Karian’s Chapter 6: The Authorial Strategies and Material Texts of “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”

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Steve opens his final chapter with the frank confession that “as complicated as the textual histories of ‘On Poetry: A Rapsody’ and ‘The Legion Club’ are, that of ‘Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift’ (1739) is even more complicated”: “the early texts of this poem survive in a bewildering array of print, manuscript, and blank space” (166). Given that this chapter is likely to get more use than the preceding two (simply because it’s the only one which discusses a poem that makes it into the undergraduate classroom with any regularity), one might think that such bewilderment would be off-putting: a limit case, perhaps, from which we would gladly back away. I’d like to contend something close to the opposite. That is, the real utility of Steve’s patient survey of the “bewildering array” of versions of the “Verses” (beyond its lucid sketch of a ridiculously complicated phenomenon) lies precisely in the picture it paints of a world in which print, manuscript, oral performance, geography, and the varying degrees of knowledge and interest which readers bring to a text all not only intersect, but conspire to produce a situation in which “variability” is “integral to the work’s existence” (184). The “Verses,” for all their complications, are thus not a limit case so much as what Italian microhistorians like to call the “exceptional normal,” an instance whose apparent oddity lays bare the norms and rules of a much more widely played game. Steve doesn’t go this far and perhaps for his purposes he doesn’t want or need to do so. But the potential to use the “Verses” as a means of better grasping the “variability” “integral” to all sorts of eighteenth-century texts certainly exists and I, for one, would like to see what happens if we presume the normality, even the quotidianness of “bewildering arrays.”

I think the best way to launch, however speculatively, this line of thought is to start with the second half of Steve’s chapter, in which he reconstructs the busy life led by the “Verses” across the 1730s. Here’s the short version. It would seem that Swift first showed a manuscript of the “Verses” to his friends in Ireland, some of whom (like Laetitia Pilkington) memorized significant chunks of it and then repeated them around town to, in Swift’s words, “provoke peoples curiosity and a longing they had to see it in print” (Swift to Lord Carteret, 23 April 1733, quoted on 175). Then, once the poem had some oral currency in Dublin, Swift wrote a burlesque of it, “The Life and Genuine Character of Doctor Swift” and got it published, first in London and then in Dublin, with all sorts of non-Swiftean poetic and typographic flourishes, like italics, dashes, and triplets, in order to throw off those who might suspect its true authorship. Here, obviously, geography matters: Swift was attempting to trick those “Dubliners” who had “heard parts of the poem recited” into thinking that they “recognized the ‘Life’ as an inept reconstruction of the ‘Verses’” (179), whereas readers elsewhere would most likely regard it as a clumsy stand-alone attempt to ventriloquize the Dean. Several of Swift’s English friends then arranged for an edition of the “Verses” themselves (in part to counter the supposedly fraudulent “Life”), but, for various reasons, altered or omitted a number of lines and all of the notes from the text as, we think, Swift had written it, and inserted several (typographically glaring) passages from the “Life.” Finally, George Faulkner brought out a Dublin edition which included some of the material left out of the London edition. However, the printed editions all contained extensive blanks, both in the verse and in (in Faulkner’s version) the notes, which were to be filled in with some combination of guesswork and copying from various quasi-authorized manuscript additions to other copies in circulation. The result, as Steve’s figures 9 through 14 show, is indeed “variability”: “no two of the thirty-seven known annotated copies are exactly alike” (184).

Now Steve does a splendid job sifting through this mess (which is far more complicated than my little summary can convey) and showing what is lost when we read or teach the “Verses” in a modern edition which supplies all that in the initial editions was left blank or completed by hand. For example, Faulkner’s edition insists that “The          S—-, if you nam’d, / With what Impatience he declaim’d!” Depending on the copy one consults, these blanks are filled in as the “Irish Senate,” the “British Senate,” the “Bench or Senate,” the “cheating South-Sea,” or the “Whiggish Spirit.” All fit the meter; all are plausible objects of Swift’s “Impatience.” “Irish Senate” is probably what Swift actually wrote, but to simply print that in a modern edition forecloses the other possibilities in a way that is profoundly unfaithful to the experience of anyone encountering the poem in the late 1730s. So far, so good and it would certainly be enough to stop here, having (once again) demonstrated the abiding inability of most modern editorial practices to accurately represent the complexity of early modern textuality. But we’ve heard that critique before and most of the remaining problems are sufficiently intractable that I suspect further critique isn’t going to get us very far, so I’d like instead to see if we can push a little harder and come up with some useful ways of thinking about what I take to be the real implications of Steve’s work, the places Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript can take us (whether or not Steve wants to come along for the ride).

