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An Unexpected Discovery

In my last post, Function over Form: understanding the TCP encoding philosophy, I provided insights into the markup behind TCP texts, and discussed the philosophy behind why certain textual elements are captured and some are not.

This post is primarily concerned with the discovery of a potentially unique version of a poem, found in one of our texts. However, because this poem was a handwritten addition it is necessary to first revisit the TCP encoding philosophy, and provide an overview of TCP’s approach to dealing with handwriting in text.

Handwriting in Texts

It is fairly common for TCP editors to encounter texts that contain handwriting. More often than not handwriting in a text is completely illegible. Sometimes this is because most of the PDF images we work from are scans of microfilm copies of the original texts, and thus the quality of the images are not strong enough to capture handwritten elements, and sometimes this is because the original ink itself was faded when they copy was made. In addition to issues with image and ink quality, the lack of standardization in handwriting and the various shorthands that existed in the 16th century would make it very difficult for TCP editors to accurately read and transcribe handwriting from this time period without special paleography training. Finally if TCP editors were to capture handwriting they would also need to declare its relationship to the text in which is found, which can be extremely difficult to determine. For example: handwriting in a text may be a comment, correction, addition, or a substitution; It may have no relationship to the text whatsoever, or it may refer to another unknown text; and it may have been added at any point between the publication of the text, and the time when the image of the text was captured.

Thus, due to the numerous complications and uncertainties associated with handwriting in texts TCP editors do not capture it. Instead handwriting in texts is denoted by editors with the code marker: MS=”Y” at the top of the page of markup on which the handwriting occurs. MS=”Y” simply indicates that there is handwriting somewhere on the page. Neither the handwriting nor the MS=”Y” marker are rendered in the online display of TCP’s searchable text files.  MS=”Y” is a placeholder in the code, it is included so that if one day someone wishes to undertake a project to capture handwriting in texts, there will be markers in the code indicating where in the PDF handwriting can be found.

The Discovery

However, on some rare occasions an editor may determine handwritten text to be significant enough to actually capture. The decision to capture handwritten text is almost entirely subjective, and it is extremely uncommon, but occasionally it does happen.  Earlier this year editor Geremy Carnes came across a handwritten poem inscribed into the front of The Fathers Legacy: or Counsels to His Children published in 1678. The scan of the poem was clear enough to make out and with a little bit of detective work Geremy determined that it was a version of Matthew Prior’s poem, “To the Honourable Charles Montague, Esq.” The fact that the handwritten text was a legible and complete poem by a well-known author might have been, on its own, reason enough to warrant its inclusion. However what makes this particular case really interesting is that while the poem is clearly Prior’s “To the Honourable Charles Montague, Esq,” it has a different title and varies slightly from the earliest extant version of the poem in publication, which dates from from 1692. Furthermore, our scribe was kind enough to provide a date: 1682.

Title, signature, date, and first line group of handwritten poem discovered in text.

What this means is that not only is it possible that this handwritten copy is a unique variant of Prior’s poem, it may also be the first extant version of the poem, predating extant published copies.*




*It should be noted that while the TCP staff was unable to identify an earlier version of the poem, or a version with matching variations, more extensive research would be necessary before any definitive conclusions could be drawn in regards to the uniqueness of this variation. We welcome any helpful comments or insights from individuals who may possess more knowledge of the poem in question.

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