Timely and Untimely Works

September 10, 2013

Authored by Andrew Zurcher, Fellow and Director of Studies at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge

Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (c. 1602) – a play that combines the oldest written narrative material in the European tradition (Homer's Troy story) with some of the oldest written poetry in English (Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde) – reflects throughout on the nature and problems of timeliness. As the play opens, both of its central campaigns, the Trojan war and Troilus' love for Cressida, are going poorly; to the Greeks setting out for the Dardanelles, it had seemed that the war for Helen would be over quickly, while Troilus inveighs against Cressida's uncle, Pandarus, for the slow progress of his love-suit. The Greek heroes grow jaundiced; Troilus, says Pandarus, must "tarry the grinding". For an early modern English audience tired of the Troy myth, and probably equally tired of Chaucer, these could not but prove (as the introduction to the printed quarto of the play has it) "stale" subjects; and yet, as Shakespeare's play makes clear, delay and resistance create desire, and Helen only increases in value as the Greeks go on dying for her – Troilus famously exclaims in the opening scene, "Helen must needs be fair, | When with your blood you daily paint her thus". We discover that to be of most value, of which we have grown most tired. Strangely enough, Shakespeare's play suggests, the literature of the present is always going to be the literature of the past; just as we cannot speak any language but that which we take from the mouths of others, so we find that which is most untimely, by a kind of paradox, to be best for the present.

Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO) is about to release nearly fifty volumes by poets, dramatists, philosophers, theologians, historians, and politicians to augment the content already live on the site. As a supplement, it is necessarily a somewhat heterogeneous group of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century materials. And yet, if no consistent theme or preoccupation binds these works together, certain notes sound repeatedly across the collection as a whole; above all, these works, and the editions in which they are here presented, and re-presented, are in various senses timely. Like Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, many of these writings reflect the profound preoccupation of early modern thinkers with the classical and national past. Also like Troilus and Cressida, they remember in their long textual histories a series of negotiations and re-negotiations of temporal problems. Perhaps most interestingly, their publication as part of the OSEO collection raises new questions about how these documents exist in time.

Within the content being added to OSEO are works by one of the great poets of the Renaissance period, Edmund Spenser. Spenser's verse and prose writing reveal him to be a writer preoccupied with the untimely timeliness of his own poetry. His 1579 collection of pastoral eclogues, The Shepheardes Calender, trumpet the out-datedness of their new poet. In a famously comical exchange about youth and age in the 'Februarie' eclogue, two shepherds called Cuddie (a boy) and Thenot (an old man) argue about the state of their flocks, and Cuddie contrasts his big, brash Bullock with Thenot's withered ewes:

     Seest, howe brag yond Bullocke beares,
So smirke, so smoothe, his pricked eares?
His hornes bene as broade, as Rainebowe bent,
His dewelap as lythe, as lasse of Kent.
See howe he venteth into the wynd.
Weenest of loue is not his mynd?
Seemeth thy flocke thy counsell can,
So lustlesse bene they, so weake so wan,
Clothed with cold, and hoary wyth frost.
Thy flocks father his corage hath lost:
Thy Ewes, that wont to haue blowen bags,
Like wailefull widdowes hangen their crags:
The rather Lambes bene starued with cold,
All for their Maister is lustlesse and old.

Spenser had to gloss several of these musty and dialect words for his first readers – 'lythe' meant 'soft and gentle', 'venteth' was glossed as 'snuffeth in the wind', 'crags' given as 'necks', and 'rather' as 'early' – that is, born early in the year. But there are several other archaic linguistic features to this passage, including the use of the verb 'can' ('understands'), and the use of the inifinitive ending –en in 'hangen'. Elsewhere Spenser routinely adds the medieval y- prefix to his past participles ('yclad', 'ywrought'), and relies on diction such as 'forthy' ('therefore') and 'maugre' ('despite'). Ben Jonson quipped of Spenser, after Spenser's death in 1599, that in his relentlessly archaic poetic style, in which he claimed to be aping Chaucer, he "writ no language"; and modern critics have tended to take Spenser seriously as a poet preoccupied with imitation, and the literary and cultural authority of an earlier period. But there is something clearly playful, too, in the work of a poet who produces a pastiched romance epic, The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), which already looks aged and distressed at the time of its first publication – that is, a poem that aspires to immortality by arriving, in stylistic terms, with both feet firmly planted in the grave. Out-datedness was a theme Spenser would pursue, too, in his shorter poetry of the 1590s, as in the frequent meditations on antiquities and ruines in his Complaints of 1591. Spenser's untimely timeliness marks him as a poet of his Elizabethan generation, that is, a poet overburdened by a self-conscious historicity. Discover Spenser's Faerie Queene: Volume 1: Book I, freely available on OSEO now.

OSEO also publishes this month another kind of untimely Spenserian text, the corpus of diplomatic letters and other papers he dealt with during his work as secretary to Arthur Lord Grey, Lord Deputy of Ireland between 1580 and 1582. Letters are generally ephemeral manuscript texts, documents pregnant with present needs, with current information and observations on the everyday. The corpus of Spenser's diplomatic correspondence – letters he drafted, copied, certified, and dispatched for his superiors in the Elizabethan colonial administration of Ireland – give us a fascinating window on the history of a brutal political and military regime, and on the history of a poet's development. A similar kind of vantage on the life of an Elizabethan poet is provided by another epistolary corpus that joins OSEO this month, Roger Kuin's recent magisterial edition of the correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney – scholar, diplomat, soldier, and author of the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella and the prose romance Arcadia (both written in the early 1580s).

