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The Making of the Oxford Ben Jonson

Martin Butler

Herford told the Delegates he had ‘no doubt that [Simpson’s recruitment] would conduce to the prompt appearance of the edition’, but he could scarcely have been more wrong. In fact, it put back the completion of the Oxford Jonson nearly fifty years. Herford’s idea was for a substantial edition in nine volumes, but which had relatively modest textual ambitions and would be accomplished in comparatively short order. Although he was an experienced editor, Herford was best known in this capacity for his supervision of the popular ‘Eversley’ Shakespeare series, for which he turned out a play every two to three weeks, and for contributions to the ‘Warwick’ Shakespeare, much used in schools.   With the surgeon and amateur scholar Brinsley Nicholson, he had collaborated on the two Jonson volumes in the ‘Mermaid’ Series, The Best Plays of the English Dramatists (1893). For this he wrote the general introduction while Nicholson did the text, and since the Mermaid Plays were aimed at the well-informed but non-specialist reader, Nicholson’s editing was essentially a light adaptation of Gifford.   Herford’s original plan for the Oxford Jonson was to reprint Francis Cunningham’s 1873 revision of Gifford’s text, to which end he had already paid 10s 6d for the publication rights, and maybe to update parts of it, for example by incorporating C. M. Hathaway’s edition of The Alchemist, which had just appeared from Yale University Press.   He had agreed a completion date of 31 December 1907, but in the event the edition ran to eleven volumes, the last of which did not appear until 1952, twenty years after his death. Fortunately for Oxford University Press, Percy Simpson lived to a great age, and was research active well into his eighties.

Ian Donaldson (1995), 224 has described the Oxford Jonson as the last of the great Victorian editions. Its roots lie in the 1880s, when Herford was writing his essay on Jonson for the Dictionary of National Biography (1891), and Simpson began compiling his commentary. But having originated in the 1880s, the edition eventually emerged at a very different point. Herford was a prolific and highly respected late-Victorian intellectual, with a stream of books behind him, and with interests that ranged from the Renaissance to the Romantics, and across European and especially Germanic and Italian literature (Robertson, 1931). His role in the edition was, essentially, the work of biography and interpretation: the original scheme preserved in the OUP files states blandly that each text would have ‘an appreciation by Professor Herford’. Simpson, though, was a different kind of scholar, as (eventually) the Oxford English Faculty’s first Reader in Bibliography, and author of the first serious academic study of Proof-Reading in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Centuries (1935). The edition’s long gestation, and the differences between the first two volumes, which focus on Jonson as personality and man of letters, and the increasingly minute work of textual analysis and commentary in volumes 3-11, resonate with the huge shift in English studies towards less comprehensive and more highly specialized notions of scholarship. In particular, they point towards the emergence of analytical bibliography, with its more demanding scrutiny of the text, as a discipline and force in university English.

Simpson’s developing understanding of the labour involved in editing, of the standards of accuracy, rigour of analysis, and the criteria against which his work was to be judged, were at odds with Herford’s, a difference which became more pronounced as the edition proceeded. In 1926, he confided to W. W. Greg (who had critiqued various choices in the two volumes just published, and particularly the decision to treat A Tale of a Tub as Jonson’s first play) that ‘I hope I shall live to see a second edition of vols I and II and – between ourselves – that I shall edit it’.   The fairly extensive correspondence between the editors that survives suggests that, after their initial meetings, Herford and Simpson had surprisingly little face-to-face contact, and it is symptomatic of the disconnections lurking beneath the edition that as late as 1909 Herford was still vaguely suggesting that it might be a good idea if Simpson were to read his draft of the life before it went into proof.   The separation of responsibilities, and the tensions between the editors’ rival conceptions of their task, mirrored their competing understandings of the nature and aims of English studies. In 1924, Herford complained that Simpson was wasting too much time on minor details, such as trivia in The English Grammar: ‘The little chapter on “apostrophus” seems hardly worth the trouble it has cost you; I mean, it is so slight’.   However, Jonson’s views on the apostrophe were key for Simpson, since they underpinned his understanding of his elisions, and led him into devising the system of square and angled brackets which he imposed on all the texts.   This editorial discontinuity is disguised by the modern convention of referring to the whole edition as ‘Herford and Simpson’, even for the volumes printed long after Herford’s death, but when Simpson’s final instalment appeared in 1952, Herford’s two 1925 volumes must have seemed to belong to a different scholarly world. Simpson was only eight years younger, yet the fact that he lived so much longer meant that his share of the edition became part of the twentieth-century bibliographical revolution. Indeed, even though the Oxford Jonson fell short of what were eventually to evolve as the key principles of the New Bibliography, it was still a landmark project and, arguably, the period’s single most important editorial testing-ground and standard-setter. These faultlines in the edition testify to structural changes in the academic world that were to transform the pursuit of English literature in the fifty years following the first contract.

