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Erin A. McCarthy, Doubtful Readers: Print, Poetry, and the Reading Public in Early Modern England
by Amy Lidster

Erin A. McCarthy, Doubtful Readers: Print, Poetry, and the Reading Public in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 277pp. ISBN: 9780198836476. £63.00 hardback.


Erin A. McCarthy’s Doubtful Readers: Print, Poetry, and the Reading Public in Early Modern England is a significant book that makes a bold claim about the influence of publishers and the publication process on the construction of expectations for poetry, authors’ biographies, and canons. It sits alongside other important work in bibliography and book history, including monographs by Zachary Lesser (2004), Adam G. Hooks (2016), and Kirk Melnikoff (2018), by showing how the questions asked by textual scholars should decisively shape our ways of reading and approaching early modern texts. In common with these studies, Doubtful Readers takes books rather than texts as its focus, and through four chronological case studies extending from the 1590s to the Restoration argues that the publication process and the material forms of books mediate both early modern and modern views of poetry and poetic lives. Indeed, ‘mediate’ is a key term for McCarthy, which is a welcome alternative to notions of stigma that have a long critical history: stigma of print (Edward Arber/Arthur F. Marotti), stigma of verse (Steven W. May), stigma of the populist (Adam Smyth), and stigma of printed verse (Daniel Starza Smith). In contrast, McCarthy’s approach – both in the negotiation of this concept and in the overarching argument of Doubtful Readers – is to take a step back. Rather than offer a single narrative of poetry’s development and proliferation in print, the book balances multiple agencies and places the negotiation of poetry and its reading public within a broader context of mediation. This approach is a fruitful one and allows McCarthy to offer some fresh perspectives on well-studied texts, such as Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609) and John Donne’s Poems (1633 and 1635), as well as lesser-studied ones, including The Passionate Pilgrim (1599) and Aemilia Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611). While the introduction claims that Doubtful Readers will not focus much attention on authors’ desires and (my emphasis) agency in the publication of their poetry, instead favouring the work of non-authorial agents, this separation of agency is, helpfully, not sustained in the main discussion when it is clear – as in the case of Lanyer’s poetry – that the author was involved in the process. Interweaving an evaluation of manuscript circulation with the print publication of poetry books, Doubtful Readers is cleverly divided into two parts: the first considers books for which there is no extant manuscript witness for comparison, while the second part examines the printed collections of poetry alongside manuscript witnesses.

While Chapters 2 to 4 offer case studies, Chapter 1 takes a broader approach to consider the reading public in early modern England and the attitudes of authors, publication agents, and readers towards the print transmission of poetry. It covers important ground and complements the contextualising discussions offered in the introduction that, for example, survey authors’ rights (or lack of) over the printing of their work and the roles of stationers in this process. Within a book that contains two chapters about Donne, whose antipathy towards the print publication of his poetry is well known, Chapter 1 offers an effective and unexpected counterpoint through three well-chosen comments from Michael Drayton in Poly-Olbion (1612 and 1622) and The Battaile of Agincourt (1627), which express Drayton’s enthusiasm for print and probably offer oblique criticism of the recalcitrant Donne. Furthering the book’s argument about the control that the publication process exercises over the interpretation of a book, this chapter examines the kinds of paratextual materials – addresses, arguments, images, and printed marginalia – that appear with some regularity in poetry books. These materials aim to direct readers’ interpretations and, as McCarthy carefully shows, they reveal and respond to a prevailing concern among authors and stationers about the misinterpretation of poetry. The chapter moves through two key approaches to reception: through the imagined reading public, constructed by paratexts, and through the real ‘audience’, who reads, handles, and sometimes leaves their (often frustratingly elusive) marks on the books themselves.

