Investigating Omeros

I helped out earlier at an ‘Investigating Options’ outreach day for Year 11 students (15 and 16 year-olds). The general aim was to help students make informed choices about their education post-GCSE and A-Level, so the thrust of my session was to think about ways that studying English in sixth form and at university differs from GCSE English. My not-very-original theme was the value of fostering a spirit of inquiry and curiosity.

My opening unastonishing point was that as I’ve taken more advanced qualifications in literature, I’ve devoted more and more time in the day to studying it until it’s become a career choice linked to my sense of identity. When you continue to study a subject, you gain breadth and depth of knowledge. To illustrate ‘breadth’ I first asked the students when the first book was printed in English (Raoul Lefèvre’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, trans. by William Caxton (Bruges: William Caxton, c. 1473), and to come up with a list of the earliest works of literature. Suggestions included the Bible, Greeks, Egyptians, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, and I added Beowulf which was written down in Old English before the second millenium, and a few others. I passed on the good advice I once received when applying to university, that I should create a timeline of writers and fill in gaps where possible. English literature doesn’t start with Jane Austen or Shakespeare.

As you accumulate more knowledge of Western literary tradition, I added, you understand better how writers are working within that tradition. This led into my focus on ‘depth’, or close reading. I took a passage from Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990), and asked the students to tell me five things they could tell me about it, and five things they couldn’t. I spent much longer asking the students for their questions. The students generally came up with interpretative problems, some of which would have made great starting points for essays, like ‘Why is Helen like a shadow?’ and ‘Why are Achille and Hector fighting over a bailing tin?’.

It also wasn’t a bad way to encourage students to participate, since if a student said ‘I don’t know’ I could ask them what they didn’t know. I encouraged them to ask questions about who the author was, where the poem was set, what came before and after this section, how the form works, what did difficult words like ‘manchineel’ (a poisonous evergreen Caribbean tree) mean and so on, and showed how these questions were all entry points to understanding the poem.

I punctuated the discussion with audio clips from a BBC World Book Club programme. When reading the passage we discussed(at 3.55-5.32 in the interview), Walcott didn’t follow the stanza breaks precisely, or even read it like ‘poetry’. In the same interview (c.16.33-17.35), Walcott remarks that a reader once told him that when reading Omeros he found himself forgetting that he was reading poetry, which made Walcott think ‘Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere’. It’s a viewpoint consistent with his loose adoption of Dante’s terza rima.

In another clip (6.12-8.00) Walcott talks about the poem’s relationship to Homer’s Iliad as being evocative and associative only, which pulls us back from taking Homer as the key to the poem. I took this idea to make the larger point that there’s no solution to the poem, just a series of encounters between readers and the poem, where we bring our own experiences and insights, and have our own questions to ask. Another student asked how the poem could be so complex, to which I replied that its difficulty arises—as so often in great literature—from small incidents in which the poet perceives deeper resonances and significance that become implicated in autobiography, colonialism, dispossession and other abstract themes.

If I’d attended a class like this one when I’d been in Year 11, I wouldn’t have spoken up much, but was probably too strong-willed to have recognized that collaboration in classes—through questioning, seeking answers from others, developing arguments—is important not just for impressing at A-Level or university, but in any pursuit of what’s true and real. It reminded me of a podcast I’d just heard in which a philosopher called Dan Sperber argued that reason’s primary function is to facilitate collaboration between strangers, and help social division of cognitive labour. By ourselves, reasoning is often rationalizing to justify our own biases, but alongside others, reason provides a basis to hear what someone says and investigate it further. Reasoning doesn’t lead us all to the same answer, but it does encourage us to cooperate and reach an agreed answer through consensus. It creates a common standard by which people can develop and question a line of enquiry pursued by others.

Academic study in general encourages such collaboration, in Britain particularly post-GCSE, where students often learn through classes and seminars. From a literary perspective, Sperber’s brief discussion immediately raised further questions about the role of intuition, who we should collaborate with, how far we should engage with strangers to pursue truth, whether it prohibits discussion if an interlocutor has little concept of reason, and if anything is lost by communicating an argument using reason.

The last question I was asked concerned libraries, to which I answered that as your studies become more advanced you don’t just use public and school libraries, you start to access repositories of knowledge where you encounter everything ever written about a topic. When applying to university, I was encouraged to take a trip to a university library (which I didn’t). As a graduate student, I’m now learning how to master topics quickly through literature reviews. As I gain knowledge in a subject, I become more critically aware of where my information comes from, and hopefully more independent too (though wisdom is another matter).

Embers of ‘Nebuchadnezzars Fierie Furnace’

I spent a successful day working in the British Library manuscripts room this week. Maybe thirty researchers were working with manuscripts when I was there, but there’s no way (other than the occasional glance at the text, or letters, or images being consulted) to know what topics people are researching, and how manuscript sources assist their enquiries. So for the curious here’s a brief account of my visit.

