Dobranski 2005

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Dobranski, Stephen B. Readers and Authorship in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Introduction: Renaissance omissions

"I am interested in the interpretive implications of works with actual missing pieces. The seventeenth-century phenomenon of printing apparently unfinished works ushered in a new emphasis on authors' responsibility for written texts while it simultaneously reinforced Renaissance practices of active reading. ... The book's overarching premise is that authors, like all speakers, can convey ideas by saying almost nothing; the best writers can create moments of audible silence, or as Milton envisions in Paradise Lost, of 'darkness visible'." (2)

Caxton, printings of Chaucer included and inspired Chauceriana; Spenser himself attempted to follow Chaucer in his own (incomplete) Faerie Queene

"That England's two greatest poetic sons had never finished their greatest poetic works presumably provided sufficient precedent for later Renaissance stationers and writers who wanted to take incomplete works to press." (4)
"These writers and publishers wanted 'defects' in their texts not because they 'cannot say anything worth reading' but because they had something to say that required, as we will see, special emphasis." (5)
"Scrutinizing the blank spaces in publications by Sidney, Jonson, Donne, Herrick, and Milton helps us better understand the changing conditions of authorship in early modern England: while the notion of an autonomous author was emerging, an equally empowering concept of active readers was also taking shape. The omissions I examine pull in both directions. when viewed as moments of exquisite authorial control, omissions seem to suggest that a text was created by an 'author,' a single individual who oversaw the production and could finesse even the most subtle poetic nuances. But, if early modern readers were then expected to make something meaningful out of a text's missing pieces, Renaissance omissions seem to imply that readers shared responsibility for the author's work. Simultaneously authorizing both writers and readers, the omissions that I address provide a unique window into English literary history: through these blank spaces we glimpse the tension between implication and inference, and between an individual author and a collaborative community." (5-6)
"In this book, I m examining how the publication of incomplete works contributed to the Renaissance author's emerging status. By focusing readers' attention on what writers left unsaid, these unfinished works paradoxically helped to make writers more visible: through a text's omissions, readers seemed to witness firsthand an author's poetic development. Here were works in their ore, before they had been molded and polished, before they had been readied for publication." (8)

non-finito -- incompleteness as signifying a visual artist's genius; "his imagination defied material realization" but also "presumed an active, resourceful audience, capble of inferring information that the artist had withheld" (9)

"Renaissance writing conditions suggest a cooperative relationship between writers and readers. Writers commonly wanted readers to collaborate in their texts -- that is, to share responsibility for the texts' meanings." (11)
"My argument is that both authors and readers gained considerable authority during the early modern period -- and that the two phenomena were reciprocal." (12)

Donne's image of "stiffe twin compasses", like reader-writer relationship

Montaigne, reader-writer relationship like playing tennis

Reading and writing

active reading not just an Elizabethan practice; "I would argue that a similar style of readerly intervention remained important during the seventeenth century" (22)

"Writing and reading were collaborative during the seventeenth century -- by which I mean that authors and readers had to labor together consciously to produce meaning. Participating in this creative process, readers helped to establish authors' authority, while authors, leaving various kinds of blank spaces in their works, reciprocally empowered early modern readers." (22)
"Reading during these earlier periods was treated as a relatively passive experience; writers emphasized how the effects of a text moved an audience, with or without readers' participation or even approval." (23)
"Allegorical and humanist techniques were performed in the service of a text whose priority remained unquestioned; readers were meant to decode the meaning that was always-already present, not intervene in a text and move beyond the author's intentions." (26)

Augustine on reading (26)

reading scripture; Aquinas, Duns Scotus (27)

"With the spread of the Reformation to England, the sacred text's authority was now vested in all authors and readers who accepted divine guidance." (31)
"unlike medieval allegory, in which priests and bishops analyzed the divine text by following a rigid hermeneutic, this new type of interpretation allowed early modern readers to claim for themselves more authority: now lay readers could devise their own allegorical interpretations, and they did so selectively, without submitting to a set of prescribed formulae." (32)

Grafton, reading like dancing; moderns think it natural and freeform, but was rule-bound in early modern period

Renaissance writers, anxiety about work "influenced by the spread of print culture, which brought an author's works to unseen, distant audiences" (36)

  • "Faced with this potential lack of control, Renaissance authors -- and stationers -- commonly ask their readers to examine their works actively; the assumption seems to have been, following the allegorical and humanist traditions, that only through such directed effort could readers accurately gauge a book's and author's merits." (37)

"chorus of people represented at the start of a book -- the dedicatee, publisher, and reader -- had to accompany the writer in making the text meaningful" (38)

Renaissance readers decoding texts (41)

"unscripted readerly activity" as "one of the distinguishing characteristics of the early modern period" (42) (?? -- haven't readers always done this?)