Chapter 2 offers an exciting comparison between William Jaggard’s publication of The Passionate Pilgrim (1599) and Thomas Thorpe’s edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609) which reappraises the former as an overlooked sonnet sequence that more closely matches the print conventions for this poetic form than the latter. The chapter begins with a helpful summary of the print history of sonnets and sonnet sequences in England, accompanied by a table of sequences printed between 1582 and 1632, which is an excellent resource for scholars and students alike. The chapter positions Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591) as a model for authorial presence in sonnet sequences (a familiar argument), but establishes Samuel Daniel’s Delia (1592) as an important paradigm for bibliographical conventions in the preparation of sequences in print. The layout of Daniel’s sequence – featuring one poem per page between decorative borders – was unprecedented in England. The chapter goes on to propose that The Passionate Pilgrim’s print presentation recalls these conventions – although, unlike Daniel’s, it is printed exclusively on the rectos, with the exception of the final two leaves. In contrast, Shakespeare’s Sonnets did not, as McCarthy argues, follow the bibliographical conventions for the sonnet sequence and marked itself as an outlier, which may have made the collection less successful – an argument that, as McCarthy acknowledges, requires caution in the evaluation of ‘success’ and ‘popularity’. The chapter offers a useful corrective that restores the self-standing significance of The Passionate Pilgrim, which is too often dismissed as insignificant or used to further a narrative of piracy and rogue stationers – a legacy of New Bibliography’s interest in this unusual collection. As McCarthy persuasively argues, The Passionate Pilgrim was instead ‘a real and significant part of Shakespeare’s poetic reputation’ (60) during the early modern period and beyond. While the two early editions of Romeo and Juliet (1597 and 1599) were anonymous and not, contrary to the claim on page 77, issued with a Shakespearean attribution, this slip does not compromise the section’s overall argument about the link between Romeo and Juliet and The Passionate Pilgrim (the title of which alludes to the play), as well as the collection’s participation in Shakespearean attribution (which is established by other play quartos).

McCarthy approaches Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, the focus of Chapter 3, by considering Lanyer’s and publisher Richard Bonian’s agency in the design and preparation of the edition – a critical precedent for this text. While most accounts of Lanyer’s poem(s) concentrate on the author’s rewriting of the biblical narrative and construction of a community of women writers, readers, and patrons, McCarthy directs some much-needed attention towards Bonian’s role. The chapter examines the book’s extensive paratextual apparatus (amounting to almost half of the total pages) through both Lanyer’s aims as a writer striving for some kind of patronage (in what could be described as a ‘preprofessional literary system’, 145) and Bonian’s investment in the book and interest in this same paratextual framework. McCarthy argues that Bonian played a key role in endorsing and presenting the paratexts, which – when taking account of the economies of publication, including the cost of paper – must have supported his publishing specialism in religious and elite texts. As a revealing counter-example, McCarthy briefly discusses publisher Humphrey Moseley’s objection to the index in the 1651 collection of William Cartwright’s works, because ‘the Book is bigger than we meant it’ (119). The importance of paratextual materials for authors and stationers alike is underlined through two further examples that reveal a ‘blurring of text and paratext’ (142): Thomas Coryate’s Crudities (1611) and Mary Fage’s Fames Roule (1637), which consists entirely of dedications. The chapter offers an important discussion about the concept of textual patronage in the book trade and its uncertain economies, and briefly raises the slippery question about what ‘professional’ writing is and when it began.

Chapter 4 explores how Donne’s poetic legacy and the interpretation of his work have been authorised by three material witnesses from the 1630s: publisher John Marriot’s two printed editions of Poems, by J. D. (1633 and 1635), and the O’Flahertie manuscript, a rare exemplum of a manuscript prepared for print publication. Donne criticism has depended on a view of the writer as ‘inherently double’ (145) – as the poet-lover and preacher – and accepted a trajectory of his poetic life that sees the secular and rakish ‘Jack Donne’ transformed into the religious and sober Doctor Donne. Chapter 4, in contrast, argues that Donne’s identity during his lifetime and in the years immediately after his death was up for grabs and that the Jack/Doctor binary is a product of Marriot’s preparation and presentation of the 1635 edition, which ‘indelibly altered our understanding of his career’ (181). McCarthy carefully examines each witness in turn, showing how they offer different readings of Donne’s poetic life and supporting the book’s overarching argument about the significance of the publication process (meaning, in this case, both manuscript and print) for the interpretation of poetry. Marriot’s earlier 1633 edition, for example, mixes religious and secular verse, resembling a manuscript compilation or miscellany, and its elegies propose three models for reading Donne, which McCarthy defines as the repentance model, the preparation model, and the continuity model. The O’Flahertie manuscript seems to have been prepared with print publication in mind and is divided into generic sections, leading with the Divine Poems. Marriot’s 1635 edition has, however, been the most influential and the chapter convincingly shows how this book, which begins with the Songs and Sonnets and ends with the Divine Poems, helped to construct the poetic life of Donne from lover to preacher, and how this narrative of transformation directs an interpretation of the poems in the collection.

