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The Making of the Oxford Ben Jonson

Martin Butler

By and large, Greg’s reservations about the Oxford Jonson have been borne out by subsequent scholarship. Particularly, he recognized from early on that Percy’s approach to the text was driven by a predetermined idea of Jonson’s authorial personality, with the result that his textual work was compromised by a barely concealed undertow of intentionality. In Percy’s editing, a balanced analysis of evidence, which acknowledges the way that texts are shaped by material and contextual factors, is sacrificed to assumptions about what must have been Jonson’s normative preferences when putting his works into print. As Percy’s editorial practice was outpaced by Greg’s increasing theoretical sophistication, so the gaps emerging between them point up the extraordinary speed with which, in the early twentieth-century, analytical bibliography was developing, as well as the patchy and incomplete way that it penetrated into the wider critical consciousness. The curious result was an edition which, while widely acclaimed as standard, was nonetheless some way short of perfect from a strictly bibliographical point of view. It is symptomatic of the unevenness of developments in English studies that, despite its flaws, the Oxford Jonson was for a long time hailed as definitive and regarded with something approaching reverence by the large community of critics who were not themselves textual specialists.  

Still, it remains, on the whole, a heartening thing that Jonson inspires affection, and even devotion, in his editors. For all their differences, this is a characteristic which links Percy Simpson with Gifford. And of course it doesn’t need Freud to point out the similarities between Percy himself and the version of Jonson which he produced – voluminously learned, deeply scholarly, enjoying the life of books, writing endless letters to friends on literary matters, rather detached from the real world, and deeply committed to an impossible ideal of textual purity. For all its flaws, blind spots, moments of amateurishness and parochialism, his edition is a remarkable achievement that inevitably manifests within itself the tensions of its circumstances of production. It is intensely professionalized, and innovates in many areas that were to become lines of enquiry for the future (not only bibliographically, but in its attention to the retrieval of the works’ historical context, and to such things as Jonson’s library and marginalia). At the same time, it is determinedly conservative in its assumption that the only audience that matters is fellow scholars who are capable of truly understanding the reach of Jonson’s achievement – as, notoriously, in its unyielding refusal to make any concessions to readers without the necessary classical languages – and in its ability to sustain its scholarly mission across the early twentieth century as if the two world wars which disrupted its progress had barely happened (one thinks of Percy and Evelyn heading off to the Bibliotheque Nationale in 1948, now that normal service had been restored, to look for ambassadors’ reports of the masques).   And it did all this at a time before the profession of literary scholarship had become as fully institutionalized as it is today, with almost no support from funding agencies and no research team, and reliant on a private individual’s selfless dedication and the goodwill of a Press that was, not always happily, prepared to keep faith with a project which took fifty years to complete.

Ironically, the pace of change meant that before the edition was finished it was already partially obsolete. The final volumes were delivered into a world of expanding student numbers and fading knowledge of the classics, the scholars and students of which were already starting to look for different kinds of texts. It was also a world in which the possibilities for serious textual work were being revolutionized by cheap travel, a resurgent American academy, and the invention of new mechanical aids to collation, creating conditions in which bibliographical research could go forward with vastly more resources and with greater technical and theoretical sophistication than Percy could muster.   The great beneficiaries of this were Fredson Bowers’s collected editions of Dekker (1953-61) and Beaumont and Fletcher (1966-1996), which set more rigorous bibliographical standards than Percy had managed to achieve, though with an austerity of presentation which reflected the continuing institutional divide between textual work and other kinds of critical scholarship. Lacking any mediating commentary or historical introduction, Bowers’s editions starkly encapsulated the problem of how the insights of analytical bibliography were to find purchase in the wider critical consciousness. All these various changes mean that, despite its many virtues, the Oxford Jonson has not had the longevity that was the case with Gifford’s edition. But this is merely to say that it has been overtaken by a modern knowledge economy that, in a small way, Percy and Evelyn had helped to create. By those who know about it, their stewardship of Jonson will continue to be regarded with gratitude, and even a little awe.

Greg’s critique of the Oxford edition was reinforced by Johan Gerritsen in two short pieces (Gerritsen, 1957, and Gerritsen, 1959). But Gerritsen never published any more of this work, though his critique was partially developed in Bowers (1978) and Howard-Hill (1972b).

The Great War impacted tragically on Herford, who lost his son in the fighting; it was all the more painful as his wife was German, and much of his life’s work was bound up with the study of Anglo-German literary relations. Evelyn Simpson served as a nurse in Flanders, and wrote a memoir about it (as Evelyn Spearing, From Cambridge to Camiers under the Red Cross, 1917). She lost some of her as yet unpublished critical work when Louvain University Press was deliberately destroyed by German forces in 1914, along with the rest of the city of Louvain. But there is scant trace of such things in the Jonson edition.

The preface to volume 1 registers the difficulties Percy had in securing material that had been squirrelled away by private collectors, especially in America. By the time volume 11 appeared, some of these documents had resurfaced in public archives, such as the Folger Shakespeare Library, and many more books from Jonson’s library had turned up at auction. The correspondence that documents Percy’s negotiations with the New York collector William Augustus White (who owned some of Jonson’s letters, now in the Folger) is in the Beinecke, Osborn MSS 8, Box 10. Henry Clay Folger was keen to rebuild Jonson’s library, though he only managed to secure a small selection of volumes from it (private information from Stephen Grant).

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