The Folger Shakespeare Library Presents A Manuscript Miscellany

A Summer 2005 Institute
Directed by Steven W. May

Ben Jonson and Manuscript Culture

Christopher Ivic
State University of New York at Potsdam

If John Donne eschewed print culture, Ben Jonson (1572–1637), however ambivalently, embraced it. Jonson's masterly manipulation of print as a cultural agent, culminating in his monumental folio edition of The Workes of Beniamin Jonson (1616), which issued Jonson's plays, poems, and masques, played no small part in his magisterial authorial self-fashioning—Jonson was, after all, Britain's first unofficial poet laureate since John Skelton.

Jonson was by no means a stranger to manuscript culture and its various coteries, however. Indeed, Jonson's poetic identity owes as much to the handwritten worlds of early modern Britain as it does to the printing press. Donne was, undoubtedly, the leading manuscript poet of the period. Jonson, perhaps unlike any other poet, flourished in both modes of literary production. Certainly Jonson's poetic career invites consideration of the ways in which print and manuscript forms intersected and overlapped in the period.

Two of Jonson's poems evince, in real and imagined ways, a poet at work in print and manuscript cultures: Epigram XXIII, "To John Donne," and Epigram XCIV, "To Lucy, Countess of Bedford, with Mr Donne's Satires." Both are printed in the 1616 Workes. These poems represent themselves as coterie texts—that is, as the products of a select and exclusive literary or social circle—and in doing so, they foreground Jonson's connections to a literary and social elite. "Epigram XXIII," addressed to Donne, is sustained by its sense of intimacy (poet to poet) that, perhaps, effects a leveling of social distinctions, especially as Jonson positions himself as judge of Donne's manuscript verse, most of which was not printed until 1633. A similar sense of intimacy, and a similar sense of positioning, pervades "Epigram XCIV" as Jonson deferentially presents his (and Donne's) patron, Lucy, Countess of Bedford (who had a close relationship with Donne), with a copy of his poem along with a manuscript collection of Donne's satires (despite the fact that Donne did not need any mediation with Bedford). Jonson's poem bears witness to the circulative nature of manuscript poetry precisely by imagining itself as an object in a private network of exchange. By representing himself as a reader of Donne's manuscript poems who is in the position of handing Donne's handwritten satires to the Countess, Jonson reveals himself as a signal participant in the elite culture of manuscript poetry. These two poems were included in the 1616 Workes, and that inclusion reveals the ways Jonson drew upon the social and literary conditions of manuscript culture and then parlayed the status thus derived into a public authorial identity fashioned in the forum of print publication.

At the same time, however, Jonson's work continued to circulate in manuscript. The following examples from Folger manuscripts provide a sense of the material production, circulation, and reception of Jonson's poems; moreover, they illustrate the complexities and challenges that a vibrant manuscript culture presents to received narratives of authorship, textuality, and literary history, especially narratives that take modern edited texts as their source for study.

Folger MS V.b.43 is a folio-sized verse miscellany written in a neat secretary hand, which is consistent throughout, and which displays little of the italic creep so evident in much of the handwriting in this period (c. 1630). In this miscellany, Jonson's "Vpon an houre glasse:" appears on the same page as Donne's "The Anagram" (Elegy 2) (untitled in this manuscript). Many extant manuscript copies of Jonson's "Houre-glasse" poem exist, including an autograph copy, dated January 19, 1619, which was written out for presentation to William Drummond of Hawthornden (Scottish Record Office, MS GD18/4312; Beal 237). This poem was eventually printed in 1640 in the second folio of Jonson's Works. A comparison of the autograph copy, the printed copy, and this Folger manuscript copy reveals numerous variants—probably the most significant feature of manuscript poetry—in even such a brief poem.

In MS V.b.43, "Vpon an houre glasse" reads:

Doe but consider this small dust
that runneth in the glasse
       by Autumnes mov'd
would you beleeve that it the body ere was
       of one that lov'd
who in his M[ist]r[i]s flame playing like a Fly
       burnt to Cinders by her eye,
Yes and in death as life vnblest
       to have it exprest
Even ashes of lovers finde no rest.