Work on the edition was further slowed by Simpson’s difficult personal situation. He was a schoolmaster, teaching classics and English at St Olave’s School, Southwark – coincidentally, the same school where Peter Whalley, editor of the 1756 collected Jonson, had been headmaster.   He only had limited time in which to pursue his scholarship, and his health was not good, or so he told the Press. It quickly became apparent that his progress was glacial. The editorial staff began to fret about completion as early as 1904, when news came in of a rival edition being commissioned by Methuen from H. C. Hart,   and Humphrey Milford (then assistant to Charles Cannan, who was secretary to the Delegates) suggested it would be good to get ahead by setting up Every Man In His Humour at once. He asked Simpson to guarantee that printing would go forward on a regular basis, and sounded a note of mild alarm about his plans: ‘What do you mean by “slightly adding to the marginal notes”?’   ‘How soon will you and Herford be ready to begin printing?’ he enquired again eighteen months later.   In 1912 – five years after the supposed deadline – Henry Frowde (Publisher to the University and manager of the Press’s London office) wrote to Cannan that Simpson had told him he was just finishing the first play, The Case is Altered, which was exactly where he had said he was the year before, and at this rate might take another ten years to finish.   As it turned out, this was a considerable underestimate: a year later, Simpson told Cannan he was still working on Case.   Milford was at his wits’ end: ‘I agree that something should be done, but I cannot think what. I don’t for one moment believe that Simpson could produce a complete text of a single play. But you [Cannan] might write and ask.’  

Herford was starting to get impatient too. In 1909 he told Simpson that he had more or less finished his part, and ‘I personally feel I have given about as much time to BJ as I ought, considering the other things which I hope to have time & strength still to do.’ He suggested that they publish a ‘cheap text’ and allow the ‘editio major’ to come along after. It would be better to finish soon, since ‘the longer we go on the more fresh comment and criticism accumulates to be taken note of & tho’ this may often benefit the edition, still there must be a limit.’   Two years later he reiterated ‘I am personally rather anxious to get on to other enterprises’, and warned that ‘every year’s delay of course increases the likelihood of other people making contributions which have to be reckoned with, & compel the editorial dog to go back to his vomit’.   He continued to write at intervals about feeling disheartened by the unfinished task, complaining that his papers were yellowing, and that he wanted to make the final revisions but didn’t dare in case they needed redoing all over again a few years later.  

Herford’s correspondence with Macmillan regarding the Eversley Shakespeare is in the British Library, Add MS 55030.

Nicholson died before the second volume was completed, as a result of which volume 2 was a simple reprint of Gifford.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 9, Folder 3: Herford to Simpson, 2 August and 4 November 1903.

Beinecke Library, Osborn Shelves Greg, Box 9, Folder 10 (labelled ‘Box 10’), P. Simpson to W. W. Greg, 31 March 1926.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 9, Folder 3: Herford to Simpson, 11 January 1909. Simpson’s first overnight stay with Herford was not until the end of 1906 (Herford to Simpson, 26 December 1906).

Osborn MSS 8, Box 9, Folder 3: Herford to Simpson, 2 December 1924.

Simpson’s initial discussion is at H&S, 2.428-31, with a long follow-up account in the textual introduction to Sejanus (4.338-42). See also 3.295-6, 5.414, and 9.50. Simpson raised the topic in a preliminary way in the notes to his free-standing edition of Every Man In His Humour (Oxford, 1921), 120, and again in a combative debate with M. A . Bayfield over Elizabethan versification in the Times Literary Supplement, 17 June and 5 September 1918. See also Bayfield’s extended discussion in A Study of Shakespeare’s Versification (1920), 294-313, which draws on private conversations with Simpson.

I owe this serendipitous connection to Tom Lockwood.

Volume 1 of Hart’s edition was printed (1906), but Hart died and the rest was never completed.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 9, Folder 6: Milford to Simpson, 23 February 1904.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 9, Folder 10; Milford to Simpson, 20 September 1905.

OUP Archives, 811352.8, Frowde to Cannan, 15 May 1912.

OUP Archives, 811352.8, Simpson to Cannan, 3 April 1913.

Oxford University Press, Letter Book 51; Milford to Cannan, 19 March 1913. I am grateful to Tom Lockwood for this reference.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 9, Folder 3: Herford to Simpson, 11 January 1909.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 9, Folder 3: Herford to Simpson, 21 February 1910.

Osborn MSS 8, Box 9, Folder 3: Herford to Simpson, 4 October 1913, 25 April 1914.

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