The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Polyglot Poetics: Transnational Early Modern Literature

A guest post by Dr. Nigel Smith

I am writing a transnational history of early modern European literature. Our inherited history of the different early modern vernacular languages and their literatures was fashioned through the lens of the 19th-century and earlier 20th-century nationalism, and this story is one of how each literature descended from the Greek and Roman classics via the Italian Renaissance. I am, by contrast, interested in the broad picture of how these different literatures influenced each other, and how we can meaningfully track dominant traffics on one or multi-lane cultural streets. There is, for instance, still too little known about 16th-century Spanish cultural sway in the rest of Europe, especially with regard to prose romance and anti-romance, and the powerful mid-16th century French authority in poetry. In the 17th century, English influence on Dutch and German literature began, and a Dutch influence on a reoriented, allegedly “purged” German baroque.

The international role of Dutch literature in Britain is little-known outside the Netherlands (and even there not much) since, quite simply, Dutch is not widely known. This book also aims to change that omission addressing the significance of Dutch literature at the time of the Dutch republic’s global zenith. In this period there was also belief in the possibility of a European canon of letters through translation from one vernacular into many languages, and where Latin might still bear sway as a lingua franca.

You might think that only the English books relevant to my project will figure in the Folger Shakespeare Library holdings, and in their presence in Folger manuscripts, since that is how the collection was built. You’d be wrong. It is certainly true that the collection has many relevant English objects, such as the copy of the Shakespeare First Folio once owned by Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), and signed by him (a book dealer later tried to remove the signature so we see it best now with the help of specialist photography).

Copy of the First Folio with Huygens’ signature

Huygens is possibly the most distinguished intellectual in the Dutch Golden Age, an important Latin and Dutch poet, secretary to the stadholder Frederik Hendrik, and an Anglophile. As a young man he spent time in the Jacobean court where he impressed enough to win a knighthood, and helped make John Donne famous in the Netherlands when he translated nineteen of the metaphysical poet’s songs and sonnets. Huygens’ First Folio copy reveals that he was interested in Polonius’ careful advice to Laertes, which is significant: in the court at The Hague and in his family he might well have seen himself as a Polonius figure.

He was also sufficiently impressed to underline the earlier parts of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy. In Julius Caesar commonplacing marks are made against Brutus’ remarks on Caesar’s change from friend to dissembling tyrant, on Cassius’ changeable mood, on the need to seize the moment as the conspiracy gathers pace. Brutus and Polonius are identity types for Huygens: mirrors of ideal behavior or oracles of important observation. However, these marks may have been made by a later owner of the book.     

The possible owner of the markings in Huygens’ copy of the First Folio?

It is also true that the Folger’s European, non-English holdings, are little-known and underappreciated. We are trying to change that. A series of wisely-made acquisitions means that I have had plenty to do to see if I can learn anything from annotated copies of these books. Before the first Dutch professional stage began in 1617 (so about fifty years after in England), late medieval Netherlands wealth meant it was possible to enshrine a theatrical tradition continuously in urban societies known as rederijkerskamers (rhetorical chambers). These would become spurned and regarded as little more than inchoate drinking societies (as in Jan Steen’s well known painting “Der gekrönte Redner” (c. 1650-75)), but they did maintain a large repertoire of what we know in English as morality plays.

A procession of rederijkers, led by children (click to enlarge)

Since the rederijkers from different towns would occasionally meet for performance competitions, they have left us with a splendid printed record of such meetings, with spectacular engravings of the performers dressed in costumes, processing and preceded by children bearing their emblems or blazoens.

Second half of the procession (click to enlarge)

The Folger has an outstanding copy of such a text, Const-thoonende iuweel, by de loflijcke stadt Haerlem, ten versoecke van Trou moet blijcken, in’t licht gebracht : waer inne duydelick verclaert ende verthoont wordt alles wat den mensche mach wecken om den armen te troosten, printed at Zwolle in 1607.

