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The Oxford Spenser Edition: An Update
by Patrick Cheney

Thanks to Andrew Hadfield for making available this update on The Oxford Edition of the Collected Works of Edmund Spenser.

Breaking news: it’s forthcoming. 

That’s been true since 1998, when I received the go-ahead from OUP to update the three-volume 1912 Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, edited by J.C. Smith and Ernest de Sélincourt (more on this hubris below). Twenty years later the new Spenser edition is still forthcoming—yet with a difference: it is forthcoming

The General Editors, Joseph Loewenstein, David Lee Miller, Elizabeth Fowler, Andrew Zurcher, and I, are very close to sending Volume 1 of the six-volume edition to the Press. Volume 1 will offer newly edited texts of The Theatre for Voluptuous Worldlings (edited by Loewenstein), The Shepherdes Calender (Cheney), and the Spenser-Harvey Letters (Loewenstein). Volumes 2, 3, and 4 are all underway, and work is even underway on Volumes 5 and 6. Volume 2 will consist of the 1590 Faerie Queene, edited by Miller, who will also provide the annotation, or Commentary (as OUP calls it), on Books II and III, with Cheney providing the Commentary on Book I, and Zurcher the Textual Introduction and Commentary on the book’s back matter (Letter to Ralegh, Dedicatory Sonnets, Commendatory Verses). Volume 3 will consist of the four books of poetry published between the two installments of The Faerie Queene: the 1591 Complaints (Loewenstein); the 1591 Daphnaida (Cheney); the 1595 Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (Cheney); and the 1595 Amoretti and Epithalamion (Miller). Volume 4 will print the 1596 Faerie Queene (edited by Loewenstein), while Volume 5 will print Spenser’s final books of poetry: the 1596 Fowre Hymnes (Miller); the 1596 Prothalamion (Cheney); and the posthumously published Mutabilitie Cantos, 1609 (Loewenstein). Volume 6 will print the prose: A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland and A Brief Note (edited by Fowler, with Nicholas Canny), Axiochus (Gordon Braden); and the Secretarial Correspondence (Zurcher). Zurcher is also responsible for both a detailed Glossary, to appear in Volume 6 and in abbreviated form in each volume; a series of short essays on key words; and longer essays on ‘Spenser’s Life’ and ‘Spenser’s Language.’

What has taken so long?

After all, the word on the Spenser street is that an edition of this author is pretty straightforward. The received wisdom throughout the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first, is that the Spenser canon poses few challenges to the textual scholar. Moreover, since the late 1970s, we have been blessed by two major editions of The Faerie Queene: A.C. Hamilton’s 1977 superbly annotated Longman edition; and Thomas P. Roche, Jr.’s 1978 Yale-Penguin edition (with the assistance of Patrick O’Donnell, Jr.). In 2001, Hamilton produced a second edition of the Longman Faerie Queene, which printed the revolutionary text of Hiroshi Yamashita and Toshiyki Suzuki, the first scholars to do a painstaking, multi-copy collation of both the 1590 and 1596 texts, apprising us of countless variants in texts we long thought largely stable. Similarly, what Smith and de Sélincourt called ‘the minor poems’ received important editions as the ‘shorter poems,’ first by William A. Oram, Einar Bjorvand, Ronald Bond, Thomas H. Cain, Alexander Dunlop, and Richard Schell (Yale, 1988), and then by Richard A. McCabe (Penguin, 1998), as well as a selected, modernized version by Douglas Brooks-Davies (Longman, 1995). All of these editions have also long been appreciated for their detailed, scholarly annotation. To these, we could add the Norton Critical Edition of Edmund Spenser’s Poetry, edited in multiple versions over the years by Hugh Maclean, Anne Lake Prescott, and Andrew Hadfield. Finally, Hadfield and Willy Maley have produced a useful edition of the 1633 Vewe (Oxford, 1997), while Zurcher and Burlinson have published an important edition of the secretarial correspondence (Oxford, 2009).

