Copy and Paste: Bridget Parker’s Poetry

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Bridget Parker, Wellcome MS 3768

This little green book was my seventh manuscript of the day. I thought it was pretty standard, unhelpful even, until I found this curious poem:

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One of 3 pages

I wasn’t surprised to find a memorial poem in a household book, as I’ve seen others containing similar things: records of births, deaths, marriages; prayers for children and relatives; excerpts from classical authors about friendship or wisdom. Anne Glyd, for example, not only records her children and grandchildren’s births and deaths, but also writes a few pages memorializing her husband when he dies in 1658.

But the catalog notes for this poem caught my eye: they said that this poem was from John Donne’s “Obsequies 0f the Lord Harrington.” So I googled the poem–and it looks nothing like Donne’s poem, except for the following lines which she uses:

O soule, O circle why so quickly bee

Thy ends, thy birth and death clos’d up in thee?

Though virtue flowed to thee by thy first breath

All is at once sunke in the whirle-poole death:

Although Parker puts these lines together, they’re separated by 50 lines in Donne’s much longer poem. Parker additionally ends her poem with Donne’s second-to-to last couplet:

Doe not deare soule this sacrifice refuse:

That in thy grave I doe interre my muse.

Ok, so Parker read some lines she liked and thought they fit her particular situation as well. This makes sense–I know, for example, several friends who want Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” read at their funerals. Sometimes our deepest feelings are best expressed by another’s words.

Given what I know about the early moderns’ comfort with what we would now call plagiarism–but then was considered an active reading & intellectual practice–I wondered if other parts of the poem came from non-Donne sources. (See Adam Smyth’s work for a good example of commonplacing and cutting as reading practices).

Sure enough: parts of Parker’s poem are from George Herbert’s “Grief,” another poem by Donne, “Elegy on the Lady Markham”; the satirist John Cleveland’s “An Elegy upon Dr. Chaderton,” and phrases that sound like famous Shakespeare quotes.

This tells us first that Bridget Parker was reading and engaging with her contemporaries. More intriguingly, it raises questions about authorship. Did Bridget Parker “write” this poem? What is the status of writing that is partially from other sources? What is the role of creativity in such writing–it requires a good ear for iambic pentameter to weave together pieces of multiple poems into something that is not only cogent but melodic.

When Shakespeare adapts entire speeches out of Holinshed’s “Chronicles” or turns Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde into “As You Like It,” we consider him to have invented new work. Does that same metric apply to Bridget Parker?

Furthermore: how should we think about this poem given its location in a household book? Is Bridget Parker a poet, or a woman who just happened to write poetry? What might it take to get her anthologized–and what sort of defense of early modern authorial practices might we have to mount in the footnotes?

What tantalizes me most about finding this poem, however, is that for all the questions it raises about authorship, credibility, gender, and writing, it also stands as evidence that women wrote in many genres and did not see them as separate. It also offers the merest hint that early modern women’s literary production may be much larger than we anticipated–we just haven’t been looking in the right places.

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