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  • Elizabethan Poetry: A Bibliography and First-Line Index of English Verse, 1559-1603
Elizabethan Poetry: A Bibliography and First-Line Index of English Verse, 1559-1603. By Steven W. May and William A. Ringler, Jr.3 vols.London and New York: Thoemmes Continuum. 2004. xx + viii + viii + 2337 pp. £495. ISBN 0 8264 7278 8.

Among those interested in the scope and textual history of early modern English poetry, these volumes have been long and eagerly awaited. The cherished project of the late William A. Ringler, Jr, to index all English verse from 1476 to 1603 surviving in either printed or manuscript form has now been brought to completion by his heirs and successors. Before his death on 1 January 1987 Ringler delivered the [End Page 94] completed typescript of his Bibliography and Index of English Verse: Printed 1476­1558, which was published by Mansell in 1988. His extensive papers provided the foundation for the Bibliography and Index of English Verse in Manuscript, 1501­1558, prepared and completed by Michael Ruddick and Susan J. Ringler, which Mansell published in 1992. Now after some twelve years of work by Steven May, based partly on what Ringler recorded and to a very great extent on May's own research and discoveries, with occasional help from assistants, we have the grandest monument of all: some 32,588 entries packed on to 1,824 pages in double columns recording verse of the Elizabethan period surviving in both printed and manuscript form.

It is as well, however, to be aware of May's parameters here. This is not a record of all English verse actually composed in the reign of Elizabeth. The entries are determined by the dates, or approximate dates, of the artefacts in which verse appears. Thus May has trawled through as many books as possible printed between 1559 and 1603 to record any verse they contain. Similarly, in nearly a hundred locations in the British Isles and America he has examined hundreds of manuscripts, including commonplace books, notebooks, and miscellanies, compiled within that period, so far as they can be dated with any accuracy, also to record any verse they contain (affecting some 1,200 entries). What he has not done -- plainly because it would be a supplementary task of immeasurable proportions -- is record all other instances of Elizabethan verse that were printed or copied out after 1603. This is worth bearing in mind, because many of the best-known poems associated with the traditional 'golden age' of Elizabethan literature do not survive in any texts earlier than 1604 -- including various works by the likes of John Donne, Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir John Davies, and Sir John Harington, not to mention the 'sugred Sonnets' of Shakespeare that were in manuscript circulation at least as early as 1598. We must therefore not be surprised if these volumes, extensive as they are, are not as comprehensive as might originally have been expected.

This fact alone, however, throws interesting light on the corpus of Elizabethan verse. It reminds us, for one thing, of how much we are beholden to the subsequent nostalgia for Elizabethan culture that set in during the later years of James I's reign and persisted to some extent up to the Civil War. But for this nostalgia, many Elizabethan texts for which there are no surviving contemporary examples would not have been copied in the 1620s and 1630s and would therefore no longer exist. At the same time, it reminds us how precarious is the survival of literary texts for the Tudor period, especially those circulated only in manuscript. For all the thousands of poems that do survive, how many more were lost -- including collections of verse known to have been made, for instance, by Ralegh and the witty young lawyer John Hoskins? On the other hand, it is of considerable interest, if not surprise, to see how many entries in this Index relate to medieval texts. Not only do Elizabethan manuscript transcripts or printings of much earlier texts make an important contribution to the very survival of those works, but they are another reminder of the infiuence that medieval and early Tudor literature continued to exert throughout the sixteenth century.

Granted May's brief, the guides he provides for the use of this Index are extraordinarily helpful. After eighteen pages of preliminaries explaining the project's history and his methodology and coverage, May devotes the first 199 pages to a [End Page 95] listing of printed documents of 1559­1603 containing English verse and of manuscripts with verse transcribed in this period. The printed documents are arranged according to STC numbers, the manuscripts in alphabetical order by repository according to a standard system of abbreviations: thus, C = Cambridge University Library, F = the Folger Shakespeare Library, BISH = Church of All Saints, Bisham, and so on, with cross-references to all relevant entries in each case. At the opposite end, from page 2029 onwards, we have a series of alphabetical indexes to the main entries, recording all the poets represented; fictional names and topics (such as 'Hero and Leander' or 'Judgment of Paris'); historical persons and events ('Agincourt, Battle of', 'Drake, Sir Francis', etc.); illustrations (listing various types of allegory, animals, etc., for verses accompanying woodcuts or other illustrations); literary 'kinds' or genres (such as 'acrostic', listed by names represented, and 'Prophecy', with select sub-headings such as 'Spanish Armada'); poems set to music; rhyme schemes and verse forms (alliterative, blank verse, etc., with separate listings of burdens and refrains); a lengthy series of subjects (agriculture, astronomy, medicine, etc.); subscriptions (such as the intriguing 'A Comb and a Louse', or 'A Tennis Ball'); titles; and finally translations, including adaptations, dialects, and paraphrases. Is there anything, I wonder, that May has missed here? These aids allow for access to the range and nature of this huge body of verse, and to an analytical overview of it, which is quite unprecedented.

The entries themselves for the First-Line Index are listed alphabetically, each poem given a sequential reference number prefaced by the abbreviation for 'English Verse', EV. The first line in each case is followed by references to the poem's STC or manuscript sources, with date, author (if known), title or heading, rhyme scheme, number of lines, and other aspects of the poem recorded in the various indexes, such as genre and subject matter. This information necessarily appears in abbreviated form, for which the reader may occasionally be obliged to consult the lists of abbreviations, bibliography, and other explanatory matter in the preliminaries. As with all reference works, however, including not least the Brown and Robbins Index of Middle English Verse and the STC, whose procedures partly served as Ringler's models, one soon gets used to the format, and the volumes gradually unfold to yield readily their manifold treasures.

Spot checks on those poems and sources with which I am already familiar indicate, as one would expect, an extremely high level of accuracy in the information recorded in these entries. If errors there be, they will only come to light in the fullness of time as more and more scholars consult this ample resource themselves. And the same anticipation may also apply to the different uses that different literary scholars and historians may be able to make of this catalogue, given the huge range of subjects it covers. It is no empty boast that, as May notes, Ringler's indexing methodology 'makes possible significant interdisciplinary research'.

It is to May's credit, besides, that he has defined as clearly as possible the limits of his own research. Thus, besides his explaining matters of definition (of what constitutes a 'poem'), dating, and coverage in his introduction, he provides, as an appendix on the very last page, a list of 472 STC references for those printed books of the period that he has not been able to see. If we had had to wait for those books also to be checked, this huge project might never have been finished, and it is perfectly acceptable for a line to be drawn, so we know where we stand. No [End Page 96] catalogue of this nature will ever be fully comprehensive -- additions are bound to turn up from time to time -- but this is about as complete as it is reasonable to expect until funding and sheer will-power implement someone's search of those remaining volumes. For that matter, wouldn't it be splendid if a superhuman team could be assembled to catalogue the next chronological stage: that equally golden era of verse production, so much of it in manuscript form, from 1604 to 1640?

But this fancifully wishful thinking also touches on one aspect of the present volumes that cannot escape notice. In the era of electronic databases and the internet, with all their search facilities and manifest advantages for any type of reference work, why has this catalogue been confined to print format? I assume that the answer lies in the long history of the project, dating back to Ringler's work well before the internet era, as well as in long-standing publishing contracts. Perhaps one day it will all be digitized. In the meantime, Elizabethan Poetry must surely be the last prodigious monument to bibliographical scholarship of this kind ever to appear as purely printed text.

Peter Beal