These recent editions are the product of a four-hundred-year tradition, tracing back to Spenser’s lifetime but also to the many editions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, the history of editing Spenser’s texts is prodigious. In the seventeenth century we find the 1609 folio Faerie Queene, the 1611/17 folio Works, and the 1679 folio Works.The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the first great age of Spenserian bibliography, beginning in 1715 with John Hughes’ 6-volume edition, followed with editions by H.J. Todd in 1805 (8 volumes), S. Hilliard in 1839 (5 volumes), F.J. Child in 1855 (8 volumes), J.P. Collier in 1862 (5 volumes), R. Morris and J.W. Hales in 1869 (1 volume), A.B. Grosart in 1882-4 (9 volumes), R.E. Neil Dodge in 1908 (1 volume), and the monumental Variorum Edition in 1932-57 by Edwin Greenlaw, Charles Grosvenor Osgood, Frederick Morgan Padelford, and Ray Heffner (11 volumes) (this inventory does not include individual editions of The Faerie Queene and of the shorter poems). As such an inventory indicates, the editing of Spenser’s texts is indeed a longstanding historical enterprise. It has proved daunting to take it on.

When I entered the fray, I had no idea. But very quickly I did have an idea. I asked David Miller if he’d serve as co-editor. Quickly, we enlisted the services of Joe Loewenstein to serve as General Textual Editor. The three of us knew that Elizabeth Fowler was working on an edition of the Vewe, so we enlisted her help; and finally, given his knowledge of all things Spenserian (and realizing we needed someone still to be standing for the edition to emerge), we invited the ever-youthful Andrew Zurcher to join us. The five of us have been working together practically daily for over fifteen years.

The reason it has taken so long is simple. Editing the collected works of Edmund Spenser in keeping with current bibliographic standards is not what it seems. As nearly every day passes, we realize just how shape-shifting the process is; it keeps getting more protean. I think the Spenser community will be intrigued by the finished product. The reason here is twofold. First, we will all have a newly edited Spenser canon as a standard hardback text for teaching and research, printed in the Oxford English Texts series (the same series that printed Smith and de Sélincourt). In fact, our edition will be the first ‘collected works’ since the Variorum Edition (1932-57), which takes us back some seventy-five years. 

Of particular note is our treatment of the Theatre, the Spenser–Harvey Letters, Axiochus, and A Vewe, all of which we are editing for the first time with the same rigor as Spenser’s more celebrated works. Unlike earlier editions as well, ours will include such sixteenth-century contributions by other hands as were originally published alongside Spenser’s—works that are vital to an understanding of Spenser’s corpus: materials such as Jan Van der Noot’s commentary on the Theatre, Harvey’s contributions to the Spenser–Harvey Letters, and the non-Spenserian elegies for Sidney that conclude Colin Clouts. An authoritative edition of A Vewe is equally important; students of this work currently make do with editions that ignore competing testimony, found in its twenty-two extant manuscript copies, and rely instead on the printed text of the 1633 and later editions. We are providing transcriptions of all the earliest manuscript copies of the Vewe, along with scans of many of the extant sources, allowing scholars to engage fully with the edited text and its complex substrate.

Second, we will have a sophisticated electronic edition, which we call the Spenser Archive, and which will give the viewer remarkable capacities (see below for further details).

Lots of electronic editions of Renaissance texts are on the market or in the works; they differ radically from our own. For starters, we follow the bibliographical norm of collating at least seven copies of all early editions (except for Daphnaida, where only three copies exist of the 1591 edition, and two of 1596). For The Shepheardes Calender, that means thirty-five quartos: seven each of the 1579, 1581, 1586, 1591, and 1597 editions. Plus 1 copy of the 1611 folio, bringing the number to 36 copies. Early on, we selected the number seven based on two criteria: bibliographers recommend this number for an authoritative collation; and seven copies of our base text, the 1579 edition, just happen to be extant. We continue to execute this collation-plan across the printed Spenser canon. 