Title page of Const-thoonende iuweel

The “Shakespeare of the Netherlands” Joost van den Vondel’s plays are plain when printed up, but his fellow playwright Jan Vos, author of the most popular tragedy of the time, Aran en Titus (1641), a version of the Titus Andronicus story and in some ways related to Shakespeare, had the good fortune to have some gory engravings that appeared on the title pages with severed heads, mutilated torsos and burning body parts.

Title page of Aran en Titus

Among Dutch poets we have in the collection the excellent and often explicit physician poet Willem Godschalk van Focquenbroch’s Afrikaense Thalia (1678), completed in Ghana, and where the title page engraving shows dancing tribes-people inspiring the poet’s muse.

Title page engraving on Afrikaense Thalia

There is a good showing of Spanish prose romances in the original and in many translations, a true reflection of early modern transnational literary life. The text that has long interested me most is Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina (1495), originally a dramatic dialogue, but later presented as prose fiction. Sir Thomas Hoby’s copy (Venice, 1535) is bound with the second half of  Caspar Barth’s much later critical commentary Pornoboscodidascalum, armed with which the reader was considered immune. Hoby, remember, was the translator of the exceedingly polite guidebook for courtiers by Balthasar Castiglione. Celestina is its utter opposite, and shows young gentlemen how to bed undetected their most desired women with the help of a virginity renewal technique.

There’s plenty of evidence to show that instant classics, even notorious ones, attracted the most sustained and interesting annotations, exemplified in the Folger’s collection of Machiavelli’s and Montaigne’s works in various translations. The same could also be said for some works by the towering humanist scholars who both constituted the international republic of letters, and who helped shape so forcefully the vernacular literatures. Ben Jonson’s copy of the Leiden professor Daniel Heinsius’ Aristarchus sacer (Leiden, 1627) is a famous text in the Folger, complete with many markings. There is always the issue that these annotated texts and the way they have been collected reflect both the tastes of their owners and the policies of libraries, so that we have to be cautious in making claims for any body of surviving texts.

Nonetheless, one of the Folger’s copies of the Netherlands Stoic scholar-philosopher Justus Lipsius’ Politicorum, siue, Ciuilis doctrinae libri sex is fascinating because it has had the most Stoical passages crossed out. A presumably very Protestant reader has censured the copy printed in 1632 at Amsterdam in Book I, ch. iii, thereby rejecting Lipsius’s view that rulers can encourage idolatry, even though the end result is a dumbing-down of the text’s sophistication.

Book I, ch. iii crossed out

The anxiety of this reader increases when two entire chapters, IV.iii-iv are deleted: they are concerned with the inevitability of religious speculation over and against stipulations of unity in religion, and against punishment for law-abiding opinions of religious difference. It comes as no surprise that IV.xiii and the first part of IV.xiv are deleted, since these chapters address the extent to which deceit may be used by a ruler as a political strategy, driven by necessity, like a drug with a certain amount of venom in it—the reference is to the famous passage of Plato’s Republic, Bk V.

Book IV, ch. iii crossed out

It is more difficult to fathom why the reader disapproves of Lipsius’s commitment to ultimate divine predestination, although here it is the citations of pagan philosophy that offend the reader, not, for instance, St. Augustine. Lipsius was in fact a Roman Catholic but he professed in Protestant Leiden at the heart of the Dutch republic, and had to be persuaded to remain: Stoicism was his personal philosophy “rising above” that difficult and divided situation. The Folger also has more annotated copies of Lipsius, with valuable poetry written onto flyleafs.

Writing on the flyleaf of STC 15701 copy 3

Part of the transnational glue in the international literary scene in this time was the Latin poetry that circulated widely in the republic of letters. As it happens, the Netherlands was the center for much of this work, not least since its universities educated so many young men from further to the east in the German speaking world. Fortunately, this tradition is becoming better known with classicists interested in the work of later Latinists. Heather Wolfe drew my attention to the remarkable copy of George Sabinus’s Latin poems originally bound with a volume of Petrus Lotichius’s poems (1576), and containing a dedicatory letter and two poems by Lotichius. The entire volume belonged, most revealingly, to Edmund Spenser.

