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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Social R&D

My post on the New College of the Humanities had far more readers than usual, and I imagine that some of them found it less worldly than viewpoints expressed on other blogs. Going easy on the bile, I instead worried about whether the college would teach the ‘right kind’ of English degree—one that balanced intuitive and critical reasoning.

It wasn’t written in spite of social considerations, though. How English is taught is wholly connected with questions about how the humanities contribute in the public and private spheres. As many have pointed out, the New College of Humanities threatens to drag subjects like English literature further towards privatization, rather than protect its place in public life (i.e. in state-funded schools and universities). Removing humanities research and teaching to the private sphere would probably hurt accessibility badly (I don’t know enough about the American system to comment much on this). It would not only suggest that humanities have no industrial or economic benefits to society—incorrect, given the still-prestigious education system in the UK—but would disparage the humanities’ contribution to quality of life in general. It would argue, for example, that there is little value in training specialists in language and reading within a highly literate culture.

So this follow-up post unpacks the social dimension of my argument a little. Subjects like English teach analytical skills that are valuable in a whole range of careers; they also nurture creativity, which has social and economic benefits that are often underplayed by comparison. I write ‘social’ because there’s need for continual remodelling of our preconceptions about such life issues as health and how we interact with people who aren’t like us (see my thoughts on ‘Libraries and the NHS’ for an example). Put another way, there’s a need for some Research and Development work on aspects of human experience because society and the world around us are always changing. We need people who play around, explore, experiment with different ways of thinking, and draw on how people have spoken and written about each other in the past to find ideas that will promote a healthy society in the present. This doesn’t mean that English professors should intervene directly on social affairs (and it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t). A liberal democracy does, however, have a use for people who spend time thinking freshly about where our ideas come from and how we can express them. These people can inspire others to question their assumptions, and to come up with alternative descriptions of how society can work—ones that are more thorough and comprehensive than a simple term like ‘Big Society’ allows taken alone.

That R&D metaphor was loaned from Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. I attended a lecture she gave yesterday in which she argued that children are the R&D department of the human race, and adults are the publicity and marketing people. She means that children are better at exploring unusual possibilities than adults, but less good at exploiting them. This intellectual play generates approaches that might otherwise never appear, and from them come methods and approaches that adults start adopting too and which come to benefit the human species as a whole. Extended immaturity is something distinctive to humans—it makes us smart, and Gopnik made the playful analogy that studying and working in ideal research conditions (e.g. Oxford) could extend that development indefinitely.

Academia, like childhood, is a natural home for intellectual flexibility, adaptability, and challenges to the ways mature people see the world. Sometimes new mathematical or zoological or literary insights have a delayed impact on society, and sometimes they remain esoteric: in the long term, however, learning keeps the intellectual reservoirs fresh. Research (and childhood) creates variability and innovation that feeds into otherwise stable societies with their customs and traditions, and means that those societies doesn’t become a North Korea or Turkmenistan. Research needn’t have the end-product always in mind, any more than children should always focus on becoming adults—both children and academics reinvent what it means to be an active adult who engages (socially, culturally, economically) in society. There is a problem about pinning down what research (or a child nibbling on a plastic cup) actually achieves, but this doesn’t diminish its contribution. If the British education system promoted these aims it would fulfil the Archbishop of Canterbury’s desire (expressed in this week’s New Statesman) for ‘a long term education policy at every level that will deliver the critical tools for democratic involvement, not simply skills that serve the economy’.

This social role for the humanities in academia becomes something sinister if certain sections of society are excluded from the conversation–it’d be positively harmful if it’s just the rich and privately-educated who are driving it. Public support encourages creativity and vibrant, diverse participation in the arts. Experimentation in the humanities and arts equips more people to reassess how they relate to each other and the world with respect and tolerance. I stress that this is a general goal of education, not restricted to certain subjects. Education in natural and social sciences clearly plays an important part in this too, but there seems more need to clarify the part that the humanities play in all this. And if you’ve gained anything from this post, then thank the UK government, who are funding my academic research and so allowing me to develop and promote my perspective.


Erdös Numbers and English

I had brunch yesterday with a secondary-school maths teacher I know. He was telling me about a Hungarian mathematician called Paul Erdös, who was one of the most prolific researchers ever. He had over 1100 papers to his name, most of them as coauthor. Mathematicians have devised something called the ‘Erdös number‘ to describe how many degrees of separation there are between any mathematician and Erdös’s output. So being Paul Erdös gives you an Erdös number of zero, being a coauthor on an Erdös paper gives you an Erdös number of one, working with someone who worked on an Erdös paper is two, and so on. You’ll probably get an Erdös number of eight or better by publishing a maths paper.

My maths-teacher friend is a great believer in collaboration when studying maths. He doesn’t think maths is about solitary geniuses: he likes to see groups of people huddled round a board or table pinging numbers and symbols around (this sounds like a great maths lesson to me). This may seem like another difference between maths and English: people often read books alone, come up with individual interpretations, and can’t work together to find the right answer because there is no right answer. To do well in English exams you need to stand out from the crowd, not join it. And so on.

But English studies would be nothing without collaboration. The humanities are where we learn how different people have lived and thought, and how they interact. Language is communication, and literature is a conversation. Readers and writers have a voice in that conversation, but that voice is always in dialogue, not a soliloquy. Studying literature has taught me, and many others, that my thoughts have all been had before. Original thoughts only happen because I’ve not read enough. My life is unique–no-one’s lived exactly the same life as I had–but my reflections on what it means to be human are nothing new. So I learn where I fit in, and discussion is vital to that. This means that English lessons, essays and exam scripts will do well to involve lively exchanges of ideas too.

Renaissance thinkers looking back to classical antiquity knew this, and so did English modernists (like T.S. Eliot). We may not have Erdös numbers in the humanities, but there is not much space for lone geniuses either. Conferences, seminars and research projects show collaboration in action in humanities research (there are scholars who team up too). As the questions we’re asking as researchers become more complicated and specialized, team-work is going to become more and more necessary (Jonah Lehrer has written a good piece about solitary scientists– I think his point will become relevant for the humanities over time too). We can make progress in learning about history, language and human experience, but collaboration also helps us learn about our limitations, about what we can’t know.