As indicated by our six-volume structure, we organize the new Oxford edition around the printing history of Spenser’s works. This structure differs from the earlier model, exhibited in Smith and de Sélincourt, of beginning an edition with The Faerie Queene and then tagging a volume on devoted to the ‘minor poems’. It also differs from the practice of the past thirty to forty years, of printing The Faerie Queene and the ‘shorter poems’ in separate editions. Our edition aims to track the works of Spenser historically, as they appear in print between 1569 and 1633. This rubric is original to the concept of a Spenser edition, and is designed to feature both an author who controls his publications and one whose publications are brought into print by others. Our model, in other words, prints the early modern conundrum of an author who is at once individuated and collaborative.

The collation we have done—and continue to do—changes the Spenser text more than you might imagine. Yet communicating this phenomenon readily is tricky. On the one hand, readers will recognize the texts we print; for most of the works, there are no big surprises, no major discoveries, no new texts (yet Joe Loewenstein thinks he has unearthed traces of the first draft of one of the most-read eclogues in The Shepheardes Calender. Stay tuned). For the most part, then, we think readers will find themselves at home in the texts we print. On the other hand, the texts will all be brand new. In part, the reason is that the textual situation for most if not all of Spenser’s works is complex in detail. The other reason has to do with the particular principles we have adopted for printing our text, principles in keeping with various versions of modern bibliographical practice but that, carried out in a single edition, are nonetheless idiosyncratic.

To illustrate the minute yet nonetheless important decision-making required across the Spenser canon, let us take a single example from the Calender. Here is the text printed by Smith and de Sélincourt for E.K.’s Glosse on ‘Saxon king’ at September 151 – the peculiar spacing printed in the first line after the phrase ‘the yeare of our Lorde’ being anomalous for a book that justifies the right-margin:

(September Glosse 50-55)

As de Sélincourt notes, in part with reference to the terminal space appearing at the end of the first line, in part with reference to logic: ‘Date omitted in Qq., F’ (1910: 95n) — meaning that neither the five quartos nor the folio inserts the date when Edgar was king. De Sélincourt even reproduces the space more glaringly than 1579, highlighting the blank where the date should be. He makes other changes as well, such as upper-casing the ‘Which’ immediately following:

Saxon king) King Edgare, that reigned here in Brytanye in the yeare of our Lorde. Which king caused all the Wolves, whereof then was store in thys countrye, by a proper policie to be destroyed. So as never since that time, there have ben Wolves here founde, unlesse they were brought from other countryes. And therefore Hobbinoll rebuketh him of untruth, for saying there be Wolves in England. (Oxford 1910: 95)

The case affords a rare glimpse into the author’s/glossator’s compositional practice: he could not remember the date when King Edgar reigned, so he left a space to fill it in once he could check his source. The error goes uncorrected in all early editions, although intriguingly, starting in 1581, the empty space gets closed up (albeit strangely in 1586, as if the compositor did not quite know what to do; for, unlike 1581, 1591, and 1597, 1586 allows some erratic spacing to emerge).

Readers might also be interested to know the practice of recent editions: the Yale Oram edition also leaves the blank space, but it does not upper-case ‘which’; and the Penguin McCabe edition follows suit. In contrast, the Variorum closes the space up, concealing the problem. 

Did you know that The Shepheardes Calender is the most complex poem in the Spenser canon bibliographically? (The Vewe is the most complex work). The Calender has nearly driven us to distraction. I say ‘us’ because Joe Loewenstein, as General Textual Editor, has been using his Washington University team to go over practically every facet of the text with a fine-tooth comb — not an easy task, since the text’s complexities require more than a single type of comb. I started collating the Calender in the fall of 2001 in Oxford, England, since I followed scholarly tradition in using the Bodleian copy of 1579 as our base text, and I just happened to be on sabbatical in Oxford. I did not finish collating my 35 copies of the five early editions until 2007. Since then, ten more years have passed. Seventeen years.

