The Problem of Manuscript Excerpts
For most of my academic career, I’ve approached manuscripts knowing that at least one of the items each codex contained was directly relevant to my current studies. For many years, that relevant item was likely to be a Shakespearean sonnet (statistically, probably Sonnet 2). During the summer of my M.Litt, I travelled to a series of libraries, often for only one or two days at a time, and tried to get a feel for the contexts into which Shakespearean sonnets were transcribed in different poetical miscellanies. It was a wonderful, whirlwind tour, during which time I spent between one and ten days (each) in nine glorious academic libraries, breathlessly dashing between them with my not-so-trusty carry-on bag (the wheels of which melted into a sad, rubbery smear across the floor of the Philadelphia International Airport as I flew from the Folger to the British Library).
Time limitations meant that I often skimmed the parts of each manuscript that were the most removed from my target poems, and that, as I drew closer to the sonnets (already aware of their page numbers, thanks to the work of previous scholars), I slowed down and began to linger on the contexts closest to the Shakespearean passages I sought. In fact, I even had a page of notes that listed each sonnet with the 3-5 poems copied immediately before and 3-5 poems copied immediately after it, numbered -3, -2, -1, then +1, +2, and +3, to delineate each poem’s distance from my primary text.
This wasn’t wrong, and certainly was essential given my larger purpose (writing a master’s dissertation in the space of a summer). On the other hand, it does illustrate a larger scholarly problem that arises as a result of our largely author-centric, and sometimes text-centric, approaches to literature. Even now, having moved away from Shakespeare, I still find myself being more meticulous in the parts of a manuscript that are most relevant to my topic.
It seems easy, for instance, to make interesting arguments about different ways of reading Sonnet 2 when it is copied immediately after political poems, religious verses, poems full of sexual innuendo, and/or epitaphs and elegies (and I make all of these in my forthcoming book on readers of the sonnets). But just as time did not allow me to look at every page in equal detail during my master’s research (or, really, ever), the physical space within an article or monograph limits the extent to which we can delve into the complexity or messiness of the manuscript.
A real case in point here would be Folger manuscript V.a.148, a beautiful and tiny little dos-a-dos manuscript (c.1650) in a single hand, best known for its extracts from about two dozen Shakespearean sonnets and epigrams by Bishop Thomas Fuller. One cover, marked with a gilt ‘EH,’ begins a section of about eighty pages of prose addressing various religious and mathematical topics. The other end opens to a section containing about a hundred pages of lyric poetry. The two parts are separated by shorthand (which appears in a few other places in the manuscript as well), which a past Folger cataloguer has classified as ‘sermon notes.’ There are also several pages comprised exclusively of lists of numbered Bible verses.
A great failing of my forthcoming book–but not one that I could remedy without going far over my word count–is that I talk about Shakespeare’s sonnets in V.a.148 almost exclusively within the context of the lyric section in which they were transcribed (and there was even then much that I left unexplored). Yes, the thematic trajectory of the compiler’s poems is important. Likewise, looking at the religious epigrams around the sonnets certainly matters. Nevertheless, the dry prose at the other end of the collection matters too. I had no time at all to explore the ways in which the listed Bible verses, for instance, might have intersected with the passages the compiler pulled from Shakespeare’s sonnets, or with themes in other poems from the collection. More importantly, even if I had spent time on these, I would have overlooked other, valuable contexts in the process of developing a scholarly argument based upon these Bible passages. Self-editing is hard!
Some posts on this blog will still follow the common practice of isolating (or contextualizing) certain texts or even authors within manuscripts. It would be silly to avoid that entirely. However, I also want to spend a lot of time talking through manuscripts in their entirety. Early modern manuscripts are messy, and we don’t talk about that mess enough. At some point, Folger V.a.148 will receive its own post (or ten), and the Sonnets will not be the focal point. Instead, I will introduce you to the messy weirdness of the manuscript overall, giving equal weight to the list of Bible verses, the included directions for the use of a quadrant, and the wide range of poems that no one has (yet) had time to examine in an academic context. And, of course, I’ll do this for some of my other favourite manuscripts also. I will still–by necessity–pick and choose certain elements, but those won’t be based on a scholarly argument; instead, I’ll read each manuscript through and describe moments that are exciting or interesting.
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