Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'Came Errour Here by Mysse of Man': Editing and the Metaphysics of Presence

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'Came Errour Here by Mysse of Man': Editing and the Metaphysics of Presence

Article excerpt

'Je parle au papier.' (Montaigne)

I begin with a mid-sixteenth-century parable of textuality: Jasper Heywood's preface to his translation of Seneca's Thyestes, published in 1560. Heywood offers a personal story that will, I suppose, be familiar enough to most scholars. On a dreary November morning he sits reading, but he finds his 'pensiue thought | Deepe drownde in dumps of drousines'.[1] He succumbs to the ministrations of Morpheus: 'Downe I soonke my heauy head | and sleapt vppon my booke' (*v r). With his head resting upon the text, he begins to dream and his dream produces a fantasy vision of textuality. Having fallen asleep on a book, he also dreams of a book: a book borne in the hand of a stranger, someone who 'seemde' as if 'he had byn lodged long, | among the Muses nyne'. The stranger introduces himself as none other than Seneca and reveals to Heywood the purpose of his visit:

   Here I come to seeke some one
   that might renewe my name,
   And make me speake in stranger speech,
   and sette my woorks to sight,
   And skanne my verse in other tongue
   than I was woont to wright. (*vir)

Seneca, in other words, is seeking a translator and has fixed on Heywood as a likely candidate for the job.

Heywood demurs, initially indicating a fear of exposing himself to the vilifications of 'That Red heard, black mouthd, squint eyed wretch' (*viv), the critic. Beyond this, he modestly indicates a reluctance to take on work that he feels might more appropriately be assigned to someone 'of grauer age, | and [. . .] of greater skill' (*viir). He reinforces these two reasons with a third, explicitly textual argument, as he signals a profound unwillingness to enter into an engagement with the realm of print. Heywood explains to Seneca that he has been here before. He had already translated one of Seneca's plays (Troas) and it had been published in the previous year (1559) by the printer trading under the sign of the Hand and Star in Temple Bar. This was, of course, Richard Tottel, (in)famous for his Songes and Sonnettes, which had provided a collection of heavily emended poems by Wyatt, Surrey, and others, including Heywood's father, John. Heywood fils's experience with the printer is no happier than Heywood pe`re's may have been, as he reports:

   To printers hands I gaue the worke:
      by whome I had suche wrong,
   That though my selfe perusde their prooues
      the fyrst tyme, yet ere long
   When I was gone, they wolde agayne
      the print therof renewe,
   Corrupted all: in suche a sorte,
      that scant a sentence trewe
   Now flythe abroade as I it wrote. ([clover leaf]ir)

Seneca, as it happens, is able to sympathize with Heywood's concern. He too, he explains, has been the victim of the regime of print, which has forced him into a disjunction between intention and expression: 'Ofte what I yet neuer ment | they me enforce to speake' ([clover leaf]iv). One can only hope, Seneca suggests, that the reader may see that the author's true intent does not coincide with the text provided by the inevitably errant printer. 'Learned men', he tells Heywood, will recognize the disjunction and declare:

   Loe here the printer dooth him wrong,
      as easy is to trye:
   And slaunder dooth the authors name,
      and lewdly him belye ([clover leaf]iv).

If Heywood will agree to take on the task of translation, Seneca promises to provide him with direct advice and assistance ('I wil my selfe in these affayres, | a helper be to thee' ([clover leaf]iv)), a supernatural benefit that any translator might be happy to receive. But Seneca offers something more than just access to his own spectral presence. He also offers access to the volume that Heywood noticed in Seneca's hand when he first awoke into his textual dream, raising his head from the pages of the book he had been reading when he fell asleep. The contrast between that soporific earthly tome and the volume that Seneca now presents to him is great indeed. …

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