As an initial gambit, I’d like to pose two questions which come out of what Steve does in the second half of this chapter: 1) “When presented with a printed text (full of blanks or otherwise), what could induce readers to pick up their pens and write?” and 2) “Why should they do so so dramatically more with the ‘Verses’ than most other texts?” Seriously considering the first can, I think, help us better grasp the sheer “variability” at work here. It’s not just a matter of differing levels of knowledge or access to an authorized- or authoritative-seeming copy which one can transcribe; it’s also a matter of will and desire. If one gets a reference (say, that the two-syllable blank which rhymes with “Thing” and refers to someone who has a consort can probably be filled in with “the King”), then why bother writing it down, especially given the less than spontaneous technology of eighteenth-century pens? That is, Peter Stallybrass is probably right that print’s “most radical effect was its incitement to writing by hand,” but that incitement is remarkably variable. Compare Steve’s Figure 9 (from a copy at Penn) to the same page in a copy owned by Ohio State and to the British Library copy which was filmed and scanned for ECCO:

The Penn copy plausibly fills in the asterixed-out lines, but leaves the dashed-out names and the triple asterix standing in for “the Queen” blank. The Ohio State copy completes the names (perhaps incorrectly), but not the royal title or any of the whole lines of verse. And the British Library copy remains resolutely blank. How can we even begin to explain the differences between these copies, given that they are differences not simply of degree but of apparent interest as well? Yet it’s exceedingly difficult to gauge that interest on the basis of what made it onto the page, since there’s no reason to presume that, say, the readers of the Penn and British Library copies were incapable of coming up with a trochaic woman’s name beginning with S (whether it be “Susan,” “Suffolk,” or anything else). Perhaps they were; perhaps the allusion was so obvious as to be unworthy of being written down; perhaps actually recording one’s guess verged too close to libel (note how the Penn copy is still dashing out some of its more charged words); perhaps something else. I suspect that in most cases we can’t ever know with any certainty, but until we try, however speculatively and tentatively, to account for not only the complex relationships between “Print” and “Manuscript” as totalized entities, but also the emotionally fraught, idiosyncratic, geographically and generically varying reading, writing, and listening practices out of which those abstractions are created, we will continue to fail to do justice to “arrays” far less ostentiously “bewildering” than the “Verses.” Such an endeavor will, of course, be the work of many hands and it’s wholly unreasonable to expect Steve to have fully cleared the path. But he’s gone further than a casual reading of this chapter might suggest and I think that at least the beginnings of the kind of work I’m calling for (and, I hope, in my other writing engaging in) can be seen in his wonderfully shrewd passing comments on the ways in which the sheer size of the blanks (e.g., in figure 12) solicits a roughly proportionate amount of penmanship, even if it’s only squiggles as a kind of “etc.” by other means:

Perhaps we could start with something like “the blank proposes, but the pen disposes” and then start to figure out the circumstances under which such proposals are compelling or attractive (and when a blank even registers as such)?

Doing so will, of course, require us to pay close attention to the generic and rhetorical occasion of the blank-filling, since, as anyone who’s ever gone trawling for marginalia can testify, manuscript additions to printed texts are, shall we say, distributed rather unevenly. There are far more annotated almanacs and arithmetic books out there than annotated works of the sort which people in English departments tend to care about. But even within the latter category, the distribution is far from uniform: topical and satiric works, especially verse, get a lot more scribal attention than, say, most novels. Here’s where I think we could usefully bring in the otherwise anomalous first part of Steve’s chapter: his discussion of “Authorship in the ‘Verses on the Death’.” It’s an insightful account of the structure of the poem and usefully explains many things which have long puzzled us (e.g., why the speaker at the Rose should claim to be “no judge” of Swift’s “works in verse and prose” and yet spend most of his 180-plus lines praising their effects). But it’s curiously unintegrated into not only the rest of the chapter, but the book as a whole, unless (and this remains almost entirely implicit) we presume that it is no accident that the work which incited so much writing by hand was a work which meditates on the ways in which authors are entangled with and ultimately dependent on their publishers and readers. If so (and this is very much the ledge on which I want to go out; Steve need not accompany me if he doesn’t want to), then it would seem that one of the factors which might predict a particularly “thick” clustering of manuscript augmentations would be whether or not a text is concerned with authorship or otherwise rhetorically doubling the situation of its own reading. That is, it would seem (on the basis of Steve’s findings and my own ongoing research) that authors were particularly good to think with and that, in turn, seems, at least in some cases, to have translated into their being good to write with. Determining the logic underlying which cases were or were not useful or compelling in this way is a project still beyond us, but once again, I’d like to suggest, Steve’s work can at least cast some light down the proper path if we take seriously his closing contention that the various ways in which readers filled in the blanks of “The           S—-” “may reflect the readers’ own sense of which objects deserved the most abuse” (203), since the structure of not only that line but the entire poem makes the blank-filling tantamount to enlisting Swift on one’s own side, whether it be against Parliament, the Bench, the Bubble, or Sir Bob. If so, then one of the ways in which we can make sense of the “bewildering array” we find is to try to reconstruct not only the actual sociability which produced a given copy (e.g., who jotted down what after encountering which other copy or recitation), but also the imagined sociability between a particular reader, other readers, and the author—which obviously can, but need not, overlap with “what really happened.”

