more clearly in the volumes where they occur; namely, the studied omissions, in Rolfe's edition, of all indecent words or phrases. There is much to be said for and against this process of Bowdlerizing, as it was formerly called; and those who recall the publication of the original Bowdler experiment in this line, half a century ago, and the seven editions which it went through from 1818 to 1861, can remember with what disapproval such expurgation was long regarded. Even now it is to be noticed that the new edition of reprints of the early folio Shakespeares, edited by two ladies, Misses Clarke and Porter, adopts no such method. Of course the objection to the process is on the obvious ground that concealment creates curiosity, and the great majority of copies of Shakespeare will be always unexpurgated, so that it is very easy to turn to them. Waiving this point, and assuming the spelling to be necessarily modernized, [323] it is difficult to conceive of any school edition done more admirably than the new issue of Mr. Rolfe's volumes of Shakespeare's works. The type is clear, the paper good, and the notes and appendices are the result of long experience. When one turns back, for instance, to the old days of Samuel Johnson's editorship, and sees the utter triviality and dullness of half the annotations of that very able man, one feels the vast space of time elapsed between his annotations and Dr. Rolfe's. This applies even to notes that seem almost trivial, and many a suggestion or bit of explanation which seems to a mere private student utterly wasted can be fully justified by cases in which still simpler points have proved seriously puzzling in the schoolroom.

It has been said that every Shakespeare critic ended with the desire to be Shakespeare's biographer, although fortunately most of them have been daunted by discouragement or the unwillingness of booksellers. Here, also, Mr. Rolfe's persistent courage has carried him through, and his work, aided by time and new discoveries, has probably portrayed, more fully than that of any of his predecessors, the airy palace in which the great enchanter dwelt. How far the occupant of the palace still remains [324] also a thing of air, we must leave for Miss Delia Bacon's school of heretics to determine. For myself, I prefer to believe, with Andrew Lang, that “Shakespeare's plays and poems were written by Shakespeare.” [325]

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