- Fair Copies: Reproducing the English Lyric from Tottel to Shakespeare by Matthew Zarnowiecki
The rise of textual studies has introduced fresh perspectives on the lyric genre’s famed preoccupation with time and change. While the lyric poet seeks to preserve (in “eternal lines,” as Shakespeare would have it) a present, transitory experience, editors and printers have long worked to [End Page 431] preserve the fragile, fragmentary form of the lyric text itself. Yet, as textual scholars have been arguing since the 1980s, the very process of transcribing, editing, compiling, anthologizing, or digitizing inevitably changes the very thing it seeks to preserve. Each new rendition of a work becomes a cultural artifact in its own right, effectively turning attention away from a single authorial text to the many networks of meaning that gather around each socially produced physical copy. Perhaps the most significant effect of this shift toward archival work has been a change in the practice of critical reading itself: increasingly, the analysis of a primary work involves connecting its material manifestations to its linguistic art in a way that is not exclusively “close” in the tradition of New Criticism nor yet “thick” in the fashion of New Historicism nor even “distant” in the manner of New Empiricism but rather a combination of all three.
Matthew Zarnowiecki’s work comes as a welcome addition to this growing body of textual scholarship intent on collapsing the binary of “text” and “context.” In fact, he defines his method of reading as “medium-close”—a term deliberately balanced, it seems, to satisfy the demands of textual scholars and literary theorists alike. Throughout the book, Zarnowiecki examines the print history of key lyric collections as a way of exploring how instances of multiple authorship (or multiple reproducing agents) resist faithful copying in favour of “mutation.” He presents Richard Tottel as a printer intent on improving past texts through reproductions that simultaneously preserve and replace previous versions; George Gascoigne as a poet who expects print technology to actively facilitate the fragmentary proliferation of his poetry; Edmund Spenser as a “communal poet,” aware of the need for collaborative composition in attaining laureateship; Philip Sidney as a participant in “lyric surrogacy,” the practice of authorial abandonment and readerly adoption characteristic of the Arcadia’s multiple lives; and William Shakespeare as a playwright deeply sensitive to the essential faultiness of human reproduction, both sexual and textual. The final chapter, on Shakespeare, offers the most surprising scholarly intervention. It argues that John Benson’s 1640 collection represents the “fairest copy” of Shakespeare’s sonnets precisely because it contains the most changes, because it reproduces the sonnets in a way that most provocatively “begets readerly interaction.”
Zarnowiecki’s prose, as though influenced by its Elizabethan subject matter, favours neatly worded statements of paradox and double meaning. His titular tag, “fair copies,” reads not just as a challenge to the intentionalist uses of the bibliographer’s “fair copies” and “foul papers” but also as a metaphor for textual and sexual reproduction (reminiscent of Shakespeare’s pairings of fair and foul). Likewise, the word medium in “medium-close reading” doubles throughout as noun and adjective, thus drawing attention to the material significance of variations in media as [End Page 432] well as the aesthetic significance of contextualizing such variations. These stylistic choices serve as a provocative reminder that literary criticism is itself a kind of transformative, regenerative agent in the afterlives of poetic matter.
Overall, Zarnowiecki manages his wealth of bibliographic detail admirably; he never excises a single lyric from the context of its print history, but neither does he insist on exhaustive litanies of mutations that would inhibit a satisfying close analysis. For all his capacious breadth of focus, however, there remains a puzzling lack of attention to genre: his discussion of Colin “breaking the bagpipe,” for example, never mentions the generic shift that such an act implies, and his many discussions of “reproduction with a difference” fail to acknowledge common Elizabethan conventions such as response and echo poems or the academic exercise of transgeneric appropriation...