Bracket Spotting

Yesterday, I chatted to a friend via text, trying to find a day to take a walk together, and touch base. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long time, although we live in the same town (entirely my fault!). Sunday, I said to her, would be best, as on all the other days of the week I “had to work in the library, looking at manuscripts”. She, ever the scholar, replied thus:

had to –> get to <3

She’s right of course. What a great privilege to play with old books! I’m currently looking at MS e.Mus.37, a copy of the Old Arcadia, not Feuillerat’s base text. Luckily not, since this one’s hardly got any brackets at all.

Poring over the beautiful secretary hand, I tried to spot the bracket. An early modern where is Waldo. Progress was slow, and the work draining. I wondered why, and then suddenly realized that the habits, that is, the script, of secretary hand makes it hard for the eye to tell when exactly the inky curves are parts of letters and when not.

Mostly, what tripped me up by posing like half a bracket is the form of the ampersand with a belly curving to the left, like so:

(This photo is from MS Jesus 150 in the Bodleian Library.)

Then the ascending hook of the spurred ‘a’, a slightly old-fashioned form, indicating that the scribe must have learnt to write in the middle of the sixteenth-century, rather than towards its end.

The infralinear lobes of ‘h’, ‘g’, and ‘y’ also routinely make me look twice, biting into the lines below them as they do.

Notice the ‘g’ of ‘grew’ on the top line, and ‘h’ of ‘hew’ below.
Notice the ‘y’ of ‘my’ on the top line, and ‘sely’ just below.

Sometimes the bracket is incredibly thin, like an eye-lash having floated onto the page, or a slender piece of fibre having swum to the surface of the paper during its production. This is owing to the angle of the quill’s nib, which could scratch the paper, and not release as much ink.

And sometimes, brackets were plainly, and simply forgotten. In this particular manuscript, there are orphaned brackets a-plenty, suggesting either a certain carelessness in copying, or haste, or lack of attention. Presumably, the first is the case, since there are not many brackets at all in this Arcadia copy (though that might be owing to its copy-text). Perhaps, an already bracket-weak text, then, was further de-bracketted by the cavalier attitude towards brackets by the scribe of e.Mus.37, resulting in a handsome and clean, but very lightly punctuated piece.

The question remains whether we should consider punctuation, and the bracket as most visible sign, most squarely present, whether we should think of it as accidental and thus negligible in terms of editing and interpreting, or whether we should give attention to what seems part of the minutiae of the work, what seems, and maybe is, vulnerable to change upon transmission. Part of my project also means doing exactly that, making a case for taking those small not-so-small elements of a text like punctuation seriously. Especially when it’s systematic. Especially when in- and exclusion might tell us something about the line of origin of manuscripts.

Punctuation does make a difference. Like Harold Pinter says, ‘you can’t fool the critics for long. They can tell a dot form a dash a mile off.’ And the readers, too.

The Early Modern What-d’ye-call-it Hyphen, Part 2

In a previous post, I wrote about how we are using fewer and fewer hyphens these days. But going back in time does not mean returning to a hyphenated (literary) world either! Lately, I was playing around with some Renaissance manuscripts in the Bodleian library in Oxford, and discovered some curious punctuation habits (including hyphenation) by one prolific commonplace book keeper, called William Sancroft, some time archbishop of Canterbury (between 1678 and 1690).

MS Sancroft 29 is one of his commonplace books in which he excerpts literary quotations for a variety of issues and situations (such as ‘Angry and Waspish’, or ‘Lust’).

The length of quotation varies, ranging from just one line to several. How far Sancroft preserves the original quotation also depends. Since he’s excerpting for use, he’s happy to change the pieces a bit, especially the grammar, changing pronouns, and syntax, so that it becomes a little hard to find the source text through EEBO. Most of Sancroft 29 are dramatic extracts, most from Shakespeare and other Renaissance plays. Only rarely does Sancroft record in the margin where the quotations are from, which makes for some exciting detective work.

A rare recording of the excerpts’ origins, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, unfortunately upside down.

As I familiarized myself with the volume, I realized that Sancroft is careful about punctuation, using the whole array at his disposal, ranging from question and exclamation marks to brackets, dashes, apostrophes, commas, colons, semi-colons, and, yes, hyphens, too. I was curious whether Sancroft copied the original punctuation (presumably from their printed sources), or whether he changed it according to his own needs and habits. And the latter is what he did.

I stumbled across a proliferation of hyphens, and started to track down their sources. Here’s one from As You Like It, Act II, scene iv, where the two Arden shepherds Silvius and Corin are arguing about love, and how the elderly Corin cannot understand young Silvius’ pains for unrequited passion for Phoebe.

Sil. No Corin, being old, thou canst not guesse,

Though in thy youth thou wast as true a louer

As euer sigh’d vpon a midnight pillow:

I checked the spelling of all three first folios, and the word remain two. But Sancroft writes this:

See top line.

As true a lover, as ever sigh’d upon a midnight-pillow

The lines before and after are from different plays; unsuccessful in most attempts to discover the sources, I quickly gave up, and focussed on the juicy punctuation bits.

Sancroft has at least two more instances of adding hyphens between compound words, including ‘parish-church’, and ‘wits-pedlar’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The most delightful example, though, remains the outsized ‘Dort-what-d’ye-call’ from an unidentified play.

See line 5 from the bottom up.

 This is a lovely example of hyper-hyphenation which I unfortunately cannot read very well…Dort? I don’t know. Always the sixteenth-century secretary-hand-er. Italic is just too young for me! I particularly love this example, though. It feels so modern. Like when we say ‘what’s-his-name’.

In my previous post, I briefly spoke about the difference that this little horizontal line between two words makes: it links them in a little visual and cognitive burst in a way that a blank space simply can’t. There’s some crucial reason why two particular words are being connected like that, and it’s up to us to find that out. It’s not just a pillow, but a pillow for sleeplessness, but not just that, it’s for that particular insomnia coming in the middle of the night, when it’s neither yesterday nor tomorrow, and we’re locked in the fuzzy transitional zone of ambiguity. That’s when we lie on that pillow, that midnight-pillow. The hyphen makes a metaphor legible.

Sancroft, in his punctuation choices, intuits meaning, and increases its perceptible nature by adding that little belt of a hyphen. Of course, Shakespeare might have included a hyphen in his manuscript, and the lack of it is a personal choice of the type-setter’s taste, or the practicalities of printing. Of course, Sancroft might not have worked from the folios. But he can’t have used the quartos, at least not for As You Like It, because none existed. He might have worked from manuscript texts with their own punctuation, borrowed them from someone else, and just copied that, but one assumes he worked from the printed texts, since he did bequeath his enormous book collection of 6.000 volumes to Emmanuel’s College, Cambridge. And in any case, Sancroft was quite cavalier with the “correctness” of the original quotations, re-jigging words as he pleased, so why painstakingly keep the punctuation from someone else for something he was going to change anyway?

No, Bishop Sancroft chose to add hyphens, and although it might seem a small matter, it’s actually a big one: adding punctuation is not incidental, and not accidental. It’s a statement. It’s appropriating a text, words, some else’s words, and doing something to those words, and those meanings. Adding punctuation is literary criticism right there.

For more on the Sancroft manuscripts, see Laura Estill, Dramatic Extracts in Seventeenth-Century Manuscripts (Lanham, 2015).