THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

3 posts from April 2019

26 April 2019

The Book of Hours

a guest blog by Lucy English, spoken word poet and Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She has two collection published by Burning Eye Press. The most recent, The Book of Hours, is the poetry from the online poetry film project. The project was completed in 2018 and was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize in 2019. 

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Screenshot from is 'From This Train' by Kathryn Darnell

The Book of Hours is an online poetry film project which contains forty eight poetry films made in collaboration with 27 film-makers. Through the process of creation I have explored how to bring the immediacy and vibrancy of spoken word  into the delicate poetry film form, which is a growing but niche area of poetry. I have created a project which is experimental in its use of spoken word in poetry film, and also innovative in its approach to creating a themed collection of poetry films. 

Inspired by the medieval Books of Hours, I wanted to create a contemporary compendium of images and text which could evoke contemplation and thought. In our modern world we may that God constantly rewards or punishes our behaviour, but we still have a need for quiet moments, reflection and emotional awareness often associated with religiosity. Poetry continues to be a medium through which we can experience this, so the text in The Book of Hours is in poetic form, rather than prose, and because I am a spoken word poet most of this poetry is presented as voice-over rather than text on screen.

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Screenshot from 'Sheltering from the Rain in a Country Church' (after Larkin) by James Norton

A medieval Book of Hours was a collection of religious readings and accompanying images.  By the fourteenth century these had become highly decorative works of art and many were produced by craftsmen for wealthy patrons.  They were created so that those outside of the religious orders could follow the monastic life. The book began with a calendar illustrated by images of activities connected to each month, such as sowing crops, harvest and feasting. The subsequent texts were divided into sections and one of these sections was the ‘Hours’, a series of prayers and readings spanning a complete day and night and changing with the religious season. This reflected the Hours of the Divine Office, a code of religious behaviour adopted by St. Benedict in his sixth century guide to monastic life. Each ‘hour’ was roughly three hours apart, and was the time for prayer and reflection. The first was Vigil, at midnight, followed by Lauds, then Prime first thing in the morning, then Terce, then Sext at approximately lunchtime. After this was None followed by Vespers and finally Compline, after which the monks went to bed. The ‘Hours’ were therefore a template for religious devotion, spirituality, reflection and connection to God.

There were variations in the format of a Book of Hours but a typical collection contained: a calendar and The Hours, (as described above); a selection of penitential psalms, expressing sorrow for the committing of sins; The Office for the Dead, (a prayer cycle for the repose of the soul of a deceased person); and the Litany of Saints, which were prayers for the intersession of the Virgin Mary and the martyrs and saints.  Books of Hours represented a layperson’s handbook to Christian devotion and were created in a portable size so they could be carried by the owner and referred to on a daily basis. They reveal a glimpse into the medieval relationship between humanity and God and are important compendiums of religious reflection.

In the modern secular society of the U.K we can underestimate the importance of the Christian calendar in medieval times. This was an unwavering structure in an uncertain world where the progression from Christmas to Easter to Ascension would be embedded in the minds and habits of everyone.  The monastic life was seen as the epitome of  proper behaviour and for an ordinary person to possess access to the religious life, in book form, was highly desirable. It was common in medieval art, and also in the pages of the Books of Hours, for the patrons to be depicted in religious scenes, such as witnessing the birth of Christ or worshiping at the feet of the Virgin, thus placing themselves directly into the holy narrative. In the medieval mind, saints could be ‘talked to’ through prayer and requests to God, Jesus and Mary were as common as our ‘wish lists’ of shopping needs.

A Book of Hours can also be seen as an interactive text as these books were not intended to be read chronologically. The reader chose which readings to refer to according to time of day, season and spiritual mood. The most noted example of a Book of Hours created for a wealthy patron is the Tres Riches Heures commissioned by John the Duke of Berry between 1412-1416 and illustrated by the brothers Limbourg. This is currently held in the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.

The Duke of Berry was a passionate collector of books and his library contained more than fifteen Books of Hours. In Tres Riches Heures the illuminated pages are exquisitely illustrated; they depict a calendar of the month, the signs of the Zodiac and scenes from life, according to the seasons. In the page for October a white clad horse pulls a harrow and a farmer sows seeds over which crows and magpies are already fighting. In the background is a magnificent white castle. The pages of this book offer a detailed insight into the lives of the various strata of medieval society, from aristocratic hunters to peasants in rags.  This keen depiction of everyday detail is also a feature of other Books of Hours, where scenes from the Bible are set against a backdrop of recognizable scenes of medieval life.

