In an earlier post on Grierson's Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems, I mentioned the way the typography of that book resembled that of 17th century printed books. The point I might have made, of course, is that very few of our canonical pre-19th century poems have come down us in printed form. The process of "transmission", as it is called, can be very convoluted indeed and, along the way, the noise-to-signal ratio -- the Chinese Whispers effect -- can be surprisingly high.
Few readers of literature realise this. Most of us like to read our texts unencumbered with footnotes, or prefer to have just the sort of footnote that tells us that a "jealous hood" is a state of mind, not a silly hat or part of town. Nearly everyone ignores the sort of notes that tell us that variant A has the word "teares", variant B "feeres", and C "beares" on line 94, and that variant D has no line 94 at all. For the student the text is what it is -- canonical, solidly printed on the page, to be learned, studied, and interpreted. How it got there is not a concern.
However, a better understanding of the nature of writing -- as opposed to the nature of studying for literature exams -- requires that it should be a concern. It is a very peculiar thing, after all, for a man to write an account of a witty seduction (real, imagined, or substantially retouched); to write it within the constraints of a rigid verse form; to share it among his friends; for it to escape from their custody into the wild, where it is much copied and passed around and perhaps even printed by piratical publishers, and then for people still to be reading it -- in a form which may or may not be a travesty of the original -- 400 years later. It bears thinking about. First and foremost, "literature" is what the theorists would call a social practice. It's something people do. Or, at least, it's something people used to do.
You may have come across Francis Meres' reference in 1598 to the circulation of Shakespeare's "sugar'd sonnets among his private friends". This was the usual practice, though I don't know why he would have felt it necessary to sprinkle sugar on them. It was an early form of blogging, in which you cast your poetic bread upon the waters. The good stuff got winnowed out by the laborious and error-prone process of hand-copying into the "commonplace books" of the private friends of your private friends. The rest ended up nailed to the wall in the jakes.
As it happens, and luckily for us, an enterprising publisher got hold of a (presumably quite sticky) manuscript of Shakespeare's sugary sonnets -- probably without the permission or co-operation of Mr. W.S. himself -- and printed them in 1609. Of course, we can never be sure whether it was a good manuscript. We'll also never know if W.S. might subsequently have made brilliant and radical revisions to some of them; his own manuscripts (as far as anyone knows) have vanished from the world.
Above all, we can never know how much good stuff by writers known and unknown we have lost. The close monitoring and censorship of the theatre means a pretty good estimate can be made of the "lost plays" that were performed but have not survived -- nearly all of them -- but poetry was a gentleman's private hobby, not a paid, public occupation (think of the "dyer's hand" sonnet, No. 111). There was no register of sonnets. The "literature" we have is simply what was thought worth preserving at the time, or whatever has repeatedly slipped through Time's net. Think of close calls like the sole manuscript of Beowulf, pulled at the last minute from a fire; who knows, perhaps something rather better had just gone up in smoke?
So, the unsung heroes of "literature" are the editors, those indefatigable seekers of manuscripts and printed books, who patiently reconstruct the relationships between scribbled sheets of vellum and paper widely scattered in space and time. Which version is a copy of which? What copying errors do they have in common? Would Shakespeare really have used a red biro to make proof corrections?
It's all that stuff that no-one ever reads in the introduction and notes to the scholarly edition, the one that has -- on good evidence and sound principles -- finally decided between "tears", "fears", and "bears" in line 94. As Helen Gardner wrote feelingly in her edition of Donne's Elegies and Songs & Sonnets:
No manuscript is extant containing solely the Elegies or solely the Songs and Sonnets. They are found either in manuscripts containing collections of Donne's poems, or as separate items scattered among other men's poems in commonplace books or miscellanies. [...] I began with the intention of collating all extant manuscript copies; but I abandoned the enterprise as wholly unrewarding...And yet it's a curious thought that, despite the best efforts of these text detectives, generations of students may have been struggling -- creatively, cleverly, but pointlessly -- to understand some drunken toff's careless slip of the pen, misread by a secretary, whose appalling handwriting was then mangled by an apprentice printer's mumbled mispronunciation. But, who knows, maybe some texts were improved in the process?
[Will puts down his pint, smiles lopsidedly, and mutters, "'Ere, Kit, write this 'un down for us: 'Shall I compare thee to a mummer's play?' ..."]