Robert Boyle complains that reading romances when young made his mind prone to roving (45)

John Evelyn warns against the danger of private reading (47)

reading authors vs. reading books (49)

"Renaissance omissions represent another way that readers could shape the meaning of what they read while simulataneously helping to advance an author's authority. Thoughtfully perusing a text with actual missing pieces, Renaissance readers were then invited to think, infer, and write in, if only imaginatively, what an author withheld." (54)

personalizing books; perusing as revising/rewriting a text (54)

Suckling publishing his own "supplement" to Shakespeare's Lucrece (55)

readers adding their own names to title pages "symbolizes their shared textual authority" with the author (61)

Re-writing Sidney's Arcadia

"As opposed to the emerging concept of the autonomous author, each of the Arcadia's editions represents a collective enterprise dependent on community as well as individual effort." (69)
"Although the Arcadia's early editions consistently arose out of a collaborative context, all of the book's forms -- the old, new, and composite texts -- reinforced Sidney's authority as the author of Arcadia." (69)

sequels -- "suggests both a dispersal and intensification of Sidney's authorial authority" (71)

adoption of Arcadia by royalists; "the epitome of Elizabethan culture, accordingly became a seminal Caroline text" (77)

  • see adoption of FQ in Faerie Leveller pamphlet

uncertainty, unfinished quality -- inspired sequels (80)

extremes of love in Arcadia: pastoral, ideal, hurtful (92)

Jonson's labors lost

"Epistle to Elizabeth Countesse of Rutland" is made to seem unfinished in Workes of 1616

"As English literary culture was changing from the older forms of manuscript and orality to print transmission, Jonson's epistle looks forward and back, poised between the court and printing house. By introducing the themes of error, omission, and impotence, Jonson suggests his limitations as a poet but also, paradoxically, asserts his authority, defending an author's primacy within the burgeoning business of printed reproduction." (101)
"Jonson seems to privilege the original manuscript over the folio edition: he would rather have an incomplete poem printed than repair or restore the missing text." (106)
"Manifested in these omissions is perhaps the contradictory impulse that prompted Jonson to produce the physically imposing printed Folio in 1616 and yet identify himself as a court poet, sharing his verse in manuscript: Jonson's incomplete poems stake his claim for immortality through verse but imply through their omissions that his poetry is transitory and temporal." (114)

"gradual development within the 17th-century book trade": "As authors gained new authority, they could exert more practical influence over the material process of production."

The incomplete Poems of John Donne

"The author's presence -- the impression that Donne oversaw this collection and was communicating directly with readers -- emerged from a collaborative process that ironically required his absence or 'omission' from the material production." (120)

Thomas Dekker, readers who "whip books" versus the "understanders" (120)

printer Flesher seeks "understanders" for Donne

  • "Flesher is inviting the book's audience to enact its own worthiness: those who read beyond his literal meaning can identify themselves as 'understanders' and can now feel qualified to appreciate Donne's unique merits." (122)

title page of 1633 edition downplays Donne as author (124)

"In 1633, however, the book's creators explicitly undertook this task as a monument to Donne. In the book's central paradox, J. D. does not just remain alive though dead; he remains alive because he has died." (128)

addressing different people in so many poems adds a social dimension and "reveals Donne's desire for his readers' involvement" (130)

"These omissions represent another manifestation of his absence -- parts of these poems are literally missing -- but the book's layout encourages readers to peruse the remaining fragments as evidence that Donne deserves such a commemorative volume." (133)
"The overriding effect of the collection's design is a privileged glimpse into Donne's private cabinet" (134)

readers not encouraged to devise their own endings to incomplete poems, tho (138)

Herrick unbound

"From the start, Hesperides showcases Herrick's self-consciousness; the volume contains more than fifty-five separate poems in which the poet addresses himself, his book, or his readers."

argues that Herrick didn't oversee the design of Hesperides

quasi-autobiographical poems; "poet actively seeks readers' intervention to stave off the debasement that could come with taking his poetry to press" (164)

imagines his poems as physical objects (168)

"Understanding his limited authority, Herrick attempts to direct readers' reactions by providing specific points of entry into his texts." (170)

incomplete verses "enhanced the collection's apparently disordered inclusiveness" (172)

patron-poet, mutually dependent relationship (174)

Milton's missing links

Paradise Regain'd and Samson Agonistes, designed to be published together

Omissa in Samson

"The difference between the Omissa and the conclusion that Milton writes for Samson Agonistes is the difference between miracle and tragedy, between revenge fantasy and real-world violence, between divine intervention and the strugGle of a 'wayfaring/'warfaring' Christian. (199)

Milton wanted right readers

"Milton's many comments about reading reveal a poet who again and again wanted his audience to collaborate with him." (209)


"while the early modern writers I have examined in this book certainly appreciated the possible play of meaning created by poetic language, their use of omission is never only a sign of their limitations. On the contrary, instead of accepting that words mark things that are absent, these authors were incorporating blank spaces so as to mark especially significant moments in their texts. If some theorists see absence as a product of language's inherent limitations -- all meaning would accordingly derive from the structure of language itself, as opposed to an author's intentions -- the Renaissance omissions that I have examined are hyper-intentional sites of meaning, attempts by writers and stationers to use even absence as part of a linguistic system." (216-7)