Editing Modernism in Canada


June 1, 2011

George Whalley

The opportunity to speak about my work on George Whalley at the EMiC roundtable Saturday afternoon was very enjoyable. For those who asked questions and made comments during and after the roundtable, I appreciate your interest and advice. For those who could not attend the session, I thought I would reiterate some of what I shared.

Currently, I am working on scholarly editions of Whalley’s poetry and wartime letters. The longer-term projects are to make a new collection of his essays and write a biography drawing on the rich body of materials in the Queen’s University Archives and the private papers kept by Elizabeth Whalley, George’s widow.

Recently, I received three packages from England containing copies of Whalley’s poetry manuscripts. The files include his wartime poems, the smaller number of postwar poems, and an as yet uncounted number of unpublished poems and fragments. His daughter, Emily Whalley, has been very helpful in providing me with the materials I need from the private collection of her mother, Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Emily have been very generous in allowing me to see George’s private papers. I’ve received copies of George’s military records, digitized photos from throughout his life, recordings of him reading a selection of his poems, among many other valuable materials. There is much more I must return to England to study in detail. For now, I’m making very good use of some of what I’ve received to construct a website – a kind of introduction to Whalley’s life and writings – by relying on the expertise and assistance of Richard Scott and Robin Isard in the Wishart Library at Algoma University. The website should be ready well before the end of the summer.

Given that Whalley published a relatively small number of poems during his life, most importantly in No Man An Island (1948), and George Johnston’s 1986 posthumous collection contains less than 80 poems, the large volume of manuscript pages is a bit surprising at first. In some instances there are multiple versions of the published poems. Many of the versions are dated at least once, if not twice or more times. A blue book of poems from 1942 to 1944 George made for Elizabeth to keep while he was away at sea is perhaps the first attempt at a collection, and it contains several poems not yet published. Whether or not George Johnston had access to any of Whalley’s manuscripts I have yet to determine, though I feel almost certain that he did not see them. It is, however, clear that Johnston did not include all of Whalley’s published and unpublished poems in The Collected Poems of George Whalley (1986). He may have been unaware of some of the poems Whalley published in magazines and other small journals.

Whalley kept very detailed records in calendars during the war. On one calendar, he keeps a daily record of where he was stationed, the ships on which he served, the operations in which he was involved as a secret intelligence agent, and where he was when on leave. He also notes social engagements with friends and family. On another calendar, he keeps a record of where he was when he drafted and revised his poetry. In seven columns he writes the title, the place and date of the first draft, the places and dates of revisions, the periodicals in which pieces appeared, and makes some other markings, the meanings of which are not clear to me yet. The list of places is remarkable: Alexandria, Malta, Tunis, Algiers, Chelsea, London, and Halifax, among others. Whalley was literally writing wherever he was stationed for naval or secret intelligence operations. The writing and revising also continued immediately after the war when he was teaching at Bishop’s University.

In addition to the manuscripts and the calendars, a large number of Whalley’s wartime letters are extant (along with a calendar of letters sent and received). In some cases, an event is represented in both a letter and a poem, making for some opportunities to reflect on the differences in his prose and verse styles. With all of these materials, I will be able to reconstruct a rich biographical account of Whalley’s life during World War II to include as part of the introduction to the scholarly edition of his poems. Constructing a digital edition to complement the print edition may allow me to present the variations in the different versions of the poems, including cancelled lines and stanzas.

The next couple of months will give me time to systematize the manuscripts, get some insight into Whalley’s writing process, and identify exactly how many wartime and postwar poems remain unpublished.

Michael John DiSanto

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