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  • Literary Listening:Shakespeare, Pater, and Song in Print
  • Andrew Mattison (bio)

Song is two genres in one: a musical form and a poetic one. At least since Tottel’s 1557 miscellany Songs and Sonnets, song form has been available as a genre of poetry in print, characterized by compact, patterned stanzas, frequently with multiple line-lengths in regular alternation. In print, sonic attributes of the poem become visible: the pattern of line-lengths is marked by indentations. Those indentations parallel a song’s musical setting: they exist only in print, as the setting exists only in sound. In print, song is reborn as a specifically literary genre whose relationship to music is, from a reader’s point of view, no more than putative or, in many cases within the poems themselves, figurative. The word sing, after all, has been available since antiquity as a metaphor for creating poetry. The complex of past, putative, and potential relations between poetry and music underlie broad statements such as Walter Pater’s influential argument that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”1

Due to his outsized reputation as well as the tangled textual history of the plays, Shakespeare has long been a key figure in understanding the role of printed editions in literary history. Roger Chartier cites him prominently to support his claim that “every work exists only in its simultaneous and successive material forms,” because in Shakespeare’s case—with no autograph manuscripts or authorized first edition to fall back on—all those forms must play a role in establishing texts of the plays.2 In the 1623 First Folio, songs are presented using the printing techniques of verse: although they are italicized to mark their difference from spoken lines, there is no musical setting, and the stanzas are [End Page 49]

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Figure 1.

Measure for Measure, 4.1.1ff., from Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (London: Printed by Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623), STC 22273 Fo.1, p. 75, sig. G2r. From the Folger Shakespeare Library.

marked with those repeating indentations that turn varying line-lengths from useful tools for a musician to poetic patterning (Figure 1).3 What this practice signifies is debatable; in support of an attempt to assign specific, commonly known tunes to each of Shakespeare’s songs, Ross W. Duffin argues that indications of the tunes are absent from printed editions because “they simply were not needed or expected when the tunes were of such familiar stock. Certainly, the premise that an Elizabethan or Jacobean performer would have supplied a suitable tune where none was given can hardly be contested.”4 The problem with this reasoning, about Shakespeare’s seventeenth-century folios in particular, is that they were not intended as performing editions; even if a professional actor could supply a tune, that is a lot to expect of a reader. Duffin concludes [End Page 50] from the lack of hints of music in the Folio that the music is obvious, but we might just as easily conclude that the tune simply doesn’t matter in print.

Indeed, Duffin’s work raises a significant question he does not consider: what exactly we mean by song. Duffin treats songs written out in the plays and brief quotations spoken by characters as equivalent; he assumes that quotations are familiar enough to serve as a cue to sing an entire song.5 The print history of those songs that are included in full and most likely written new by the playwright, however, suggests that there was special interest in them. Dramatic songs could be removed from their performance contexts altogether: Ben Jonson’s lyric collection The Forest contains several songs taken from his plays, providing a precedent for the frequent anthologization of Shakespeare’s songs as stand-alone poems in the centuries since his death. The ease of this conversion from song into poem implies a separate generic category for those songs that were specially written; they are not mere additions to the canon of familiar music.

In this essay, I argue that songs in print constitute a distinct nonmusical (and nonperformative) genre and that song demonstrates that print...


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