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A Marginal Muddle

Posted by: CEWBJ Team 7 years, 7 months ago

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Contribution by Martin Butler

It’s curious how textual problems that editors puzzle over for a long time can suddenly resolve themselves when you approach them from an unexpected angle. One such example has recently occurred to me in lines 492-6 of The King’s Entertainment:

Lo, there is hee,
Who brings with him a greater ANNE then she:
Whose strong and potent vertues haue defac’d
Stern MARS his statues, and vpon them plac’d
His and the world’s blest blessings…

When editing this text for the modern-spelling version, I hesitated over the phrase ‘blest blessings’, which seemed a real tongue-twister and a possible instance of eye-skip. Both Whalley and Gifford emended the text to ‘best blessings’, though Percy Simpson, reluctant to let go of a reading which Jonson had passed, hedged his bets by printing it as ‘b[l]est blessings’. My modern-spelling text changes ‘blest’ to ‘best’, but adds a cautionary comment saying that the original reading is ‘tautologous and awkward. Probably this is a scribal or compositorial error that Jonson overlooked.’

In the last few weeks I’ve been checking the old-spelling transcripts for the electronic edition, in the process of which this passage came up again. It was only once I started trying to work out where the links for the marginal annotation should go that I realized what must have happened. On this page in the 1604 quarto there are four marginal notes, each of which is identified by an alphabetic marker, running i, k, l, and m. Note l explains what the ‘blessings’ of James’s reign are – ‘Peace, Rest, Liberty, Safety, &c’ – but when I looked for the superscript ‘l’ in the text which should have indicated where the note was to be placed, I drew a blank. Eventually it dawned on me how the error had occurred: the small superscript ‘l’ which should, in the typography of the time, have been entered at the head of the phrase – as ‘lbest blessings’ – had in fact been printed full size and mistakenly placed inside it, turning ‘best’ into ‘blest’.

And the story doesn’t end here, because Jonson did in fact notice this omission when he corrected his proofs, but in putting it right he muddled it up. In making changes to state 4 of this page, he added a superscript ‘l’ in front of the word ‘and’ earlier in the same line, thus supplying the missing marginal link, but he forgot to remove the superfluous ‘l’ from ‘blest’, and so left the equally unhappy misreading in place. It was only by the merest chance that I spotted it. I was checking this page on the basis of a photograph of state 3, which lacks the ‘l’ in front of ‘and’, and this left me puzzling over where it should go.

Whether this tiny detail adds up to much is another question, but as the editor of The King’s Entertainment it’s reassuring to be able to explain at last an otherwise perplexing error, one which persists right into the supposedly revised version that was printed in the folio. It’s one of those little signature mistakes which tell us something about the priorities that Jonson had for this early volume, a publication which was a serious bid for attention at this moment of his career, and on which he lavished a huge amount of care. He may have put right a problem with the learned marginalia, but in doing so he created a more glaring oddity in the main text itself – and this (as my detailed Textual Essay explains) was not the only such example. In his desire to get the footnotes just right, he ended up inadvertently blotting his verse. I suppose it’s the kind of thing that can happen to any one of us.

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