So how, ultimately, after taking Steve’s “bewildering array” and piling conjecture upon conjecture on it (perhaps making it all the more “bewildering” in the process), can I claim that the “Verses” represent a case of the “exceptional normal”? Two answers. The first is simply by fiat: as with all forms of conjectural historiography, the proof of the pudding will lie in the eating. If we can see things about “the normal” state of early modern textuality which we would not have otherwise been able to notice by treating the “Verses” as if they were the key to all (or at least some) mythologies, then they’ve done their work and so are “exceptional,” at least in this sense. And if we can’t, then they’re not, at least in this line of inquiry or these hands. But I would also appeal to the archival experience of the readers of EMOB (including Steve himself) and ask them to recall how many times they’ve encountered a printed text marked by an eighteenth-century hand or an account of a somewhat garbled oral transmission as a part of polite (or impolite) sociability or the trace of a reading which is clearly shaped by the uneven geographic dissemination of information. Such things have been a routine part of every visit to every rare book room I’ve ever made, not to mention a good chunk of my use of full-text databases, my perusal of countless letters and diaries, etc. In short, the world of the “Verses” looks a lot like the world of eighteenth-century reading practices, as I’ve come to understand them over the last decade and a half. If that corresponds with your own sense of this world, then I hope you’ll join me in applauding not only Steve’s very substantial accomplishment in this book, but also the even more promising vistas that his inquiry opens up. Like, apparently, the figure of “Dr. S—-, D.S.P.D.,” he’s awfully good to think with.

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2 Responses to “Karian’s Chapter 6: The Authorial Strategies and Material Texts of “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift””

  1. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Many thanks, David, for this very rich, thorough account of chapter six and especially for your many suggestions about what it invites. My comments here will be brief and serve to highlight or second some of your invitations to ride or go out on a ledge (I hope to flesh out some of these points as our discussion continues).

    Stallybrass’s contention that print incites writing by hand is quite apropos here as is David’s reminder about the variability that accompanies this invention. Both reinforce the symbiotic relationship between print and manuscript and the diverse shapes this relationship can take.

    David’s hunch that “authors were particularly good to think with and that, in turn, seems, at least in some cases, to have translated into their being good to write with” seems to have some relevancy to the success of periodicals mid century–even though essays and other material in these periodicals typically appear with only initials or lacking signatures entirely. The reading material here seemed to develop readers into authors, providing in turn free material for many a title.

    I’m glad that the issue of geography has been brought to the forefront in this post. Early on in Social Authorship Ezell notes that “…little has been allotted to the equally important and related issues concerning the geographic situation of the author or the nature of the anticipated audience and the influence of these factors on the author’s choice of ‘publication’ practices” (4), but it seems that geography and location emerge as having important ramifications that extend beyond the publication choices of a given author (and indeed often fall beyond the notion of authorial choice).

    Finally, Steve’s work overall and David’s images and comments reinforce once again a constant refrain on EMOB about the importance of attending to the evidence found in individual, physical copies of a given work. (And, yes, my experience of examining copy after copy of eighteenth-century printed works bears out David’s experience of encountering a range of hands leaving their marks on these texts.)

  2. Anna Battigelli Says:

    At first I wondered whether David’s question regarding what induced readers to annotate their copies of Swift’s text could be answered. But, like Eleanor, I like David’s formulation that “thick” clustering of ms. annotations signals the phenomenon that “authors [at least authors of Swift's caliber] were particularly good to think with and that, in turn, seems, at least in some cases, to have translated into their being good to write with.”

    One thing that Steve makes perfectly clear is Swift’s interest in two different sorts of interpretive communities. On the one hand, “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” is clearly an open text inviting readers to supply missing words and passages. On the other hand, it is also paradoxically linked to Swift’s interest in creating a more intimate and tightly controlled interpretive community, a group of in-the-know readers who shared or had access to Swift’s immediate concerns. This interest in addressing multiple communities is not unique to Swift; Dryden was especially good at writing poems and plays that evoked multiple and opposing interpretations satisfying different readerships. But Swift’s intentional caginess departs from Dryden. He prefers to remain elusive. Or perhaps, as David suggests, he just wants us to continue to think.

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