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Screenshot from 'Mr Sky' by Sarah Tremlett

What I learned from my understanding of the medieval Books of Hours and what I felt I could translate into my project were the following aspects: the text, (in my case the poems) would be an embarking point for reflection. This reflection would not be a religious one but a contemplative one, offering responses to the modern world. It would be presented in a calendar format, following the months of the year, times of day and the seasons. It would contain a linear structure  (a calendar year) but the reader/viewer could choose when and where they accessed the films. My final aim was to somehow replicate the everyday quality of the medieval Books of Hours, and to depict the ‘illustrations in the margins.’ By creating a digital project which utilizes our accessibility to screens and downloads, I could also replicate the portability of the medieval books. I wanted the colours and sounds of the films to compliment the total experience just as the illustrated pages in the medieval manuscripts compliment the texts in the book. The themes which link the whole collection are reflections on the passage of time; reflections on the impact of urban lifestyles on rural landscapes and the transience of memory.

Each poetry film was created ‘in conversation’ with the film-maker rather than me ‘giving’ them a poem to adapt. Sometimes we started with an idea, sometimes we started with a sound track, or static or moving images. So all the poetry films in The Book of Hours have been created in collaboration with other artists.

Individual films from this project have been screened at many short film and poetry film festivals: ‘Things I found in the Hedge’ won first prize in the Atticus Review Videopoetry competition. and ‘Que Es El Amor’ won second prize.

 

All screenshots reproduced with the kind permission of the creator. 

15 April 2019

‘What Do I Know About Beckett?’: B.S. Johnson’s Beckett Notebook

a guest blog by Patrick Armstrong, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.The Papers of BS Johnson are available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room (Add MS 89001).  Learn more about some of the Libraries collections related to Beckett and Johnson here

B.S. Johnson’s Samuel Beckett notebooks perform an act of remembering. Principally, Johnson wonders what it is possible for him to know about Beckett, an epistemological problem he tries to work out through writing. The scraps of paper and notebook entries show Johnson trying to remember all he can about his onetime friend and major influence: when he read his work, who he was with, what it meant to him at the time.

Johnson’s idea of writing a literary biography of Beckett aligns with his famous authorial declarations. In The Unfortunates (1969), for example, he writes ‘in general, generalization is to lie, to tell lies’, while similarly, in Albert Angelo (1964), the narrator states that ‘telling stories is telling lies’. The notes, written mainly between 1971 and 1973, show Johnson instructing himself on how to write truthfully, without 'generalisation': 'Work conversation into this – as exactly as I can remember – use as interludes in conjecture material, in different type – that is, it is part of the “no generalisation” idea, which […] stated very carefully – somewhere – It was in MURPHY […] that I first saw the word SOLIPSISM'.

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A page from Johnson's small pocket-book detailing his first encounter with 'solipsism' (Add MS 89001/8/8). All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.


In philosophical terms, solipsism is the theory that one’s own self or consciousness is all that exists or all that can be known. Initially encountered in Beckett’s witty early prose (Murphy is described as a ‘seedy solipsist’), the word offers Johnson ‘a mode of being’ and, crucially, ‘a mode of GOING ON’ (a reference to Beckett’s later, post-war prose). The evocative term is then connected with the process of biographical writing, as Johnson states:

'Experiment/Venture into BIOGRAPHY
What do I know about BECKETT?
Solipsistically
i.e. only what he told me/what I saw for myself CAN BE ACCEPTED as true.'

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A page from Johnson's small pocket-book where he thinks through the limits of the biographical form (Add MS 89001/8/8)All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.

 The confessional mode seems to have become the only truthful method of writing, as for Johnson all that can be known about Beckett is what he himself saw and heard. Thinking about Beckett sharpens Johnson’s own conception of his literary project; it allows him to work out his own position, offering a means of finding an acceptable form, as Beckett put it, ‘to accommodate the mess’. The ‘idea’ (one small green notebook purchased in Paris is simply entitled ‘Beckett Idea’) of writing a biography becomes an expansive, Proustian process of remembering one’s own life: ‘How everything gets tied in with everything, how here I am trying to write about Sam, and it is [he lists other friends] - just to get it down before I forget it, for some bits of it no one else could get down, obviously. […] All is digression’. The potential biography becomes a kind of autobiography, a project in both solipsistic remembrance and Sternean digression. Does Johnson genuinely consider writing a biography of Beckett, or does he instead use the ‘venture’ and ‘experiment’ of doing so as a prompt for memory and material, as a mode of ‘going on’?

