ON SOME MORNINGS this past July all seats were taken before noon in the Manuscripts Room of the British Library. As a result and for the rest of the day anxious scholars paced the aisles waiting for ensconced readers to leave. I witnessed this sorry spectacle with a sense of melancholy tempered only by the realization that it was caused at least in part by the growing interest in manuscripts that has emerged in Renaissance literary studies over the past decade or so. Granted, not all seats in the Manuscripts Room were occupied by students of Renaissance poetry, yet some of them were, and overall, the seating crisis bodes well, I think, for what we can hope to learn in the near future about verse in Renaissance English manuscripts.
Study of this great body of poetry is easier today than ever before and it will soon become easier still. Archival catalogs that enumerate the contents of manuscript collections such as those at the British Library and Public Record Office (National Archives) are increasingly accessible online. Comprehensive reference works also expand our ability to locate individual poems. Margaret Crum's First-Line Index of Manuscript Poetry in the Bodleian Library (1969) was joined in 1998 by a microfiche edition of the First Line Indexes of Manuscript Poetry in the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Huntington Library. This catalog gives users a corresponding ability to locate transcribed verse at two major United States libraries. (1) In addition, substantial first-line indexes are available on-site for locating manuscript poems at the British Library and in the Osborn collection at Yale University's Beinecke Library. (2) Peter J. Seng's "Index to English Language Manuscript Verse" offers similar control over holdings of the Houghton Library at Harvard, while poems in the Brotherton Collection at the University of Leeds are indexed online at www.leeds.ac.uk/spcoll/bcmsv/intro.html. Finally, manuscript poetry at the Rosenbach Library, Philadelphia, can be searched with Edwin Wolf's unique rhyme-word index on cards that, again, must be consulted on-site.
The early Tudor poetry in all of these collections (and many others) is thoroughly analyzed for the most part in William A. Ringler's Bibliography and Index of English Verse in Manuscript 1501-1558. (3) This extensively cross-indexed work will be expanded to cover the rest of the Tudor age in 2004 with publication of Elizabethan Poetry: A Bibliography and First-Index of English Verse 1559-1603. In all, the Ringler indexes will provide scholars with control over more than thirty-eight thousand different poems, about one-third of which survive in manuscript sources. The Ringler indexes are, however, limited by transcription date to the period 1501-1603. For a broad range of manuscript works by individual Renaissance poets, texts of whatever date are cataloged in the first two parts of Peter Beal's Index of English Literary Manuscripts (1475-1700).
Scholarly opportunities in the field of manuscript poetry center on two primary venues: editions of poetry from manuscript sources and the analysis and editing of the manuscripts themselves as records of cultural history and poetic taste. Until very recently editors of Renaissance poets selected manuscripts as copy texts with great reluctance if at all. Helen E. Sandison based her edition of the Poems of Sir Arthur Gorges on British Library Egerton MS 3165, and P. J. Croft, his edition of the Poems of Robert Sidney on British Library Add. MS 58435 (4) because they had no other options. The latter manuscript is holograph and all its texts are unique copies, while Gorges personally supervised the compilation of the predominantly unique works in the Egerton anthology. No printed editions were available to supply copy for either poet. For authors whose works have survived in both print and manuscript, however, the editorial principles enunciated for Donne's poetry by Sir Herbert Grierson in 1912 held the field for most of the twentieth century. …