Improving the Text.
Since the Romantic movement, Alford argues, the principal aim of criticism has been ameliorative; that is, critics have sought generally to leave the literary work better in some sense than they found it. Texts are improved in three ways: by editing, translating, and interpreting. After a consideration of such editorial improvements as Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry and Richard Bentley’s Paradise Lost, Alford turns to the controversy surrounding the Athlone editions of Piers Plowman A and B, in particular the charge that the editorial process was governed by a romantic view of authorship. At bottom, Alford concludes, the issue is proprietary. Undoubtedly the true source of the displeasure in some quarters is not that Kane and Donaldson have illegitimately improved the text but that they have forestalled anyone else’s doing the same. The assault on Kane and Donaldson actually expresses a nostalgic desire for the pre-Romantic freedom to choose, as Percy did, whatever seems ‘most interesting and affecting’ . . . .