Background information. I’m writing a doctoral thesis called ‘British Responses to Du Bartas’s Semaines, 1584-1641′. The most widely-read English translator is Josuah Sylvester, and the Oxford edition of his translation mentions a work that was formerly attributed to him, called Nebuchadnezzars Fierie Furnace. This work was printed in 1936 in the series ‘Materials for the Study of Old English Drama’, and thought to be written by Sylvester because Fierie Furnace contains so many quotations and near-quotations from his translation. My work had already gone through the text, listing every parallel with Sylvester’s translation, which led me to agree with the Oxford editor that it was extremely unlikely that Sylvester wrote it. I also concluded that it was probably not a play intended for stage performance. However, I didn’t know what the text actually was. My best guess was that a young aristocrat had written it as an exercise, perhaps even as a piece of seventeenth-century fan fiction: Fierie Furance shows us what it’d be like if Josuah Sylvester were to write a poem about the Book of Daniel.

The text of Fierie Furnace presented in the 1936 edition is found in British Library Harl. 7578, and I’d previously taken a look for any clues. The manuscript was written in a fairly formal, seventeenth-century script, with page numbers from 321 to 368, running headers (i.e. the title at the top of each page), and catch words (a printing convention in which you put the first word of the next page at the bottom of the current one). But the crucial missing piece of information was what pages 1 to 320 contained. Browsing through every single Harleian manuscripts wasn’t really a realistic option (you can only order up ten items a day anyway), and I hadn’t come across anything when I leafed through catalogues. However, I’d overlooked a manuscript that was described in the catalogue as containing ‘Dramatic Poems’ by ‘Boise’ (Add. 34781), one of which shared the title ‘Nebuchadnezzars Fiery Furance’. So I went to the British Library this week to see if it was the same poem, and who this ‘Boise’ might be.

The manuscript contained a pasted-in note containing references to two other manuscripts and two books about Zachary Boyd. Boyd, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography told me, was a Scottish preacher and poet in the mid-seventeenth century who wrote copious amounts of poetry. He was a Covenanter, i.e. a Presbyterian who opposed Charles I’s plan to introduce bishops in Scotland (which led to the Bishops’ Wars in 1639 and 1640). The manuscript before me contained a complete text of Fierie Furnace, with over 1 000 more lines than the version I’d read. I now knew that Boyd was the author. Fierie Furnace belonged in a massive collection of similar dramatic poems called Zion’s Flowers, which survives in full in an autograph copy held by the University of Glasgow. I was looking at a seventeenth-century copy of seven sections of the work, including ‘Pharaoh’s Tyrannie’ and ‘David and Goliath’.

The other two manuscripts mentioned in the note completed the picture. The first was also a seventeenth-century copy of texts from Zion’s Flowers written in rapid, cursive hand (Add 10310). The second was a beautifully presented scribal copy in italic hand from ‘Zion’s Flowers’. This one (Harl 7178) contained a text of Fierie Furnace—with the same page numbering, headings and catch words as the text I’d originally looked at. The manuscript of Fierie Furnace that was printed in 1936 was copied from this text. The text I’d initially read was probably part of a larger copy, and was probably incomplete because this fair copy also was (unless the final sections of both works were coincidentally lost, which seems unlikely).

These findings leave much to be explained and explored. How far are these other poems based on Sylvester’s translation too? Why was Boyd such a fan of Sylvester? Who were these poems written for? How strongly does Boyd promote the anti-tyrannical message in Fierie Furnace (quite a lot, probably)? Are there manuscript texts in other libraries? Do Boyd’s printed sermons and poems also show traces of Du Bartas? Are other Scottish writers in the 1640s reading Du Bartas too? How close is the copied text to the fair copy, and both to Boyd’s autograph version? Do we have many contemporary responses to the works? These new connections produce a new cast member for my thesis’s account of writers who read Du Bartas. It provides a new insight into Boyd, about whom I have found just one article written in the past thirty years. If John Donne and George Herbert are the A-list of Renaissance religious poets today, then Boyd is less famous than someone who appeared on Big Brother four years ago. So I need to find out more about Boyd and his works, and provide a more detailed account of these manuscripts before I can come to conclusions about how he read his Du Bartas, and how his readers read him reading Du Bartas.

You may wonder why I’m being so open about these discoveries if they’re new—isn’t there a risk that another Renaissance scholar will read this blog post, replicate my research and then sneakily publish about it before I get the chance? In my field this isn’t really a risk. It’d be good for future users of these manuscripts to know about these links, and by searching around online perhaps they’ll come across this post. I could perhaps write a piece for the Electronic British Library Journal about the manuscripts, or perhaps conduct proper research on Boyd and write it up for a journal like the Scottish Literary Review. A visit to Glasgow to read Boyd’s manuscript copy would be needed too. For the time being, however, I’ll largely concentrate on using these findings as evidence for my thesis.

It’s not that uncommon for a poem like this to been published in manuscript form only, and to be distributed by being copied out many times (just as I was typing up parts of the manuscripts yesterday). Manuscript circulation provides a large undercurrent of literary publication in the seventeenth-century: for example, John Donne’s poetry was exclusively circulated in manuscript before 1633. Uncovering these embers of Fierie Furnace tells us more about the processes of disseminating poetry, tells us more about these particular manuscripts, and has opened up a new line of enquiry of how a minor Scottish poet admired Josuah Sylvester’s poetry. For a doctoral student these are exciting discoveries.