In case it interests you, for the 1579 edition alone we have found eighteen different categories of error, including 9 typos, 9 upside-down letters, 2 reversed letters, 7 dropped letters, 2 repeated words, 1 dropped word, and 1 dropped speech-prefix. Altogether, we identify nearly 90 such errors in 1579. These categories do not cover some dozen or sixteen cruxes, such as whether (1) to follow 1579 in printing ‘carelesse’ at August 104, when Willye complains to Perigot during their singing contest,

love is a carelesse sorrowe

or (2) to follow the Bathurst Latin edition of 1653 in printing

love is a curelesse sorrowe.

The editorial decision here has something at stake, since, as our Comment reports, the line ‘Pinpoints a key question raised by the eclogue, both here and regarding Colin’s sestina: can singing about unfulfilled desire be therapeutic (“find salve”)?’ While all modern editions follow Bathurst in printing ‘curelesse sorrowe’ (after all, this reading makes sense), we do not want the original to sink into oblivion, since ‘carelesse’ might mean ‘Uncared for’ (the OED cites Marlowe’s 1593 Hero and Leander as its first instance, but one lesson we have learned is that the OED is often late in dating word-origins. Early Print is more reliable).

Some readers have heard of the Comet. The Comet is the portable optical collator invented by Carter Hailey, and has been the preferred collator of the Spenser team. To ‘ride’ the Comet, all you need are two mirrors mounted on stands, a copy of the rare book you’re collating lying open on the table (such as the 1579 Huntington copy of the Calender), and a photocopy of your base-text on a nearby book-stand (in my case, the 1579 Bodleian copy, courteously provided by Richard McCabe, and checked against the original book). Then, since the Bodleian held copies of the other four early editions, I used photocopies it made for me of 1581, 1586, 1591, and 1597 to collate book-copies at a total of eight other libraries: the British Library in London; the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge; the University Library in Cambridge; the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC; the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; the Ransom Library in Austin, Texas; the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City; and the Newberry Library in Chicago (each of the General Editors has a similar travel-story to tell).

Early on, to determine which libraries held which copies, we assembled a detailed Finding List, which we now have online, constituting the most detailed bibliographic record of Spenser works ever assembled (in prose or rhyme). The FL, as we call it, includes some 1509 different copies of Spenser’s works, and allows access to individual copies via several categories, the most important to mention here being two: Repositories, of which there are 264 around the world (e.g., Penn State holds the following 6 copies: 1596 FQ, 1611 Works, 1679 Works, 1715 Works, 1732 Calendarium Pastorale, 1758 FQ); and Extant Witnesses, which includes for each witness such information as Repository, Edition, Shelfmark, STC number, Publisher, Publication Location, and Date. At some point, we will make the FL available to the Spenser community. It remains the foundation of all we do, and was among the first tasks we undertook.

Despite the metaphor of ‘The Comet’, the collation process has not been a single trajectory. Only recently, for instance, our team discovered a few new variants for the Calender, which my work on the Comet managed to fly by. Consequently, we are confident that subsequent years will add to our findings, and we would like readers to know that our electronic edition makes changes readily accessible. In fact, readers will have the opportunity to submit any updates they have or errors they find. You might also like to know that the online edition will be open-access, meaning that it will be free to the world-community – the result of early negotiations with OUP that shows their generosity and willingness to take on risk to support scholarship. 

We hope the Spenser community will find our electronic edition not merely useful but fascinating. It’s an impressive achievement, the product of many years of work at Wash U and the University of South Carolina, where Joe and David have done a heroic job, both at securing funding for an expensive project (thanks to both universities, and to Penn State, for so much help) and at organizing colleagues and students (both grad and undergrad) to work on our behalf (Joe even runs a Summer Camp for new students signing up to work on the Spenser edition).

Let me tell you a little bit about what you can expect to find. The OET hardback edition will be expensive – no doubt a must for research libraries around the world but a strain for many individuals. We hope a paperback version will become available, and the Press will almost certainly make the hardback available as an e-book (not to be confused with the electronic edition described below). In addition to a general textual introduction to the edition as a whole, written by Loewenstein, each of the six volumes will print a work or series of works with a set apparatus: a critical introduction; a textual introduction; a newly edited text; detailed collation notes; glosses on difficult words; and a detailed commentary. In keeping with OET series guidelines, the hardback edition will feature a single-column text, collation notes at the bottom of the page, and commentary at the back. To this format, we add word-glosses in the margin (taking the reader-friendly cue of the Norton edition).