Chapter 5 offers a change in pace and swiftly surveys a range of poetry collections by authors such as William Cartwright, Margaret Cavendish, Richard Crawshaw, John Hall, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, John Milton, Dudley North, and Henry Vaughan – many of whom were published by Moseley. Drawing on the previous chapter, it begins by proposing that Donne’s 1635 Poems initiated a ‘biographical conversion model’ that influenced how subsequent collections present their authors. It suggests that ideas of poetic authorship developed in response to Marriot’s 1635 edition and its presentation of ‘secular poetry as an early diversion in the author’s career’ (183). McCarthy’s method in this chapter – evaluating how publishers’ claims about the ‘authority’ of their texts are consequential marketing strategies that shape the interpretation of books and careers – is a refreshing alternative to an enduring critical interest in evaluating the veracity of these claims, an approach that tends to ignore their real significance and advance dubious claims about rogue stationers. In addition to the efforts of publishers, the chapter also considers, where relevant, authors’ agency and strategies for presenting and defending their own works. It proposes a narrative of response and development, beginning with the Donne editions during the 1630s, and is particularly convincing when it concentrates on the influence of a ‘poetic’ or ‘lyric’ collection’s organisational principles and paratexts on the interpretation of its poems and poetic lives. Herbert’s The Temple, published in 1633, offers a useful counterpoint to the ‘biographical conversion model’ seen in other collections through its rejection of secular poetry as ‘warm-up exercises’ (210) for poets. 

Doubtful Readers makes a virtue out of a critical approach of ‘multiples’: multiple agents, multiple agendas, and multiple textual witnesses underpin a timely method that challenges singular and entrenched critical narratives. It may, however, have been useful if a few of the book’s terms (‘lyric’, ‘professional poet’, ‘literary’, and the concept of ‘doubt’ and its application) were discussed in more detail, and specifically in light of how they are used and applied in this book. The introduction claims that ‘print publication played a key role in defining English lyric as a genre’ (9) and, while the malleability of this term is outlined briefly, it may have been helpful if the uses of ‘lyric’ in this study were explicitly outlined in connection to the main texts in each chapter, the notion of a poetic collection, and the ways in which the publication process has defined lyric poetry. To be sure, the difficulties – and undesirability – of fixed definitions make this issue a slippery and unresolvable one that is seen often in critical work on, for example, the uncertain use of ‘literary’ as a marker of ‘kinds’ and status. However, to my mind, it can be advantageous for the critic explicitly to position themselves alongside the multiple agents who shape, outline, and participate in defining these terms. Overall, Doubtful Readers is an essential study that makes book history and bibliography accessible and vital for scholars and students of early modern literature. Through an emphasis on the material book, its construction, and the agency behind it, this study offers fresh readings of a number of the poems it considers in detail and provides an important model for interweaving bibliography and literary criticism.


Amy Lidster

University of Oxford




  • Anna 6 months, 2 weeks ago

    As a student learning about literature and cultural history, poetry means for me the symphony of words that dances through my soul. It weaves my emotions and experiences into beauty and depth. I really feel how each verse is a brushstroke on the canvas of my imagination, painting vivid pictures and invoking profound thoughts. Poetry expresses my innermost self, a sanctuary where I find solace and freedom. However, I have recently discovered where I've met a great persuasive essay writer. I understood that I like everything equal to creativity. So creative essays, on the other hand, offer a different avenue for my self-expression. They allow me to explore ideas, delve into research, and craft narratives that captivate readers. Both poetry and essays are channels through which I can share my thoughts and touch the hearts of others, and I am sure it is the same for many people who love art.

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Cite as:

Amy Lidster, "Erin A. McCarthy, Doubtful Readers: Print, Poetry, and the Reading Public in Early Modern England," Spenser Review 51.3.9 (Fall 2021). Accessed December 9th, 2023.
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