In the 1640 edition, the poem appears as follows:

The Hour-Glass

Do but consider this small dust
     Here running in the glass,
      By atoms moved:
Could you believe that this
       The body [ever] was
         Of one that loved?
And in his mistress' flame, playing like a fly,
     Turned to cinders by her eye?
     Yes; and in death, as life, unblest,
           To have't expressed,
Even ashes of lovers find no rest.

How do we account for these textual variants? The Folger manuscript copy may be an instance of what Walter Ong, describing the vibrancy of manuscript culture, calls "participatory poetics" (274–9): manuscript readers who became manuscript writers were free to alter poems as they recorded them. But who recorded this poem? The autograph poem housed in the Scottish Record Office is a clear example of what Harold Love, in his delineation of three main modes of scribal publication, terms "author publication" (47). Is the Folger manuscript copy an instance of one of the two other modes: "entrepreneurial publication" or "user publication"? According to Love, entrepreneurial publication, the product of a scribe, is "usually written in a clear, regularly formed hand with consistent page numbering and catchwords on every page"; user publication, the product of an individual who desires to possess the text, is "written in a rapid, untidy hand." However, Love warns these distinctions are not easily maintained: "not all personal copies are so written, and some private transcribers matched the professionals for the care and beauty of their script" (46). The "clear, regularly formed hand" of Folger MS V.b.43 could be that of a private transcriber. What about the placement of this poem? Does the fact that a scribe has placed Jonson's verse alongside the period's most popular manuscript poet call attention to Jonson's success? Or is it worth noting that Donne's untitled poem is ascribed to "Dr: Donne" (as the poem above Jonson's is attributed to "Mr. Raynolds"), while "Vpon an houre glasse:" is unattributed? Early modern manuscripts provide us with invaluable evidence, to be sure; however, this evidence is far from stable or coherent and often provides more questions than answers.

Another remarkable instance of the intersection of print and scribal culture exists in the form of Folger MS V.a.219, a mid seventeenth-century verse miscellany bound in limp vellum. If anything, this manuscript reveals the heterogeneity of verse miscellanies. On f. 33r, we find the heading "Ben: Johnson his poems," over four poems in whole or (mainly) parts. Note that only the third entry has a title. The first selection contains lines 13 through 16 of Epigram XCIV, "To Lucy, Countess of Bedford, with Mr Donne's Satires." The second selection contains lines 25 through 36 of Epigram XCV, "To Sir Henry Savile." The third selection is the whole of Epigram LXIII, "To Robert, Earl of Salisbury." And the fourth selection is a couplet from Epigram XCVII, "On the New Motion."

To what extent does this verse miscellany give us a sense of the conditions under which the scribe is working? It is tempting to conclude that the scribe was given access to fragments of Jonson's poem. However, this compilation was put together well after the publication of Jonson's Workes; moreover, the fact that the first two entries follow the Workes' placement of the "Savile" poem immediately after the "Lucy" poem may suggest that the scribe is copying from the printed text—a common phenomenon in the period. Perhaps we are witness here to a self-selecting scribe, one who copies only what he or she feels is worthy of copying. To classify this manuscript as a commonplace book would be inaccurate, though this example suggests that verse miscellanies were by no means always given over to recording poems in their entirety. While the numbering in the left margin—"1," "2," etc—may be a way of demarcating the poems, what impact does it have on the reception of Jonson's work?

If print culture provides evidence of authors' attitudes to their books and the public, then manuscript culture allows us to glimpse scribes and readers' attitudes toward authors. What can we gauge about the attitude of the scribe of Folger MS V.a.219 toward the author of the poems? Perhaps the heading "Ben: Johnson his poems" suggests that the scribe privileges or respects the author. In his entry on Benjamin Jonson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Ian Donaldson notes that "'Jonson' was to be the poet's own favoured spelling in all surviving examples of his autograph, and in his published work from 1604 onwards. 'Ben' was the version of his forename by which he would be universally known." In fact, in many of the printed books that Jonson owned, he has left us the signature "Ben: Jonson" on the title page. Can this "Ben:" (even without the author's preferred "Jonson") be viewed as a sign of the influence Jonson's own poetic self-crowning played in the manuscript reception of his poetry?

As mentioned earlier, Jonson's Epigram XCIV, "To Lucy, Countess of Bedford, with Mr Donne's Satires" is remarkable for its imagining of the dynamics of coterie circulation. MS V.a.219's first Jonson entry includes only the final four lines of this poem, altered lines at that: an alteration that, it seems, works to make the entry appear self-contained:

      They, though few
Bee of the best: and 'mongst those, best are you.
Lucy, you brightnesse of our spheare, who are
The Muses Euening, as their Morning starre.


