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How to Read and Interpret Manuscripts

Professor Sally Bushell from Lancaster University, introduces us to the study of Wordsworths's manuscripts and explains what we can learn from them.
So far in this MOOC, Simon has been introducing you to Wordsworth’s poetry and Jeff to some of the treasures of the Wordsworth Trust. What I’m going to do today is think about how a scholar responds to those materials, how we read them and interpret them and bring them to life. In an earlier period, writers might have published their work and then destroyed the manuscripts, not valuing those materials in any particular way. In the Romantic period, this changes. Writers are beginning to value the creative process, the imagination, and the origins of their works. And Wordsworth is a great example of that.
For this reason, many of his manuscripts survive, and 90% of them are held here in the Jerwood Centre at Dove Cottage Grasmere. Up until the middle of the 20th century, if you wanted to read Wordsworth’s draft materials, you’d have to come here to Dove Cottage. However, in the 1970s, American scholars led by Stephen Parrish undertook a massive editing project called the Cornell Project for Wordsworth. And those multi-volume editions set out to present all of Wordsworth’s materials from its earliest state right through to the published text across all the poems. This edition makes Wordsworth’s materials far more accessible to academics and scholars and students all around the world.
And you’ll find those volumes in almost all university libraries in the UK and America. Let’s look inside a particular volume for the two-part Prelude and see how the Cornell text can help us to interpret the manuscript.
Firstly, then, it gives us a really detailed editorial introduction with loads of information about the poem. And in this case, where we have the different spots of time within the text, the different orderings and how these change over time as the poem develops, so an excellent introduction that really gives us a lot of specialist information. Secondly, a clean reading text for the poem. Now, many of the Cornell volumes are presenting to the world unpublished material that only exists in a manuscript form. So it’s essential that they give you a reading text. And this is also true for the two-part Prelude.
Thirdly– and this is where it becomes very useful for me as a scholar– they present us with a facsimile of the actual manuscript page itself and a transcription. And the transcription, in a way, is the most valuable part of the scholarly edition. If the writer’s handwriting is incredibly difficult to read, if it’s written in pencil, as it is for example on this page, it would take you a long, long time to read that page and make sense of it by yourself. But with the transcription right next door to it, you can do a lot more interpretive work a lot quicker than you would otherwise be able to do.
So the transcription is the most valuable part as a scholar of the edition. So I’m going to turn from the Cornell edition of the two-part Prelude to the first manuscript in which it appears. You’ve already looked at this manuscript once with Jeff, but I’m returning to it now to show you how I would deal with it and what I will be doing with it. So the first thing you’d want to know is, when was it written? When was it made? And this manuscript we know was a little hard-bound book, hardcover book, that the Wordsworths took with them to Goslar, Germany, in the winter of 1798. What is inside the contents of the book?
When we look inside, we see a whole range of different materials in different hands. So the first entry starts with Dorothy describing a visit to Klopstock, the poet. Mr Klopstock took us to see his bother, so that’s an account of their visit in Hamburg in Germany. The second block of writing, again from Dorothy, “We quitted Hamburg on Wednesday evening at 5 o’clock,” and so on. She’s writing a bit of travel writing about where they’re going. As we go on further into the notebook, we find pages that just have verbs, German verbs, written down. Obviously they’re trying to learn the language whilst they’re living in Germany.
Now, the whole middle section here is filled up with Dorothy’s journal from 1802, and I’ll talk about that again in a minute. And then right at the back, working from the back inwards, we have William’s first draft for The Prelude. Now, this manuscript has two names, if you like, within the collection. DCMS 19– Dove Cottage MS 19– which is its value within the whole collection. Where does it occur within the whole manuscript collection. And also MSJJ, which is its value to The Prelude. Now, you might think, OK, The Prelude manuscripts are numbered MSA, MSB, MSC, MSD. So why have I got MSJJ for the earliest Prelude manuscript?
