Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Text Detectives

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?' ..."]


Gavin McL said...

Mike, this was all news to me, the work of picking out a p
oem from so many originals sounds fascinating but so reliant on your "picker". Almost like a collaborator after the fact. The commonplace book reminds of the "quote book" that sits in our Draughting Office. The DO is known as the bear pit and the humour is often savage, unreconstructed and very funny. For more than 15 years they have recorded the sayings, jokes and quotes it's an interesting read to those within the company a reminder of the characters who have passed by


Kent Wiley said...

A very timely post, Mike. Thursday a friend and I went to a local cinema where we saw a live (delayed) HD broadcast from the Donmar of the National Theatre's production of King Lear. Reading the Wikipedia article about the play is rather interesting, in that there have been two variants of the play by Shakespeare, and a third from later in the 17th Century that had a happy ending! I think what we saw this past week was some form of a combination of W.S.'s two versions.

Obviously an area of much debate, since there is no original manuscript extant.

Mike C. said...

Yes, Kent (good name for a Lear-based comment), Lear is a classic of three conflicting printed versions (two quartos and the famous folio) reflecting the play in various states. The thing about plays, of course, is that they change according to the cast, the venue, audience reaction, etc. The printed versions might be based on unusual versions, "foul papers" (i.e. rough drafts), even bootlegged from drunken actors' memories.

The real text detectives learn to distinguish "compositor A" from "compositor B", "good" quarto from "bad" quarto, and stitch the result together into something like a world-class masterpiece.

Have you ever seen "Shakespeare in Love"? That's a brilliant, witty film about the Elizabethan theatre, with a really funny script by Tom Stoppard, stuffed with inside jokes about playwrighting, theatre, literature, etc. One of my favourites of recent years.


Dave Leeke said...

I totally agree with you, Mike. I love "Shakespeare In Love" - you would have to have a great understanding of "Romeo & Juliet" to be able to write it. There are some fantastic jokes throughout it - the mug with "A Gift From Stratford-Upon-Avon" etc.

Shakespeare never really intended anyone to READ the plays - the Porter from "Macbeth" is a good example of giving artistic licence to actors to comment on the politics of the day.

I've taught several WS plays over the years; thank god I've never had to teach Lear - my favourite play. I'm sure I would get fed up with it as few modern English youngsters could cope with it.

Mike C. said...

And the indispensible bit with a dog never quite makes it into the printed version, either!


Kent Wiley said...

Dave, I suppose you're right that W.S.'s plays were not intended to be read. But unfortunately the language is now distant enough from our customary usage that it's difficult (at least for brain dead louts such as myselves) to get much of the meaning without reading the text. And this production we saw last week was performed at a gallop, so that I only understood a small portion, and nearly none of the nuance. Unfortunately, an example of "English as a foreign language for native speakers." But I've not yet given up on Lear.

Mike C. said...


No need to feel bad on that score, no-one can understand Elizabethan English rattled out by modern actors without doing some homework!

Plus, as I say, some is actually gobbledegook, as dictated by a drunken actor, paid by the pint, to a semi-literate printer's apprentice. A famously incomprehensible bit is referred to as a "textual crux" (plural "cruces").


Kent Wiley said...

"Plus, as I say, some is actually gobbledegook, as dictated by a drunken actor, paid by the pint, to a semi-literate printer's apprentice. A famously incomprehensible bit is referred to as a "textual crux" (plural "cruces")."

Really? I've known some actors who could pull this off, cruces and all! Out of general nosiness, can you point out one of these "famously incomprehensible bit"s?

Mike C. said...


Please don't mistake me for some sort of authority... This is just a blog, not the Arden Shakespeare in serial form...

I exaggerate a bit, but I think if you take pretty much any major speech in any of the plays, you will find lines that -- when you really try to get down to it -- don't make sense.

Example: Who speaks the last line of King Lear? The quarto says Albany and the folio says Edgar.

I googled up this quote from an article:

"The solicitous but stoic response of the Plutarchan Brutus to the false news of his wife's death is used by Shakespeare in his portrayal of Brutus's reaction to the real news, which is a famous textual crux. Brutus tells Cassius about Portia's death, partly to explain his quarrelsome mood 4.2.198-210. A little later, Messala announces the news of Portia's death to a Brutus who appears (or pretends) not to know it, responds with studied indifference, and moves brusquely to other business 4.2.242-51. I am inclined to agree with Frank Kermode's blunt assessment that the sequence as it stands in the Folio text ‘imputes to Brutus an almost incredible lie’ 1100 but the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare have established that there are no grounds for questioning the text on the basis of external evidence Wells and Taylor, 387. Thomas Clayton, who has reviewed the debate and argues, unpersuasively to my mind, that the sequence makes good sense, concludes with the interesting suggestion that an earlier version of Julius Caesar may not have included any account of Portia's death at all. Just as Plutarch added that information as an afterthought (‘And for Portia , . . ’) so Shakespeare may have inserted her death later and may have toyed with different variants."

It's dull stuff, really...


Kent Wiley said...

Thanks for the googling, Mike. As you point out, probably just about any line can have some varied interpretation, depending upon who you want to use as your "authority." Much like lyrics in songs.