A variorum is a work that collates all known variants of a text. It is a work of textual criticism, whereby all variations and emendations are set side by side so that a reader can track how textual decisions have been made in the preparation of a text for publication. The Bible and the works of William Shakespeare have often been the subjects of variorum editions, although the same techniques have been applied with less frequency to many other works.
The word variorum is Latin for 'of various [persons]' and derives from the phrase cum notis variorum ('with notes by various people') which was often used in the title-pages of the Dutch editions.
An older meaning of the word refers not to the text itself but to the assortment of illustrative notes printed with it: 'an edition of a text (usually Latin or Greek) which includes annotations by a variety of critics and commentators'. Variorum editions of this kind were a speciality of Dutch publishers of the 17th century, including the house of Elsevier. In these editions the text is usually taken, with little or no attempt at constructive modification, from a single widely accepted critical edition of the period; the interest lies in the notes, which often fill three-quarters of each page, and which typically embody the complete commentaries of two or three recognised specialists in the work of the author in question, together with selected passages from several other commentators. The notes will usually include textual variants, both documented and conjectural, together with examples of parallel usages and (for non-fiction texts) historical information. Usually some middle-ranking literary man was appointed as general editor; occasionally, however, a first-rate scholar would preside over the edition and include original work of his own within it, Nicolas Heinsius's edition of Claudian (Elsevier, 1661) being a good example.
Notable variorum editions
A variorum of the Bible has been produced at various times in history and of various scopes. Documenting each line of text with all variants in wording, from all known source documents, presented chronologically, helps translators of the Bible establish primacy and prevalence of various line readings.
There have also been noteworthy variora of the works of William Shakespeare, including the readings of all quartos and folios; the textual decisions, or choices, of past editors; and a compilation of all critical notes. Variorum editions help editors and scholars understand the historical evolution of the Shakespeare texts, as well as to decode dubious lines and decide upon most likely authorial intent.
Epitomizing the American high school teacher’s effective use of the Shakespeare variorum was William “Fatah” James Glenn, who taught English at The Blake School, a private country day school in Hopkins, MN, from 1930 to 1971. Glenn, who died in 1986, would often hand the tome to one of his students at the beginning of class, tasking him to consult and present relevant explanatory notes during the ensuing discussion (e.g., “Nash, you’re on the variorum.”).
There is also a variorum of the Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman produced either six or nine editions during his lifetime. The New York University Press produced a variorum in 1980 of these various editions.
- Peckham, Morse, ed. (1959), The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, A Variorum Text, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Bradley, Sculley, Harold W. Blodgett and William White, eds. (1980), Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems, 1855-1891; 3 vol., (Series: The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman); New York: New York University Press.