As the first election returns were announced, a few VCU students were reading Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” aloud from gatherings that they had recently printed, and just folded and opened, themselves.
The students’ oral performance of the poems was good enough to consider our experiment at least a partial success. We had devoted most of the term to reproducing these poems in script and in print. Students had each copied several sonnets by hand, and at least one of the poems several times over. They had set type from their manuscript copies and made several rounds of detailed corrections. But such work does not necessarily require close or even decent reading. I was hoping that it would at least facilitate good reading. And it seemed to. Students each read aloud the lines that they had personally typeset. We performed the entire sequence straight through. And the students’ reading brought out much of the sense of the poems. They read them well. Then they discussed the sequence of twelve sonnets, its tone and progression, and several individual poems. And, best of all, while everyone was participating, no one was acting as if they hadn’t prepared for class, or didn’t know what we were talking about: they were holding in their hands poems that they had printed, from manuscripts that they had also produced.
But that was nothing compared to what they did next. For this class meeting, I had asked the students to each write a short essay simply explaining which manuscript texts they had followed when typesetting, and which ones the poems’ first printers had used. In order for them to figure that second part out, they needed to use a partial scan from the “Holy Sonnets” volume of the Donne Variorum. Even experts in early modern English literature can find the Variorum’s textual sections difficult to read. So I wasn’t sure that my students would be able to handle them on their own. Nevertheless, I insisted that they, of all people, could understand the Variorum’s textual code. After all, they had personally hand-made their own copies of several of the artifacts featured in the Variorum. So, when the Variorum seems to slip into idiosyncratic code, using certain abbreviations for manuscripts and printed books (namely C2, DT1, H6, and A), it’s referring to artifacts that these students have already hand-made, and to texts that they have already reproduced in rather painstaking detail. For this reason, they should have been able to just highlight each instance of the sigla listed in parentheses above, and follow the part of the textual scholarship required to write the essay. And they could, and they did. And I think that they would have had a much harder time doing so without having first done all that copying and printing.
I think it’s safe to say that this is the last thing that we did before realizing to what Donne and his contemporaries’ qualified and critical support for the Virginia Company would lead, roughly 400 years later.
The scene around Hibbs Hall, when we leave in the 10:00 PM hour, is usually bustling, if not jubilant, with (no kidding) a crowd of dancers and bikers and pedestrians all along the glowing, book-less addition to the library, with its jumbotron overhead. But that night was quiet, as if most of the people had been swept away or scared off—whether by rapture or deportation, colonization or university expansion, TV or Twitter.