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.


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