Toward a Critical Edition of Matthew Hale

by Joseph Nicolello

The whole is illusory.


The devil has a different way of pursuing each person.

Cavazzoni, Brief Lives of Idiots

Sumus ergo etiam nunc in Tenebris.

Hobbes, De Regno Tenebrarum

I had never thought about modernizing an edition of a given Renaissance work until this past November, reading Richard Rambuss’s edition of Richard Crashaw. This experience planted the subtle idea in my head. Yet I did think of any one text in particular to work with in such a way; nor did I develop a modus operandi in determining how I’d find such a work to, in a word, “modernize.” The idea of modernizing a text is problematic enough for me; Stanwood’s Jeremy Taylor and Shawcross’s Milton had long ago ensured that modernized works held no interest for me.

As my examinations of Blake’s Milton: A Poem progressed, I decided to likewise look further into how Milton operated in the minds of Shelley and Melville. Such is a book in itself. But in my research, I began to encounter other names amidst the 17th c. influence on British and American romanticisms. One such name that came up in some footnote or another was that of Matthew Hale. After a biographical and bibliographic glance at Hale I gathered that his Contemplations Moral and Divine was the one I would pick up at once.

Alas! Contemplations is like Flaubert’s theory of the author as the dream of the shadow of God: present everywhere, visible nowhere.

As I sat down with Hale I began to wonder – why is this text so obtuse? There ought to be a critical edition of Contemplations that on the one hand modernizes spelling in order to bring Hale to a wider audience, while on the other hand perhaps there could be a version of the volume as-is. Perhaps not; the modernized spelling might simply compel readers to either enjoy Hale in such an edited version with critical introduction, or further induce them to seek out Hale in the archives.

Let us not just revisit works on Hale’s life and work available thus far in order to present an up-to-date account of the life and works. To do this, why yes, of course; but to do it also as to form the first part of a long introduction, the second part of which would be a thorough examination of Contemplations Moral and Divine in light of contemporary Renaissance, Early Modern scholarship.

Either way, such is the thought at the end of 2022, amidst distant traces of the crackling vinyl choral tradition.