Field Notes from the Folger

by Betty Schellenberg

October 03, 2019

I am on a one-year study leave from teaching, which is allowing me to travel to farflung archives for my new project: researching manuscript books of poetry created by ordinary, now-unknown folks in the eighteenth century. For the month of September, I was awarded an American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies fellowship to work at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. Henry Folger inherited an oil fortune and was a believer in the valuable foundation Shakespeare’s writings could provide for civic and cultural life in America. So in 1932 he and his wife Emily put their fortune to work to build a monumental marble building located kitty-corner from the U.S. Supreme Court building and a block from the Capitol building. In this prime location, nestled against the Library of Congress, the Folgers filled an Elizabethan-style set of rooms with any sort of book, manuscript, painting, or other object that could be remotely connected to Shakespeare and to famous actors and productions of his plays. Now scholars from around the world gather here to study books and manuscripts from Renaissance England and beyond.

In the lively research community of the Folger, I met scholars researching recipes for sleeping potions, a French novel about hermaphrodites that satirizes state violence, artists’ handwritten painting manuals, food insecurity in the Renaissance, and slavery in Scotland during the 1745 Rebellion. My own research led me to look at about 50 handwritten books created between 1700 and 1820. A few of them were just notebooks full of lists or commonplace books – that is, books in which people would copy out and organize sayings or facts that they wanted to remember. But the ones I focused on were carefully curated collections of poems that their compiler had selected from magazines and books. Interspersed among these copied poems would be original ones by the compiler or her/his social circle. These original pieces could be birthday poems, poems on the death of a pet, or maybe parodies of famous works like Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” One discovery for me has been that people weren’t necessarily interested in the poetry that we now consider “great,” or canonical. They did love Gray’s “Elegy,” but they also really loved a poem about breaking a china drinking mug, or a sad farewell written by a dying wife to her faraway husband, or an “equivocal” poem that could be read two ways – depending on whether you read the lines consecutively or alternately – either as praise for Britain’s current king or allegiance to the deposed Jacobite line. All three of these poems show up in numerous collections, just as the year’s most popular songs would appear on numerous personal playlists now.

Folger ms M.a.174 pp. 88-89

Some of these books are also very pretty – they are written in beautiful scripts, often with calligraphic elements or drawings, and lots of white space.

Folger ms M.a.116 p.78 detail

Their compilers might have second thoughts, writing “grand nonsense, scratch it out” under a crossed-out poem.

Folger ms M.a.182 p.125

In some cases wine stains or bookmarks show that these books were read and re-read.

Folger ms M.a.186 pp.450-51

The more you study one of these books, the more it tells you – about the person who put it together, about what people celebrated and mourned and what they did for fun, and about how integrated poetry was into their everyday lives.