Sometimes it is just the plain clean text that is so valuable. Folger K753.5 is an extremely rare collection of several treatises by the later 17th century poet-prophet Quirinus Kuhlmann (1651-89). Most of these were printed in London in the early 1680s when Kuhlmann visited, finding a wife, discussing philosophy and apocalypse with various speculative thinkers like Anne, Lady Conway, and city enthusiast separatists. He went off to Turkey and then Moscow where he was burned with his books, on the charge that he was a subversive heretic, encouraging a military alliance against Rome. The contemporary binding with its manuscript contents table is pristine, and was acquired in 1975, when Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, which celebrated these kinds of figure, was at the height of its fame. I wonder if it was from an enthusiast’s library. There is still no integrated Kuhlmann bibliography, with many works, especially the prophetic ones, spread like sibylline prophecies across north east Germany (Prussia), the former Silesia, the Netherlands and England. The pamphlets in these bindings have several versions of Kuhlmann’s personal symbolic device, and a good example of his messianic chronology.

Kuhlmann’s personal symbolic device
Kuhlmann’s messianic chronology

Among the manuscripts, the amazingly numerous and rich collection of English commonplace books has been invaluable. There’s plenty of evidence of English readers using continental material alongside native stuff, such as in the splendidly informative commonplace book of the Kent gentleman Henry Oxenden, who liked to know his enemies. Within his pages is a royalist and moderate Anglican’s reading list, and we might single out the extracts from Milton’s Defensio Secunda (1654) since it was a Latin text and really intended for circulation in continental Europe, along with Milton’s opponent in this dispute, Salmasius, and his Defensio Regio (1651), the extracts copied upside down (pp. [439-40]).

We’ve long known these kinds of profiles from such documents as William Drake’s annotated political diaries (MS V.a.263), so well explored by the late Kevin Sharpe. I was delighted to find an apparent reference to the French Huguenot poet Agrippa d’Aubigne’s Les Tragiques in the commonplace book of John Ward (MS V.a.299). Alas the volume is too fragile to show, but the fact that this poem was known in England is significant. Not only is the heroic poem one long lament for the fate of a seemingly vanquished religion and culture, it contained an unprecedented call for the removal of monarchs. This is further grist to the mill of those who look before the 1640s for the origins of English republicanism.

Coming to the end of my period it was no less a surprise to come upon a comment concerning the experimental Spanish poet Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561-1627). I’ve been interested in the admiration English poets had for Góngora’s lines, but how hard they found it to translate or adapt his difficult verse into English. Indeed, in the mid-17th century his then-best translator, Thomas Stanley, gave up before completing his best poem, literally falling short by several hundred lines. Folger MS W.a.126 is an early 18th-century collection of views about the key figures of European literature, some copied from books, some apparently invented. Created at the point at which English Literature was becoming much more internationally famous, this comment on p. 13 is priceless: ‘‘The greatest Spanish Poet is Don Louis de Gongora, so obscure that ye Spaniards have given the Sr. Name of Marvellous.”

I so wish this was a reference to Andrew Marvell, who much admired Góngora, but it is surely a mere coincidence. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t it be a kind of slur?


Dr. Nigel Smith is William and Annie S. Paton Foundation Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature at Princeton University; previously he taught in the University of Oxford. His major work has been in the fields of seventeenth-century literary and historical studies: Marvell, Milton, British civil wars and revolution literature, radical and Dissenting culture. Dr. Smith’s NEH-Folger project, entitled “Polyglot Poetics: Transnational Early Modern Literature,” offers a major, field-changing study of the vernacular literatures of western, central and southern Europe from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth centuries: a redefinition of the emergent area of transnational studies, and a recalibration of the literary relations of early modern Europe in order to integrate the crucial international staple of the Netherlands.

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