Textual Introduction

On 30 June 1580, Henry Bynneman entered the Spenser-Harvey Letters with the Stationers Company:

H. bynneman.
Receyued of him for three proper and wittie lettres passed betwene twoo vniuersitie men touchinge the earthequake vjd
Bynneman was a familiar figure for both Spenser and Gabriel Harvey. In 1569 he had printed the English Theatre for Worldlings by Jan van der Noot, for which Spenser had provided translations of three sets of poems, one by Petrarch, another by DuBellay, and the third by van der Noot himself. Harvey’s connection with Bynneman was deeper and more recent. In June of 1577, Bynneman had printed Harvey’s Ciceronianus, an oration on imitation (somewhat anti-Ciceronian in tendency) delivered at Cambridge in the spring of 1576; then, in November of 1577, Bynneman published Rhetor, an earlier Cambridge oration in two parts that Harvey had delivered in the spring of 1575, a pitch for Ramist rhetorical education.1 In 1578, a few months after publishing Ciceronianus and Rhetor, Bynneman published yet another book of Harvey’s, Smithus, a collection of Latin elegies in memory of Harvey’s erstwhile patron at Cambridge, the ambitious, intellectually ranging Sir Thomas Smith. For all these reasons, Bynneman, whose busy shop housed three presses, would surely have seemed a sympathetic partner to Spenser and Harvey. For his part, Spenser aspired to publish a new book of illustrated verse on the model of The Shepheardes Calender, and Bynneman had been the first printer to pair images with Spenser's verse, while the three books that Bynneman and Harvey had recently produced together had all featured Harvey as an ambitious Cantabridgean, an academic branding that the Letters would sustain: the first of its two title pages advertises 'Three Proper, and wittie, familiar Letters: lately passed betweene two universitie men. . . .'

The registration by which Bynneman established stationers's copyright suggests what he regarded as the volume's chief commercial hook--and the title page confirms his assessment: these are letters ‘touching the earthquake in Aprill last’. On April 8, two days after an earthquake shook much of southern England, Bynneman had registered a short volume by Thomas Churchyard that would be entitled ‘A warning for the wise, a feare to the fond, a bridle to the lewde, and a glasse to the good. Written of the late earthquake’. Thirteen more books on the earthquake were entered in the Stationers' Register by the end of June. Bynneman registered another monitory earthquake volume on 27 June, three days before he finally entered the Spenser-Harvey Letters: a scholar's approach, calm, droll, and scientific.2

A quarto in fours, the book is disposed in two parts, each with a separate title-page. The first part, with its three familiar letters, comprises signatures A1r to G1v (this last page blank), while the second part – Two Other, Very Commendable Letters, of the Same Mens Writing – spans G2r to I3r, with Bynneman’s device on I3v. The first part of the volume begins with an epistle to purchasers of the book ‘by a Welwiller of the two Authours’, who speaks of having been made acquainted with the first three letters ‘at the fourthe or fifte hande’ and who implies that the copy of these letters from which the book was printed was prepared by Spenser himself. The Welwiller may be Bynneman, although there is good reason to believe that the figure is the product of Harvey’s imagination (see Introduction, [cross-ref]). The epistle is dated 19 June 1580; Bynneman entered this first volume in the Stationers’ Register on 30 June of that year. Since neither the epistle nor the entry refers in any way to the Two Other, Very Commendable Letters, we may surmise that these two letters came into his possession after June of 1580, this despite the fact that they are dated 5 October and 23 October 1579, whereas the Three Proper, and Wittie letters have later dates, all from April 1580.

and wittie, familiar Letters:
lately pa[ſſ]ed betvvene tvvo V-
niuer[ſi]tie men: touching the Earth-
quake in Aprill la[ſt], and our Engli[ſh]
refourmed Ver[ſi]fying.
With the Preface of a wellwiller
to them both.
[Bynneman's device, Tree of Charity, (McKerrow no. 97)]
don, by H. Bynneman, dvvelling
in Thames [ſt]reate, neere vnto
Baynardes Ca[ſt]ell.
Anno Domini. 1 5 8 0.
Cum gratia & priuilegio Regiæ Maie[st]at[is].
very commendable Let-
ters , of the ſame mens vvri-
ting : both touching the foreſaid
Arti[fi]ciall Verſifying, and cer-
tain other Particulars :
More lately deliuered vnto the
[Bynneman's device, Tree of Charity (McKerrow no. 97)]
don, by H.Bynneman, dvvelling
in Thames [ſt]reate, neere vnto
Baynardes Ca[ſt]ell.
Anno Domini. 1 5 8 0.
Cum gratia & priuilegio Regiæ Maie[st]at[is].

