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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

04 October 2019

Malcolm Guite ponders the meaning of proofreading

I HAVE been examining the page proofs of my next poetry collection, After Prayer. It’s a strange term, “proofreading”, and a strange task. A strange term because proof itself has changed its meaning. Its first sense for us now is “offering a knock-down proof”, demonstrating a certainty, whereas its earlier sense was almost the opposite: testing a claim, questioning a certainty, probing a proposition. People say “The exception proves the rule,” as though it established the rule, or “proved” that the rule was correct, whereas the Latin original, “exceptio probat regulam,” really means that the exception probes, tries, and tests the rule. Will the rule hold true, even in exceptional cases?

So, my page proofs are not a “proof” that the book is well printed, but precisely an invitation to probe that, to put it to the proof, to read with a critical, analytic eye.

It’s a strange task, proofreading poetry, because one has constantly to hold oneself back from a deeper meaning, to hold one’s imagination in check; for a proofreader cannot pass too quickly through the portal of a word into the garden it guards, but must linger on the lintel and check the workmanship of the words themselves: spelling, spacing, pagination, punctuation — everything except their all-important meaning. And so I proofread my poems in just the way I would not want my real readers to read them: “stayed” entirely on the white surface of the paper. And, in that sense, proofreading is, I hope, only preliminary, preparatory to the real reading that is to come.

I sometimes wonder whether the same isn’t true of the ways in which we read those two far greater texts that God sends us: his world and his word. Perhaps analytical science is a kind of proofreading of the text of the cosmos: checking it for consistency, deriving and applying the rules of its grammar, tabulating its patterns and frequencies, but never quite passing through to its meaning. Perhaps we need a second, and fuller, reading of the world, in which the myriad appearances of nature, which we have analysed with our minds, are allowed, at last, to meet our imagination.

Maybe the same holds true for scripture. It’s odd to think that, whichever translation we use, someone has spent hours proofreading the Bible that we hold in our hands, and that that, too, must have been a strange task, dwelling on the outer, resisting the invitation to the inner. Strange, but necessary — as the printers of the so-called “Adulterous Bible” of 1631 found to their cost, when it turned out that they had accidentally omitted the word “not” from the seventh commandment, outraging the Archbishop of Canterbury, leading to a fine of £300 and, perhaps, to some confusion in the pews.

At least we are past the false sense of “proof” in proofreading scripture: skimming through the scriptures for “proof texts” to hurl without thought or question at those with whom we disagree; for, when it comes to scripture, the proofreading in that earlier sense of probat — probing, testing, trying — is all the other way round. It is scripture that proofreads us, that probes and searches, “pierces, even to the division of joint and marrow”. As the Psalmist says, in the old translation, which still carries that earlier, probing sense of prove: “Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my reins and my heart” (Psalm 26.2).

But, after the proofreading, whichever way round it works, we can come, at last, to the poetry.

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