The electronic edition renders this format robust, and helps explain why the Oxford Spenser has been so long in the making. There will be nothing else like it. First, over many years we have compiled an ever-evolving Editorial Manual (which, in a print-version, would likely weigh in at some 50 pages; the document has been indispensable to a project in which five editors need to conform to a single style). For each work, we supply access to several categories of information: not merely a critical introduction and a textual introduction but a forme-state analysis; an inter-edition collation (if more than one edition exists for the work, as it does for the Calender); a photographic reproduction of our electronic copy text; a set of image analogues (again, if pertinent, as for the Calender, with its twelve woodcuts); and (the heart of the matter) the text and commentary. (We will also provide multiple scan sets in our scan library, which will continue to grow.) Specifically, for each work we will also provide several views of every text: a diplomatic transcription; a conservatively edited text (preserving the original uses of u/v, i/j, etc.) that will match the printed text; a normalized text that makes a few systematic transformations that will make the text more accessible to inexperienced modern readers without compromising its original alterity; and (for the amateur editor) the capacity to apply or suppress granular features of any of these views, so that, for example, the reader can take the ‘Oxford’ text and modernize u/v and i/j, or suppress all emendations, or expand abbreviations. 

Let us take The Shepheardes Calender as an example of what you will find for each of the above categories. My critical introduction runs to over 50 pages of typescript, and aims to offer a historical overview of the 1579 book, as well as supply a detailed critical intervention. The textual introduction, which may turn out to be the most detailed of the entire edition, runs to some 40 pages, and constitutes the most detail assembled on the complex bibliography of this work. The forme-state analysis (a sorting of variant states of the text organized by printed forme) assembles in one place the twelve variants we have found across the seven copies of 1579 according to formes (only some of the variants have been identified by previous editions). The inter-edition collation is arguably the most revolutionary, because it reproduces our text of the Calender but then offers viewers nineteen different categories of textual data, which you can click on to see how the edition highlights them, such as for variations in punctuation, capitalization, and spacing (across all the early editions). The eclectic copy text reproduces photographic images of all pages of the book, selecting those pages we have chosen as clear examples among the seven copies extant, whenever you want to see the original text or one of its versions; and the scans of individual pages are linked, signature by signature, to the online text. The image analysis reprints images that bear on the Calender woodcuts, such as those from the 1529 Le Grand Calendrier de Bergers. The text and commentary are indeed the centerpiece of the edition. Viewers will be able to click on words, phrases, and passages to see pop-up windows showing our detailed commentary.

For the eighteen parts that make up our edition of the Calender book—title page, dedicatory Epistle, General Argument, twelve eclogues, epilogue, and colophon—we offer a detailed headnote (modeled on McCabe’s Penguin edition). The headnotes serve as mini-introductions to the individual parts of the book, and are designed to complement both the critical introduction and the textual introduction.

During the past twenty years, we have become indebted to a lot of people. We especially wish to thank our Editorial Board: Nicholas Canny; Helen Cooper; Patricia Coughlan; David Gants; Andrew Hadfield; the late A.C. Hamilton; David Scott Kastan; Richard A. McCabe; and Anne Lake Prescott.  The number of people involved in the edition—from students to colleagues to administrators—spread over twenty years at five universities, forms a small yet loyal Spenserian nation. We are grateful to them all, and grateful to The Spenser Review for giving us this opportunity to share with readers the once and ever forthcoming Oxford Edition of the Collected Works of Edmund Spenser.*

* Thanks to Elizabeth Fowler, Joseph Loewenstein, David Lee Miller, and Andrew Zurcher for their help in completing this essay.


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Cite as:

Patrick Cheney, "The Oxford Spenser Edition: An Update," Spenser Review 48.1.5 (Winter 2018). Accessed May 22nd, 2018.
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