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FOREWORD The history of literature is littered with mistakes and oversights— great works lost or forgotten, some to be discovered years, or centuries, after they were written, others lost forever to time and circumstance. The fact is that we do not have all the great writing in our language; we have a smaller percentage of it than we may imagine; and the ideal canon of our literature, the truly Greatest and Most Worthy of All We Have Written, contains texts never yet seen, and more that never will be seen. The fact that we periodically "find" previously unknown greats is one evidence of this. One early American poet, Edward Taylor, was discovered over two hundred years after his death. No one knows how many authors live and die having managed to keep their genius a secret, but the number who almost succeed implies that they may be numerous. A celebrated example of near success is Emily Dickinson, whose desk, after her death, was found to contain several neat little bundles which turned out to be almost two thousand poems of great power and, once they were published, influence. Writings of real antiquity, of course, have had an enormously poor chance of survival. If they weren't lost to use in the kitchen or jakes, if they weren't destroyed by monks during some era of bookburning enthusiasm, if they survived the attentions of careless antiquarians, they had yet to survive the more certain destructions of rodents, insects, damp climates, and fires. Among Old English works, physical survival alone has merited a position in the canon of our literature. Consider the known history of one of the four surviving Old English manuscripts of literary value, the Beowulf manuscript. One of the greatest of the early antiquarians, Sir Robert Cotton, collected it along with hundreds of others (Cotton named his manuscripts according to the classical statue that stood above them in his library, then the shelf and location of the shelf; thus today we still call the Beowulf manuscript "Vitellius A. xv"). According to Richard Altick in The Scholar Adventurers (from which I take other information in this preface), Cotton's residence was considered to be a firetrap, therefore after his death, his entire collection was moved to Ashburnam house, which promptly burned down. The Beowulf manuscript—the only one in the world, uncopied— survived, but its leaves were dried and charred. In 1786, the first known transcript of the manuscript was made by a Danish scholar who later was in the process of printing the first edition of the poem in Copenhagen when English gunners, in a battle against Napoleon, blew up his house and destroyed the edition. Later, in the 1830s, John M. Kemble decided to try to print Beowulf, but in the fifty years since the 4 · The Missouri Review Ashburnam house fire, its leaves had grown so thin and dry that they were crumbling and transparent, making the manuscript very difficult to read. The Danish scholar's transcript, however, had fortunately survived the English gunners, and thus, by the skin of its teeth, this most important of known Old English poems survived to be published. Whereas today we devote significant resources to the established literary documents in our language, we seem to care relatively less about new work by living authors. It is hard for us even to imagine that ifJohn Keats had received two packages in the mail one day, one containing new poems by Shelley and the other being "Vitellius A. xv," complete with gloss and introduction, John Keats might well have put aside Beowulf for later perusal and read his contemporary first. A measure of the success of contemporary scholarship and the changed attitude in the marketplace is that there are probably not two poets in the Englishspeaking world today who would regard receiving Beowulfin the mail as anything but an extraordinary event, not even comparable to receiving the latest collection of poems from some highly admired contemporary. Some believe that there is no relative devaluation of contemporary work, and that this is evidenced by the fact that more books are being published than ever before. One cannot possibly read them all as it is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 4-7
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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