Sidney travelled extensively across Europe in the 1570s, and fought in the Low Countries in the 1580s; his participation in the educated, Latinate humanist culture of Protestant northern Europe is everywhere on display in Kuin's meticulously edited texts – which include translations from Latin, Italian, French, and Dutch originals. Sidney will remain famous for his courtly, musical, and deeply allegorical poetry, for his gorgeously rhetorical and ornate prose writing, and for his bold if misguided experimentation with quantitative verse in English; but it will be difficult, after Kuin's scholarly presentation of Sidney's diplomatic, intellectual, and personal correspondence, to read Sidney's work outside of the rich contexts provided by his eventful life. What is more, the richly interlinked OSEO environment, backed up by the full range of Oxford University Press's online databases, will allow readers to use the corpus of Sidney's (as Spenser's) letters in order to draw out connections between the timely, dated communications of a man deeply invested in particular relationships and their political and personal consequences, and the untimely, even universal preoccupations of his literary writing. Full-text and comparative searching, toggling, and easy manipulation of paratexts will help to transform the way we use these new texts, enabling students and scholars to pinpoint different kinds of historical contexts for interpreting Sidney's and Spenser's literary works.

The negotiation of a transition from past to present is also a major preoccupation in some important Renaissance philosophical texts that join OSEO for the first time this month. The seventeenth-century physician and polymath Sir Thomas Browne, for example, writes in his treatise Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall, of some Roman burial urns discovered in the ground in Norfolk during the Interregnum. Browne's research into Roman burial practices, and his meditations on mortality, time, and history provoked him to insights about our ignorant and limited mortal state, and the paradox in which it positions us – a condition in which knowledge lies hidden, but buried only just out of reach. “The treasures of time lie high,” Browne writes at the opening of Hydriotaphia, “in Urnes, Coynes, and Monuments, scarce below the roots of some vegetables.” To Browne the richest mines were to be found at the shallowest depth, out of sight but hardly out of reach. When he writes that “a large part of the earth is still in the Urne unto us,” he seems to mean not only that much is hidden, but that much is about to be discovered. This is a point Browne makes more emphatically in his introductory note 'To the Reader' (freely available on OSEO now), before commencing his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72), a considered refutation of vulgar errors in various kinds and objects of knowledge; he writes: "Would Truth dispense, we could be content, with Plato, that knowledge were but remembrance; that intellectual acquisition were but reminiscential evocation, and new Impressions but the colouring of old stamps which stood pale in the soul before. For what is worse, knowledge is made by oblivion, and to purchase a clear and warrantable body of Truth, we must forget and part with much we know." Browne's punning on different kinds of "knowledge" – that which has been received, and of which we are thus sure, versus that which we ascertain and test for ourselves – suggests a significant paradox in learning, that true knowledge is dependent on ignorance, on oblivion, on a shedding of the misleading preconceptions and prejudices that might prevent us from seeing what is really before us. And yet the suggestion that we cannot recognize anything but that which we already know, that which has "stood pale in the soul before", lingers. That which is buried is, for Browne, only just buried. Pass the carrots, turn right.

Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan joins OSEO in the influential edition prepared by Noel Malcolm, also worked repeatedly on the problem of time and timeliness. One of Hobbes' great claims in Leviathan, that all of human consciousness and identity exists and grows from our material nature, is profoundly engaged with assumptions about the temporality of human experience. If, as Hobbes maintains, all imagination is an operation of the memory, then no new idea can occur in the human mind which is not – as Browne remembered Plato saying – a version of remembered elements, even if recombined or newly permuted. Hobbes sees the human mind as firmly fixed in the same material world that figures so prominently in Spenser's poetry of antiquities in the Complaints – a landscape of ruins, broken monuments, fragments of the past that must be revivified or recombined if we are to escape from the strait limits of mere elegy. Gone from Hobbes' account of the human is that flash of the truly new, that bolt of inspiration or genesis that could underpin a truly creative, rather than a merely recombinative, imaginative faculty. In his vision we feel the tight confines, perhaps, of the Renaissance emphasis on exemplarity, the doctrine that we can achieve virtue or heroic action by imitating the great exemplars of the past. This is the philosophy of Sir Francis Bacon's Historie of the raigne of King Henry the seventh (which also joins OSEO this month), or of Bacon's essay 'Of Vicissitude of things', quoting Solomon: 'There is no New Thing vpon the Earth'.

Perhaps not. But in the hulking haul of new Renaissance editions joining OSEO this month, there is plenty of the old – from Hughes' and Larkin's edition of the Stuart Royal Proclamations to van Dixhoorn's five volumes of the Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, from the poetry of Fanshawe, Cleveland, Cary, and Herrick to Robin Robbins' edition of the complete works of Sir Thomas Browne. As these texts migrate to a new, paperless (dis)incarnation, they emerge fully from the material forms that once defined and limited their purpose and effect to a particular, local moment. The manuscript poetry of metaphysical writers, like Sidney's studied humanist epistolary performances, perhaps only adopted material limitation and ephemerality as a rhetorical ploy, but it remains to be seen how the electronic encounter may change our consumption and interpretation of such works. Certainly it will be easier than ever to collate, relate, and discriminate different texts, even as they are absorbed wholemeal into this voracious and mashing organ of learning, the internet.

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