Tyrwhitt's Rowley and Authorial Editing

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    Thomas Tyrwhitt would feature prominently on any list of influential eighteenth-century editors of classical and English literature. In addition to his work on Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Babrius’s Aesop and other ancients, he contributed a number of emendations and explanatory notes to the variorum editions of Shakespeare. In his own right he produced notable editions of The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer in five volumes (1775-8) and Poems, supposed to have been written at Bristol, by Thomas Rowley, and Others, in the Fifteenth Century (1777), an agglomeration of ballads, epics and eclogues attributed to an unknown British ancient and his circle, though in fact crafted by ‘the marvellous Boy’ Thomas Chatterton in the late 1760s. In order to offer some grounding to the longstanding debate about Tyrwhitt’s merits as a textual scholar of the vernacular and to augment recent examinations of the post-Bentleian editing practices of the eighteenth century, which tend to focus on the nascent British canon of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton, this essay examines Tyrwhitt’s work on the first print edition of Chatterton’s pseudo-medieval poems. Not only has the editor’s complex treatment of the problematic manuscripts been largely ignored, his refusal to engage in the debate about the authenticity of the papers that lay at the heart of the “Rowley controversy” has received lopsided attention in modern accounts of the book’s reception. Instead, as I outline here, Tyrwhitt’s diligent attempts to apply his textual-critical skills to these works deserve a thorough investigation for two compelling reasons. First: the unique problems posed by the texts magnify the working assumptions of a noteworthy mid-eighteenth-century textual scholar. Second: it will allow the edition to be treated as Tyrwhitt intended, not as a collection of literary forgeries that need to be accepted into or rejected from the literary canon, but as recovered texts that require, within the editor’s authorial purview, careful restoration and, when necessary, correction.

    © The Bibliographical Society (typography) and the contributors (content) 2010.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)447-467
    Number of pages21
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2010


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