The reason that we have this comes back to this little sticker on the front saying diaries on the front of this notebook. Because it said diaries, Wordsworth’s first major editor, Ernest de Selincourt, overlooked this manuscript. So when he brought out in 1926 a big parallel text edition of The Prelude, he did not include the very earliest surviving manuscript. And that’s because of the doubled identity of this notebook. It’s both Dorothy’s journals in the middle section and it’s also the earliest version of The Prelude. And this also tells us something about the cost of paper in the 19th century, early 19th century, that the notebook is half filled. It’s been filled at the front. It’s been filled at the back.
And four years later, Dorothy comes back and uses it again and fills it up in the middle in 1802. So we’ve thought a bit about the materiality of the manuscript, how it was made, what it contains, the overall notebook, if you like. What I want to do now is just to focus in on a particular section inside the back cover, where The Prelude is being entered from the back forwards into the notebook. The various reasons for this– and we can speculate about– my personal view would be Wordsworth’s very insecure. He’s not sure what he’s writing, and so he writes in a very tentative way in the back of the notebook.
And I’m going to look at page ZV, where I’m just going to explain to you the difference between the recto and verso page. Now, when you’re reading a printed book, an ordinary book, how do you work out where you are in that book? You use the contents page. You use the index, and you use the page numbers. If you took the page numbers out of an ordinary book that you’re reading every day, you will immediately find it very, very hard to find your way around the book. And that’s a basic difference but a fundamental difference between manuscripts and books. There are no page numbers.
So if you come to a manuscript cold as an editor and you know nothing about it, you’ve got to be very, very careful that you’ve counted the number of pages accurately and your numbering is correct. Otherwise, everything you say is going to be about the wrong page. Now, luckily for us, we have the Cornell editions, and they’ve numbered those pages. And we can identify by checking the facsimile against the actual manuscript page that we’re on the right page. Again, another way, invaluable way, in which Cornell helps us. In a manuscript, then, we call the right-hand page the recto, and that basically means the front of the leaf, the recto page.
And we call the back of the leaf the verso, the verso page, reverse. OK, so we talk about 3R or 1R, it means the recto page. And 2V would mean the verso page. V for Verso, R for Recto. So I’m actually looking at the very, very last page of the notebook, which is the first page going forwards for The Prelude because he’s writing inwards from the back– bit confusing. And this is called ZV, this page. And what I’m going to do, I’m just going to use the Cornell edition to help me to check that I read correctly some of the entry from the top of the page to give you a feel of what the text feels like.
The text feels different. The object feels different. Everything is different from a printed book. So reading from the top of ZV, “Inspiration, a mild creative breeze, a gentle inspiration, a vital breeze that passes gently on oer things which it has made and soon becomes a tempest, a redundant energy that sweeps the waters and the mountain power, creating not but as it may disturbing things created. A storm not terrible but strong, with lights and shades and with a rushing power, with loveliness and power.” So even from that very short extract, you can feel the kind of repetitions. Lines are being repeated, tried out, and different kind of structures are being created.
And if you look on that page, you can see that you’ve got little sections of text being entered. They’re being entered in a very rough hand. The lines aren’t straight. The handwriting isn’t straight. It’s up and down. There are no titles. There’s no punctuation. Looking at that page as a whole, even if you didn’t read any of the words on it then, you would know this is a first draft text. This is a very early attempt at the poem. And again, that gives it a lot of status for us as a manuscript.
So, what I’ve been trying to do today is to give you a taste of what it feels like to work with manuscripts, and also a sense of how it’s not just about looking at where did the published text come from. It’s also about how did these materials come about and about respecting and enjoying the uniqueness of the manuscript page.

A key feature of this course is the opportunity to examine the manuscripts of Wordsworth’s poetry, 90% of which are held in the Jerwood Centre, Grasmere.

In this video, Professor Sally Bushell – one of the world’s leading experts on Wordsworth scholars – introduces us to the study of manuscripts and explains what we can learn from them.

While watching this film you may like to take notes – it will be followed in the next step by a quiz.

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