Evidently, Johnson had a deep affinity with Beckett’s thought, and the Irish writer’s life and work seems to intimately intertwine with Johnson’s own. The latter even associates space with Beckett’s company: ‘The way B came to the Hotel […] the way I associate that little waiting room with him – no, with his PRESENCE.’ The writing is self-corrective, as ‘him’ becomes the more impressive and aggrandizing ‘his presence’. As Jonathan Coe writes in his biography of Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson (2004), ‘the friendship of Beckett, his unfailing kindness and supportiveness, would become one of the cornerstones of Johnson’s life’. On several occasions, Beckett’s work uncannily ‘fitted’ Johnson, connecting to his own experiences in unexpected ways. On seeing Waiting for Godot for the first time in Autumn of 1955, Johnson modestly recalls how it ‘echoed (+ said more + better than I could) things I had been talking […] about before we went in’. Another time, when he telephones his girlfriend to say that it is ‘all finished’, Johnson remembers holding his colourful copy of Watt in the phone box, describing its ‘splendid purple/blue/pink’ jacket and ‘bloodred cut paper’. In reference to his separation, Johnson declares: ‘Beckett’s solipsism/stoicism fitted! […] I read him with an intensity to try to shut out what she had done’. The two ‘isms’ separated by an oblique stroke, stoicism and solipsism, are arguably two of the most important concepts that Johnson takes from Beckett.

A year after first seeing Godot,Johnson remembers being in a Parisian bookshop unable to afford a copy of Molloy. Still drawn to the book, he sifts through the first few pages in the bookshop: ‘read and felt the first few pages’. Like the memory of holding his copy of Watt, the experience seems both tactile and emotional. This emotive episode is ironic given that the notes reveal how Beckett, well-off after winning the Nobel prize, later offered and sent money to the struggling writer in London. This is the same kind and generous Beckett that we find in his letters, and in André Bernold’s portrait of the author in Beckett’s Friendship (2015). Johnson’s note that Beckett ‘again offered financial help’ are eerily the last words recorded in the notebook. In fact, when reading through these notes, their temporal closeness to Johnson’s suicide in November of 1973 is hard to ignore. Of a notebook with 144 leaves, just ten are written on, and there is a sadness about the mostly empty book. Johnson and Beckett eventually fell out after the former assured his publishers that they could use some of Beckett’s enthusiastic comments about his work (‘a most gifted writer’) as an endorsement on the dust jacket of Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973).

Yet, Beckett’s influence permeates Johnson’s notes - one loose scrap of paper could be mistaken for one of Beckett’s mirlitonnades, an irregular small poem. In addition, there are notes (something about Joyce and Yeats) on the back of receipts from French restaurants, specifically ‘Le Moulin Noyé’ in Glénic (Creuse), which is, appropriately, a ‘Hôtel isolé’: a solitary, solipsistic residence. On another scrap of paper Johnson reveals how significant he finds Beckett’s ‘idiosyncratic’ use of words: 'once when I rang him about 11.30am he said “Could you ring back? I’m trying to wash myself” Am I alone in finding that idiosyncratic? Or does all he say seem significant for me in the light of what I know he is, of what I believe him to be?'


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A collection of receipts and loose-leaf scraps on which Johnson recorded his thoughts about the biography of Beckett (Add MS 89001/8/8)All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.

Again, there is the sense of doubt about what Johnson knows of Beckett, as he corrects himself with the verb ‘believe’. Yet, it is arguably this belief in the significance of Beckett’s language and thought that provided Johnson with a fitting mode of writing.   

 



05 April 2019

17th-century English literary manuscripts in the Harley collection: Donne and more

by Sara Hale, AHRC Innovation Placement Fellow at the University of Manchester, working as part of the British Library's Heritage Made Digital project and the Modern Archives and Manuscripts department.

The British Library is currently undertaking a project to catalogue the Harley manuscripts collection for the first time since the early 19th century. Although one of the library’s foundation collections, the catalogue has not been updated since a four-volume printed edition was published in 1808­–1812. Improved descriptions in ‘Explore Archives and Manuscripts’ will make these items more easily discoverable by researchers and users.