The Letters are a quarto of 35 leaves, with the collation formula: A-H4, I3. With the exception of the title pages (A1r and G2r) and I3r, the first three leaves of all signatures are signed with capital letters and roman numerals.

Pagination begins on page 4 (A2v), continuing to page 69 (I3r), but pages 5, 50, 51, and 52 go unnumbered, and E3v and E4r are misnumbered '39' and '38' respectively, as are F1v and F2r (numbered '50' and '51' instead of 42 and 43) and F3v and F4r ('54' and '55' instead of 46 and 47). Unelaborate in page layout, the Letters are printed without running title: no skeleton formes were employed.

The contents of the volume are:

  • First title page, in mixed fonts [A1r];
  • Blank page [A1v];
  • Preface ‘TO THE CVRTEOVS Buyer, | by a VVelwiller of | the tvvo Authours' and dated 'This XIX. | of Iune. 1 5 8 0.’, A2r-A2v;
  • Three letters: the first by Spenser and signed 'IMMERITO' and the other two, unsigned, by Harvey A3r-G1r;
  • Blank page [G1v];
  • Second title page, in mixed font: [G2r];
  • Blank page [G2v];
  • The two other letters: the first by Spenser, signed ‘Tu[us] Immerito’ and dated 'This. 5. of O[ct]ober. 2579 [sic].' the other by Harvey, signed ‘G. H.’ and dated '23. Octob. 1579.' G3r-I2r;
  • Latin verses and translations I2v- [I3r];
  • Bynneman's device, Brazen Serpent (McKerrow no. 119) [I3v]
Seven copies were collated for this edition:
  • Bodleian, Mal. 662
  • Ransom, Pforz. 979 (Britwell-Pforzheimer copy)
  • Huntington, 69544 (Huth copy; imperfect: F2 and F3 missing)
  • Folger, 23095 (White-Rosenbach copy; imperfect, A1, I2, and I3 missing)
  • BL, C.40.d.16
  • Corpus Christi, Oxford, CCC.delta 22.9 (1)
  • Cambridge, Pet. G.3.6
A.R. Johnson, author of the standard bibliography of Spenser's works (Johnson 1933), records the existence of an eighth witness, one of two slightly defective copies that had passed from W. A. White to the Rosenbach collection and was sold to John Fleming in 1980 (Bibliography 1933). Johnson seems to have been unaware of the Corpus and Cambridge copies.

Collation revealed stop-press corrections on only 5 of the 18 formes, not, in and of itself, an indication of either careful or careless proofreading, but in a few instances, the corrections seem to have been undertaken without consultation of copy.3 Thus, on F4r, the absence of an open-parenthesis mark in the first state of inner forme F is remedied in state 2, but the corrector's choice of where to locate the open-parenthesis obscures the logical structure of the sentence; we hope that our emendation recovers the punctuation of Bynneman’s copy. Similarly, the corrector seems to have resisted the unfamiliar ‘bongrely’ in state 1 of F1v, although the correction to ‘bungerly’ in state 2 is marred by foulcase (‘bnngerly’). (That the obviously errant reading ‘bnngrely’ appears in the second state of the forme is confirmed by a variety of improved readings elsewhere in the same state.) The hypothesis that inner forme F was corrected without recourse to copy warrants our preference for readings in state 1 over those in state 2 at three other junctures (although we follow state 2 where it corrects manifest errors in state 1).

There are other reasons to doubt the scrupulousness of Bynneman’s efforts. Much of Spenser's and Harvey's writing on quantitative metrics in these letters involves the proposal and refinement of rules for relating English metrical quantity to orthography, yet in many instances the spellings in the printed extracts of verse often seem not to accord with the proposed rules. Harvey must have found this maddening: in what seems to have been his copy, the Peterborough copy housed at the Cambridge University Library, Harvey made a number of hand-corrections to the text of the letters that he had composed, with an especially high concentration of corrections to the verses he had written (McKitterick 1981:352-3).4We have emended according to the Peterborough corrections.5

We could wish that Harvey had devoted comparable editorial attention to Spenser’s letters, but he made only a single correction to Spenser’s contribution, on the second page (1.22). In a few cases where the metrical discussion requires the printing of words with quantities marked by means of macron or breve over a vowel, the incorrect mark is given. If the Wel-willer’s epistle is correct and Spenser did indeed prepare the manuscript copy for the first part of the printed book, then we are obliged to conclude either that Spenser prepared his copy carelessly or that the compositor misrepresented his copy – or that both did disservices to the poems and verse extracts in the original letters. We have emended manifest errors in the printed metrical notation.

