Reading, Interpretation, and the Reader-in-the-Text of Manuscript and Oral-Composition Poems

       Those of you who have studied New Criticism ("the text, itself!") and Reader-Response Criticism ("poems as processes in time") in English 215 can help us realize something important about English literature produced before print publication became the standard model for an author's works entering readers' lives.  Wyatt’s and Surrey’s manuscript circulation of their sonnets depends upon readers' insider knowledge of court intrigue for a full appreciation of the poem.  If we invoke either Wolfgang Iser's "horizon of interpretation" or E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s "horizon of expectations" to control what non-textual evidence we can bring to the text when construing its meaning and interpreting that meaning's significance, we still must confront the fact that Renaissance courtiers spoke and wrote in artful codes.  Alluding to Plato or to Machiavelli may make the poet one of their "party" or community of interpretation (Stanley Fish, another R-R critic).  Those who know Plato or Machiavelli well will be better able to read such a poem, or even simply able to read it, at all (construal rather than interpretation).  Then there was more commonly available non-textual information, that even Hirsch allows to enter from dictionaries, contemporaries' well-documented usage, etc.  For instance, when Wyatt, in "Mine Own John Poins" (ll. 50-51) refers scoffingly to one who might "Praise Sir Thopas for a noble tale, / And scorn the story that the Knight told," competent courtly readers would not have needed a Norton footnote to tell them that the poet and and his inscribed audience, John Poins, shared a common appreciation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

         Those kinds of community-supplied non-textual meanings can be re-supplied to manuscript or oral-tradition texts by the knowledgeable scholar with commonly available tools, like the Oxford English Dictionary, the Norton Anthology, and other scholarly editions of literature from earlier and contemporary authors.  For courtly readers in exceptionally close-knit communities of interpretation, however, poets might allude to far more esoteric, in-group knowledge.  A poem might be primarily intended for only one reader who would recognize herself from some seemingly meaningless detail in the text.  A poem might be intended for a small group of readers who would recognize themselves by the poem's reference to something they all carried about their persons and used to identify friends from enemies.  The poet might refer to his king, who prided himself upon his ability to write poetry and as a fighter in tournaments, by comments about a crow and a lion.  Once having called the king forth to the readers' minds, the same poet also might indirectly charge him with heinous moral vices by saying the poet could not be at court because he could not praise those very vices.  The more one knows the poets' contemporary world and its mentalities, the better one construes the poem, and the more relevant significance one can wrest from it against the force of devouring Time.

         Print publication changes the game, at first gradually, and then like a cultural freight train as literacy spreads and the number of printed books increases.  Printed texts tend to standardize the form of the text, imposing spelling and punctuation conventions that may or may not correspond to any individual manuscript's version.  In the case of courtly verse, poems' publication often is delayed until after the death of the poet, or even the deaths of anyone mentioned in the poems, or even their descendants.  The versions of the poems published by Tottel in 1557 have become safe enough to reproduce now that Henry's child by Anne Boleyn is on the throne.  Tottel still does not include the most biographically loaded Wyatt and Surrey poems ("Stand whoso list," "Who list his wealth and ease retain"), and he attributes the whole collection mainly to Surrey to avoid the Wyatt name, still tainted by Wyatt's son's rebellion against Queen Mary, but the whole sonnet-making-reading game has now become a public and national game, not just a secret and courtly one.

        From my English 230 (Classical Tradition) and Anglo-Saxon poetic perspective, this raises an important point about the interactive nature of poetic oral performance.   Oral-poetry audiences are part of the performance, and thereby part of the poem.  Think about Homer, or the Maldon or Beowulf poets, as they engage their circle of listeners with an oral-formulaic composition with no stable “text” but a strong tradition of audience-aware singing.  Live performance of literature can put “the poem” in a play space between poet and hearer so that the hearer can influence the song or performed poem.  Rock and roll concerts still do that when performers take requests, modify lyrics to respond to the audience’s response or the context in which they find themselves.  Once, on September 3, 1972, I saw and heard the Grateful Dead perform at Folsom Field, the University of Colorado sports stadium in Boulder.  It was a warm, sunny day, but when they got to “I Know You Rider” at the beginning of the third and last set, a fast-moving early fall shower turned to early winter snow flurries over the crowd just as they got to the last verse:

“I wish I was a headlight on a north-bound train
I wish I was a headlight on a north-bound train
I'd shine my light through the cool Colorado rain”

Garcia altered the well-known lyrics on the fly to “cool Colorado rain and snow” and the effect was like magic, as if the band controlled the weather with their song.

           Then there was the time in Gothenburg, Sweden, when Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, while playing "Twist and Shout," got the audience so involved making percussion effects to accent the lyrics' meter that they "broke the stadium."  Now do you understand Henry's fear?