This huge manuscript library was amassed by Robert Harley (1661–1724) and his son Edward Harley (1689–1741), 1st and 2nd earls of Oxford and Mortimer, and sold to the nation when the British Museum was established in 1753. Both Harleys were important literary figures and patrons of the arts, and their wide-ranging collection includes – among many other things – a number of important English literary manuscripts.  

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Harley MS 4064, f. 257r: a copy of ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’ by Ben Jonson.

 

Among the items recently catalogued are a number of 17th-century verse miscellanies containing some of the best known authors of the period. Of these John Donne is by far the most prevalent. Known for writing for a small group (or ‘coterie’) of readers and preferring the privacy of manuscript to print, Donne was one of the most widely circulated poets of the 17th century. Other writers that frequently appear in these miscellanies include Ben Jonson, Thomas Carew, Thomas Randolph, William Habington, Sir Walter Ralegh, Francis Bacon, Robert Herrick, to name but a few. These manuscripts tell us much about how their poems were read, circulated and responded to.

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New Harley Image

Above: Harley MS 4064, f. 286v: Donne’s ‘Songe’. Below Harley MS 6057, f. 15r: an imitation of the same poem.

Study of manuscript circulation demonstrates how different versions of a text could co-exist outside of the certainty offered by print. Variations in wording or titles could result from a mistake or deliberate alteration by the copier, or have been duplicated from a variant manuscript copy. Harley MS 4064 (the ‘Harley Noel MS’) is a particularly important miscellany. It contains just under 50 poems by Donne and eight by Jonson in the hands of two professional scribes, including a copy of Donne’s ‘Song. Goe, and catch a falling starre’ attributed to ‘J.D.’. This poem appears in another form in the verse miscellany Harley MS 6057. Although attributed to ‘John Dunne’, an epigram beginning ‘Goe catch a starre that’s falling from the skye’ (indicated by the manicule in the top right corner in the image above) is actually a loose imitation of Donne’s original poem.

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Harley MS 3991, f. 113r: short extracts from various poems by Donne.

The advent of print publication also impacted manuscript practices. Harley MS 3991 gives an indication of the ways in which the two mediums could interact. Once owned by Thomas Rawlinson (1681–1725) and known as the ‘Harley Rawlinson MS’, this late 17th-century verse miscellany includes various poems, songs and extracts from plays transcribed by several hands. One section entitled ‘Donnes quaintest conceits’ (ff. 113r-115r) presents short extracts from 30 poems including ‘Woman’s Constancy’ and ‘A Valediction: of weeping’. In this case the reader has gone through the printed text of the 1635 and 1639 editions of Donne’s poems and transcribed passages they found particularly elegant or witty to read at their will.  

Collected alongside the literary heavyweights of the period are the works of lesser known and anonymous authors. As well as three of Donne’s satires, Harley MS 5110 also includes an anonymous English tragedy entitled ‘Pelopidarum Secunda’, verse paraphrases of the Psalms and Book of Proverbs and a collection of Latin letters, poems and translations by schoolboy Milo Hobart. This composite volume contains an interesting range of texts. Also recorded are copies of late 16th-century Latin speeches by Elizabeth I (f. 9r-v), one delivering a forceful extempore rebuke to a Polish ambassador and another addressing academics at Oxford University.

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Harley MS 5110, f.9r: Latin speeches by Elizabeth I.

In many cases it can be hard to trace the ownership of these miscellanies, but some were clearly compiled by or for particular people. Harley MS 3511, for instance, was compiled by English statesman Arthur Capell (1631–1683), 1st Earl of Essex. Capell inscribed his name at the beginning of the volume (f. 1*), which includes many poems by Donne, Carew, Habington and Randolph. Such inscriptions sometimes took unusual forms. In the 1630s one Thomas Crosse inscribed his name in Harley MS 6057 in the form of ‘An Acrosticke upon my name’ – a poem in which the first letter of each line forms his name. Unfortunately nothing further is known about Crosse, but this volume shows how miscellanies could move between various different owners. The previous folio contains a deleted acrostic on the name ‘Edward’, and the name ‘Samuell Snoden’ is inscribed towards the end of the volume and dated 1670.

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Harley MS 6057, f.1r: an acrostic poem on the name Thomas Crosse.

Even this small selection gives an insight into the practice and importance of manuscript circulation in 17th-century literary culture, and the private literary world built on social relationships that poets such as Donne, Jonson, Carew and their readers inhabited.

Further reading:

Peter Beal et al, ‘John Donne, (1572–1631)’, Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700 (CELM).