There is no evidence of authorial correction of copy during presswork and some evidence that the copy provided to the press – or to a scribe preparing copy for the press – was in a confusing state. The printed text of Spenser’s Latin epistle to Harvey in Letter 4, the most sustained surviving example of Spenser’s abilities in Latin composition, contains a set of odd redundancies strongly suggesting that the MS that Spenser released contained two different versions of one section of the poem: one or the other version was presumably to have been deleted when the poem was brought to completion. For more on this crux, see commentary 4.145-68.

The punctuation of the text is occasionally confusing. Indeed, even if we allow for the irregularity of early Elizabethan pointing conventions, there are passages at which the punctuation seems so careless as to require emendation. The editorial principles of the Oxford Spenser are generally conservative: systematic repunctuation is confined to particular normalizations of pointing in proximity to close-parens, with all other adjustments of punctuation limited to junctures at which the pointing of the original text would almost certainly confuse or conduce to misconstruction. But even given this textual conservatism, the goal of avoiding misconstruction has obliged us to make an unusual number of adjustments to the pointing, all of which are recorded in the textual notes.

Bynneman had sustained those earlier engagements with polyglot printing that we address in the Textual Introduction to the Theatre for Worldlings. He received a privilege for the printing of dictionaries in all languages in April 1580, would print Ramus’s Greek grammar in 1581, and, in the last years of his life, undertook the publication of a Greek dictionary, a Homer, and a New Testament. Yet the printshop staff assigned to the Letters seems to have had a narrow range of linguistic expertise. The Greek printing in the Letters is careless, marred by misspellings and errors of spacing, and the Latin also often shows manifest errors. (It is perhaps worth observing that Bynneman assigned the printing of all the editions of Ocland’s Anglorum Praelia from 1580 to 1582 to one of the printshops with which he frequently collaborated, Ralph Newberry’s.) Many of our editorial interventions, then, correct mistakes in the rendering of Greek, Latin, and the spelling and scansion of particular English words and English verse extracts in the technical passages on English prosody.

Smith and De Selincourt's 1912 update to their 1909 Oxford edition of Spenser's Poetical Works was the first edition since Bynneman's to present the Letters in full. Abridged versions of all but Letter 5, the letter that contains Harvey's most technical discussion of English metrical quantity, appear as an addendum to a brief life of Spenser in the front matter to the 1679 Works published by Jonathan Edwin. Hughes printed abridged versions of all the Letters in his 1715 edition of Spenser's Works. Of the poems included in these familiar letters, only Spenser's ‘Iambicum Trimetrum’ was reprinted in early collections – Abraham Fraunce’s Arcadian Rhetorike of 1588 and again in Francis Davison’s Poetical Rhapsody (1602).


1 The best sketch of Harvey’s rhetorical Ramism may be found in Harold S. Wilson’s introduction to Wilson and Forbes’s edition of the Ciceronianus.
2 Harvey's disquisition on the earthquake was not the only more or less scientific effort. Bynneman published Arthur Golding's Discourse Upon the Earthquake (without registering it with the Stationers). John Maplet and Thomas Twynne each made similar contributions, although neither Golding, Maplet, nor Twynne writes of the earthquake with anything approaching Harvey's sang-froid.
3 What seems a variant on C1v turns out to be a mere mechanical difficulty. No comma appears after ‘thinges’ at 2.281 in the Cambridge copy; in two other copies collated for this edition, [BL1, and Ransom] the comma is vanishingly faint. The other copies may seem to correct the absence, but pages that appear to witness a corrected state are more likely to be impressions from early in the process of printing off the forme, before the comma receded (perhaps because of the irregular height of the piece of type).
4The Peterborough copy comprises the following variant formes: state 1 of inner forme C, state 2 of inner forme D, state 2 of inner forme G, and state 2 of inner forme I.
5It bears observing here that on C1v, the Peterboroough copy lacks a comma after the phrase “all these secondarie and inferiour thinges” (2.280-1) whereas all other copies collated for this edition do contain a comma at that point. Peterborough does have what seems to be an empty space at this point, and because the comma in the correlative location of the British Library copy (Let.1580.BL) is very faint, we suppose that there was some sort of inking problem here and that the missing comma in the Peterborough copy is a more extreme version of the same problem. We therefore infer that Harvey has not intervened here and that we should not emend.