CHWP A.5 Bear, "'The Lady of May' and the Rhetoric of Electronic Text"

"The Lady of May" in Print

At the University of Oregon I am experimenting with design of electronic texts suitable for teaching use. They are of varying length and complexity, from Philip Sidney's pageant known as "The Lady of May" (Sidney 1996) to Edmund Spenser's epic Faerie Queene (Spenser 1995). As techniques become available, they are tested first on shorter works, and then, if proven useful, applied to longer ones. The "Lady of May" is a handy test bed. In effect a one-act play, it contains a variety of design elements. It also interests students of literature and history, as it contains decent poetry, much humour and some characterization, and was performed before Queen Elizabeth I, whose presence was material to the progress of its plot. There is also a liberal sprinkling of obscure Latin phrases throughout, which need elucidation; this helps to motivate experiments with hypertextual notation.

"The Lady of May", performed in 1578, would perhaps have been lost to posterity but for the fame of its young author, killed at Zutphen in 1586. Interest in his writings remained strong throughout the 1590s, and a version of the pageant was accordingly appended to the 1598 edition, and subsequent editions, of the popular and frequently reprinted prose work, Arcadia. A facsimile of the first page of the 1605 edition shows the style of printing of the time (Figure 1; Sidney 1605: 570). The iconographic conventions of the page are, despite the intervening centuries, largely familiar to us and would also have been familiar to medieval scribes. The header or title is long by our standards but presents the sixteenth century compositor with an opportunity to set centred lines of descending type size and length, a usually pleasing effect harking back to manuscript book design. Also of venerable origin is the ornate initial letter at the head of the main matter of the text. Some of the conventions have been abandoned in the centuries since: here, j is not yet in general use, and is still represented with i, use of u for v within words, or use of v for u at the beginning of words, is still common. Spelling is richly variable: reape, sweete, formallie. Note also the convention of printing verse in italic. Throughout much of the history of text, as here, economics does battle with legibility for the upper hand in design: for legibility, white paper and black ink serve to produce sufficient contrast to distinguish type easily, and type design has improved over the black letter (gothic type) in common use a few decades earlier. On the other hand, economics has led to the use of smaller type sizes [1] than formerly, and little white space is left between the blocks of text. The wide margins (not shown) are a product more of technological than aesthetic considerations: the presses could not produce more than four folio pages per impression, so these had to be grouped together in a rectangular pattern near the centre of the sheet to facilitate a consistent impression from the available hand-operated wooden press. When folded and sewn, the folios show a text-page closer to the gutter than to the outside of the page, and closer to the top than to the bottom.

Over the years, as printing technology has changed from hand platen presses to mechanically driven rotary presses and on to photo-offset lithography, the technical requirement for traditional page placement has been rendered obsolete, yet the tradition itself has force, and non-traditional designs, while offering a momentary exhilaration of freedom, generally have become quickly dated, while the old standard page remains. This may be due to what George Landow calls the rhetoric of arrival and the rhetoric of departure (1991: 82). Communication depends for success on the relative absence of elements that have little or nothing to do with the idea to be communicated; standardization of textual elements, from grammar and style to the use of titles, headings, running heads, and folio numbers, is intended to reduce the energy expended by the reader in extracting information from the page (Carlson 1989: 6). Serious deviations from tradition pose problems for the reader. The text in Figure 1 is four centuries old, yet we know our way around in it; it is familiar territory and we know where to enter and where to exit.

Figure 2 shows the opening page of "The Lady of May" in a copy of The / Miscellaneous Works / of Sir Philip Sidney, knt. / With A life of the Author and Illustrative Notes / By William Gray, Esq. / Of Magdalen College, and the Inner Temple, dated 1860 (Sidney 1860: 265). The rhetoric of scholarship in the nineteenth century frequently called for florid titles and titled editors. Editing, at that time, implied active and frequent intervention; the effects of Mr. Gray's heavy hand can be seen. Note the updated spelling on the page and the changed punctuation, especially the exclamation points sprinkled throughout. The passage used in the sixteenth century for a title has been dropped into an introductory note in six-point type, and a new title, which has come into usage in the intervening years, is offered without explanation. The archaism of the piece is marked by its being given an ornate dropped initial, as before, and also a headpiece, a device which was used in Sidney's time though the folio editions of our text lack one. The editor seeks to isolate the narrator's voice in small type, giving to the text more of the conventions of a play-book than its original warrants. These changes might loom large in the mind of an editor, but to the average reader, not much has happened to the text. Page design basics have not really been tampered with. The compositor in the shop which produced this artifact lived by much the same rules as those who produced our 1605 edition. The technology also remains relatively little changed after 255 years: the book is laboriously composed in hand-set types as before, though the press in this case is probably a rotary press, powered by steam, using stereotype plates produced from the galleys of type, an economical advance in book production.

Figure 3 shows a Cambridge UP edition from 1962 (Sidney 1962: 205; actually the Feuillerat edition of 1912); 102 more years have passed, and editorial conventions have changed, albeit very slowly. The publishers caution that the editor had not the best copy texts or manuscripts available, yet reprint his assertion that the text is reproduced without any deviations from the originals in the matter of spelling or punctuation. The page before us shows that much of the spelling and punctuation has in fact been restored, though the sixteenth century usage of u for v within words, v for u at the beginnings of words, and of i for j throughout, have not. Feuillerat is uncomfortable with the late title ("The Lady of May") but evidently feels it must be included, and so it appears here within square brackets, and as a running head. This shows that by 1912 the instability of text has been noted (McGann 1991: 182), and editorial practices instituted to stem the flow of blood, so to speak. The first three lines of the sixteenth century title have been restored, centered, in descending type sizes, perhaps as a bit of archaism to set the mood, but the rest have been moved into page-width justified text, as if they were the beginning of the main matter. The main matter is still signified, however, by the use of a dropped initial -- no longer ornate, but simply a larger type size of the same font. Gone is the headpiece, and the entire design has been constructed from a single typeface in various sizes depending upon usage. Although it does not show here, this is a scholarly edition in that variants have been recorded; they are appended at the end, by page number and by line number on the page.

The printing technology in use here is offset lithography, albeit from plates photographed from the edition of 1912, which was composed on the Monotype machine, with titles set by hand, and printed by letterpress from stereotypes as in 1860. That the Cambridge publishers have reprinted, with only their own preface and a bit of Feuillerat's, the entire 1912 edition is a sign that the overall book plan, page design, and type style are deemed adequate for a new printing after fifty years! The agreements on arrivals and departures made centuries ago between those responsible for producing texts and those who read them remain extremely stable, even though lithography makes possible complete freedom in page design, and regardless of the instability of text itself.

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[1] Figure 1 is reduced from a large folio page, but even for a folio the types are relatively small.