Commonplace sycophancy

Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric
March 15, 1996

Literary critics used to study Renaissance commonplace books to discover poems in their prelapsarian state and to deplore their later corruption. They are now becoming less particular about what to find interesting. Theoretical and technological developments have contributed to the present revitalisation of the field. The greater availability of microfilm and photocopying has made it possible to do sophisticated work on manuscripts away from the great libraries, while the doubt of literary theorists as to whether a text can be said to exist in isolation from its audience has led to a greater concentration on the reader, and on the processes of transmission. Arthur Marotti's introduction shows how completely this approach has become the new orthodoxy.

Any study using the lyric as the point of departure for looking at commonplace books - rather than prayers, sermons or jokes - still has obvious debts to canonical hierarchies of author and genre; perhaps because that way it is more likely to be read. Here, there are accounts of how Donne, Sidney, Spenser and Jonson reacted to the normalising demands of print, and of the conception of Tottel's Miscellany as a print version of a manuscript anthology.

The great commonplace of manuscript transmission is how, after the advent of print, it was used by elite groups to limit their audience. Marotti has some modifications to add: William Drummond of Hawthornden printed his poems in loose sheets to give to friends, and Donne at one stage considered printing his poems in a private edition to increase the effect of his dedication to the earl of Somerset. However, manuscript transmission also provided a resource for those whose work was in less danger of being published: women or religious and political dissidents evading censorship.

Compilations could be defiant, or creative, or flattering acts in themselves. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is in its vivid individuation of particular manuscript collections, compiled by or for people who are remembered for nothing else.

Contemporary academics must envy the responsiveness and low-tech speed of the manuscript medium. Marotti's book comes two years after Harold Love's Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England, yet neither author has been able to benefit from the other except via preliminary articles. But, like Love, Marotti will help to give methodological bearings to the swarm of case-studies currently being undertaken.

Alison Shell is curator of rare books, Royal Institute of British Architects.

Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric

Author - Arthur F. Marotti
ISBN - 0 8014 8238 0
Publisher - Cornell University Press
Price - £15.50
Pages - 348

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