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The Making of the Oxford Ben Jonson

Martin Butler

  On 21 March 1903, a thirty-seven year old London schoolmaster called Percy Simpson (1865-1962) wrote to the Delegates of the Clarendon Press asking whether they had considered publishing a critical edition of Ben Jonson:  

Dear Sir,

The recent editions of Kyd and Lyly published by the Clarendon Press point to a possibility of Ben Jonson taking his place in this series; a scholarly reprint of his works is greatly needed. I venture to ask whether the Delegates contemplate such an edition. My excuse for writing is that, for twelve years, I have made a special study of this writer and that I should like to approach the Delegates with definite suggestions for an edition. But it is useless to offer these if the ground is already occupied.

Simpson was correct that the publication of F. S. Boas’s scholarly old-spelling edition of Kyd (1901) and R. W. Bond’s edition of Lyly (1902) had put the Clarendon Press at the forefront of a step-change in critical editing.   But for Jonson, the ground was indeed occupied: Charles Harold Herford (1853-1931), Professor of English Literature at Manchester University, had made just such a proposal merely six months earlier, and signed an agreement for it on 6 February 1903.   From the Press, C. E. Doble replied that the Delegates no longer had a free hand, but promised to make ‘careful enquiries’. After consultations, Doble reported on 18 June that Herford ‘will most gladly avail himself of your co-operation’ and be ‘very glad to have skilled assistance, more especially in the formation of the text; and we hope that you may be able to co-operate with him in all parts of the work, so that the edition may practically be a final one.’   Simpson immediately wrote to Herford:  

I have lately been in communication with the Delegates of the Clarendon Press in the hope that I might add an edition of Ben Jonson to their new series of seventeenth-century dramatists. In a letter which I have received this morning the Delegates refer me directly to you. They say that they have arranged you to bring out the edition, and they suggest that I might ‘cooperate’ in the work; they farther indicate that this is a point which you are willing to consider. If this is so, I may say quite frankly that I should be proud to be associated with such a scholar as yourself. The Delegates add that you are willing to make an appointment with me to discuss the question. I am a schoolmaster, and the month of examinations is near; but I will gladly try to arrange a meeting. Saturday is a holiday with me, & I could come to Manchester to see you some Saturday afternoon or evening ...

Perhaps all that I can add here the nature of my Jonson studies to be [sic]. I have worked carefully through all his writings in the last twelve years. I have a collation of the text which I could soon make absolutely complete (it includes not only the old texts, but a number of MSS, and is minutely done), and I have worked out a rough commentary on most of the plays & the prose-writings. My collection of notes on the ‘Discoveries’ is, I believe, exhaustive. I have also read widely in Elizabethan literature & collected a great amount of illustrative material. I should add that I am a classical scholar.

Herford replied by return, asking for some sample work,   and Simpson mailed off a packet of annotations to Bartholomew Fair. On 3 July Herford informed the Delegates that Simpson’s work could not be bettered ‘for the elucidation and illustration of the text’, and proposed that they should become joint editors.   He would write the introductions and life, and Simpson would take over the texts and notes. A week later he repeated this proposal to Simpson, and suggested that his payment for this should be £200.   So began the most significant new departure in Jonson editing since William Gifford’s edition of 1816.

This essay was first published in The Review of English Studies, 62 (2011), 738-57. Tom Lockwood’s help has been crucial in its writing: I am most grateful for his generosity in transcribing some of the documents cited below from the Beinecke Library collections and other sources, and for his insightful commentary. I am also indebted to David Bevington, Ian Donaldson, Chanita Goodblatt, Stephen Grant, Martin Maw (archivist of Oxford University Press), and Graham Sherriff (of the Beinecke Library). All OUP archive material is printed by permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press. I am especially grateful to Mary S. Fleay for permission to quote from Percy and Evelyn Simpson’s unpublished papers, and to Joy Newsam for permission to quote from the papers of Sir Walter Wilson Greg.

Beinecke Library, Yale University; Osborn MSS 8, Box 10, Folder 13. This, and the letter of 19 June, are drafts in Percy Simpson’s hand; I have cleaned up the various changes.

Simpson’s copy of Boas’s edition of Kyd, with his annotations, is now in the Beinecke Library (Osborn pe 412).

Oxford University Press, Archives, 811352.8.

Beinecke Library, Osborn MSS 8, Box 8, Folder 11: C. E. Doble to P. Simpson, 26 March and 18 June 1903.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 10, Folder 13 (draft letter).

Osborn MSS 8, Box 9, Folder 3: C. H. Herford to P. Simpson, 23 June 1903.

OUP Archives, 811352.8, typed extract from letter from C. H. Herford, 3 July 1903.

Beinecke Library, Osborn MSS 8, Box 9, Folder 3: Herford to Simpson, 10 July 1903. The original agreement with Herford was an advance of £50 per volume on a royalty of 12.5% (7.5% for any reprint). Simpson was paid £200 at the outset for nine months’ work on the text. The agreement was cancelled in 1927, and thereafter Simpson was simply paid £50 on the completion of each volume. See OUP Archives, 811352.8, Proposal acceptance form 201 (21 November 1902), and attached record of interview with Simpson, 8 May(?) 1927; R. W. Chapman to C. H. Herford, 28 February 1922.