With no reference to Donne's satires, the sense of the poem's real or imagined coterie setting, and therefore its social significance, is lost. "Transmisson," Peter Beal reminds us, was "subject to the common process of manuscript culture whereby texts were liable to be copied, and sometimes adapted, to suit the tastes, standards and requirements of compilers and readers, rather than out of any sense of reverence for the sanctity of the author's original" (2002: 124). This scribe's recording of the poems of "Ben: Johnson" serves as a wonderful example of the period's eclectic transmission practices.

In his Index to English Literary Manuscripts, Beal notes that "[t]here are numerous copies of Jonson's poems in miscellanies and other MS sources. Those texts often represent early versions which circulated in MS before being revised for publication" (235). Both of the above examples bear some relation to printed texts, though not as early drafts. Other examples of Jonson's verse that circulated in manuscript were never printed in his lifetime. Three poems on Inigo Jones, the principal stage-designer of Jacobean court masques provide a fine example. Jones and Jonson had a vexed relationship, one that came to a head when Jonson published a masque, Love's Triumph Through Callipolis, with his name as author before that of Jones's as designer. The strains of this struggle are evident in Jonson's attacks on Jones in his three poems, which, though never printed, were clearly "published."

That the Folger Shakespeare Library contains three complete sets of the Inigo Jones poems—Folger MS X.d.245 (a-b), Folger MS V.a.96, ff.90v-94v, and Folger MS V.a 322, pp.11-15—suggests that these poems were scribally published. Perhaps the most intriguing of these three texts is Folger MS X.d.245 (a-b), which contains two bifolium sheets, with the following three poems written in a neat secretary hand with traces of italic: "An Epigram vpon Inego Iones to a freind./" signed Ben: Jonson./ (f.1); "To Inego Marquesse would bee./" signed Ben: Johnson" (f.1r-v); "An Expostulacion with Inego Iones./" signed Ben: Jonson (f.1v-3). A close look at the various folds of the paper suggests that these poems could have been delivered by letter, for the folds are consistent with the size of letter folds in the period. To whom these letters are addressed and from whom they come is unclear. If these poems were enclosures in a letter, what might that suggest about the circulation of these poems? Why might these poems in particular—these attacks on Inigo Jones—circulate in letter form? Would the letter be one way to circulate poems within a coterie? Arthur Marotti has suggested that the circulation of poems in loose sheets and booklets probably preceded the circulation of poems in verse miscellanies. Might this be an early composition, the source for the other Folger copies which are contained in verse miscellanies?

Folger MS V.a.96 preserves a less visually appealing copy of these same poems. In this octavo-sized book, the poems are copied out in italic with ample spacing. Notice that the poem "To Inigo Marques would bee A Corrollarie./" looks much more like prose than verse. Because the scribe is working on ruled sheets, he or she has been forced to make the poem fit into this confined space. So what we see here is an instance of the way in which the material vehicle onto which the poem is being inscribed impacts the form. Note, too, the very first line of the poem: "Bute-cause thou heare'st the mightie king of Spaine." The other two Folger manuscript copies of this poem begin "But cause thou..."; modern printed editions of this poem also print the "But cause" opening that may seem awkward to us. What do you think the scribe has done in this particular instance? This emendation provides another example of the liberty many scribes took in this period. Should we not only accept but also prefer some of these scribes's emendations?

Suggested Reading:

Beal, Peter. "John Donne and the Circulation of Manuscripts." The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Vol. IV 1557–1695. Ed. John Barnard and D. F. McKenzie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 122–26.

—, ed. Index of English Literary Manuscripts, Volume 1: 1450–1625, Part 1 Andrewes-Donne. London: Mansell, 1980–1997.

Helgerson, Richard. Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton and the Literary System. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Love, Harold. The Culture and Commerce of Texts: Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Marotti, Arthur F. Manuscript, Print, and The English Renaissance Lyric. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Newton, Richard. "'Ben. / Jonson': The Poet in the Poems." Two Renaissance Mythmakers: Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Ed. Alvin B. Kernan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Ong, Walter. Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Wall, Wendy. The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.