Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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The Poetics of Page-Turning: The Interactive Surfaces of Early Modern Printed Poetry

Craig Farrell



Nowe the sundry kindes of rare deuises, and pretty inuentions which come from ye fine poeticall vaine of manie in strange and vnacustomed manner, if I could report them, it were worthie my trauell: such are the turning of verses: the infolding of wordes: the fine repititions: the clarklie conueying of contraries, and manie such like. Whereof though I coulde sette downe manie: yet because I want bothe manie and the best kindes of them, I will ouerpasse: onelie pointing you to one or two which may suffice for example.

William Webb, A discourse of English poetrie (1586), sig.G2r


[1]  In the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, works we might think of as nascent literary criticism of English poetry began to be written and published in increasing quantities. While many of these combine the history of poetry, theoretical defences, and comments on recent writers, some treatises also began to incorporate close readings – attention to the stylistic aspects of a poem or author which reflect in some manner on its content (Alexander 2004: xxi-xxiv). Such readings have always been a part of the reception of classical literature, but with the growth of vernacular literature a generation of writers turned their attention to English verse. In the section above, Webb goes on to discuss some of the ways in which poetry might demonstrate the wit and inventiveness of its authors. Many of these are rhetorical flourishes or stylised grammatical arrangements, but in the course of this article I want to focus on a phenomenon hinted at by Webb’s quotation, but rarely given much space in our own critical discussions of early modern poetry, even with scholarship’s newfound focus on the material text. Webb’s mention of ‘the turning of verses: the infolding of words’ certainly refers to the general process of writing poetry and the composition of words in an artful manner – but, given the era’s self-consciousness about the materiality of page and book and paper, it also gestures towards another aspect of poetry entirely: the physical interaction of reader with a text, turning pages and quite literally ‘infolding’ words on top of one another.

[2]  Page-turning is a ubiquitous but almost invisible phenomenon that is present in the codex as a form. Unlike the scroll, or when words are inscribed on objects, the codex is composed of sheets, folded one or more times into gatherings, then cut to form discrete pages (Gaskell 2007). As a result, the majority of readers interacting with a text in this medium will necessarily need to turn pages in order to move through the volume, whether in a linear fashion or in a more random order. Indeed, sometimes the individual page might be revisited immediately after being read as readers attempt to follow the grammar of a sentence or stanza from one page to the next. Scholarship in the last few decades has explored the ways in which the physical manifestation of a text can affect a reader’s engagement with its content. In particular, the semiotics of the printed page have been deconstructed, with mise-en-page arrangement, the use of typefaces, running titles, the amount of blank space, or the presence of printed marginal annotations (e.g. Smith and Wilson 2011; Tribble 1993) all receiving close attention. While these aspects have been brought to bear on texts by scholars for a number of years, including superb work by Wendy Wall (1994), attention to the overlap between poetic form and material form have been given particular impetus by a number of studies bridging the bibliographical work of D.F. McKenzie and Roger Chartier on the one hand, and the interpretive approach referred to as ‘new formalism’ on the other (Deuterman and Kisery 2013; Scott-Bauman and Burton 2014).[1]

[3]  Despite this, attention to the handling and turning of pages has been less frequent. Peter Stallybrass (Andersen and Sauer 2002) has explored the transition between scroll and codex in respect to the bible, while Christina Lupton (2014) demonstrates the ramifications of these issues to the eighteenth-century novel. In addition to these works, Andrew Piper (2013) has provided a broad and thoughtful analysis of the book, including our interaction with pages, particularly in contrast to newer electronic forms of reading. One of the few scholars directly addressing the interpretive ramifications in early modern literature is Coleman Hutchison (2006), whose work on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, though not explicitly handling page-turning, nonetheless sees the placement of poems on the page as a site of interpretive interest that parallels my own approach. What I wish to suggest through a handful of close readings is that there is much greater scope for seeing page-turning not as a neutral activity in the reading process, but one which can take an active part in our engagement with and understanding of the text. In the readings of Thomas Watson, Edmund Spenser, and George Herbert that will follow, I will suggest that including the act of page turning in our interpretive horizons can directly impact on our reading of early modern texts, and extend our understanding of the interaction between material form and literary meaning.

[4]  Page-turning shaped the language and metaphors of early modern writers in quite explicit ways. Published collections of poetry in this period frequently suggest that if the reader ‘lykes not the reading of it, turne ouer the leafe, and you shall finde somwhat els to your contentmente’, in the words of Nicholas Breton in his Workes of a young wit (1577: sig. H4v). Similar defences can be found in George Gascoigne’s Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573), and John Harington’s Orlando Fusioso (1591), among many others. In this respect, an acknowledgement of the reader’s physical interaction with the text features prominently in the defences undertaken by their authors – to the extent that it enters into the standard rhetorical toolkit for prefatory apologetics of writers in this period. For those authors engaged in publishing collections of poetry, page turning not only becomes a symbol for the variety on offer in the text but also for the larger questions of reader’s choice and appreciation. The now-proverbial ‘turning over a new leaf’ appears to date from the middle of the sixteenth century (Speake 2016). Though certainly in use before its first documented example, that it appears and was quickly adopted at this moment demonstrates one of the ways an increasingly literate society adopted the ideas present in its handling of texts into its imaginative lexicon. With this in mind, I wish to suggest in the discussion that follows that some bibliographically-alert writers also began to experiment with incorporating these ideas into their texts, generating a range of effects including stasis, playfulness, surprise, and active embodiment.

[5]  To begin looking at the ways a reader’s interaction with the page might have interpretive relevance for the text, I will explore an example from Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia (1582). As a collection of eighteen-line poems handling largely Petrarchan themes, Watson’s work is normally mentioned only as a footnote to the explosion of sonnet sequences in the 1590s, but in its complex mise-en-page and authorial commentary to his poems possesses considerable importance on its own merits (e.g. Spiller 1992).[2] Indeed, Jeffrey Todd Knight has recently demonstrated that at least one reader’s appreciation of Hekatompathia generated a whole series of poetic responses around and between Watson’s poems (Knight 2013: 87-116). Watson’s volume is a carefully organised text: almost every poem is set to a single page, and has a brief introduction above each that notes the themes of the poem, relevant literary antecedents, and sources for translated sections or poems. In addition, a number of poems carry marginal annotations, and each page is decorated with one of a handful of woodcut illustration or borders. Whether these choices resulted from the publisher, Gabriel Cawood, Watson himself, or a combination thereof, the effect is similar to that of Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579) insofar as both feature contemporary English poetry that responds to classical and continental literature and bracket their texts with scholarly annotation.

[6]  This attention to presentation and paratextual effects is revealing when we turn (to deploy another linguistic legacy of page-turning) to one of the more unusual poems in the collection, Sonnet 81. This sonnet comes at a crucial break in the text: while the previous eighty poems have described the sufferings of the speaker in a number of standard Petrarchan metaphors and themes, this poem begins a new section, entitled ‘My Love is Past’ (see Figures 1 and 2). The sonnets of this section denounce love, and in the loose narrative of the sequence suggest that the speaker has grown wiser as a result of his youthful indiscretions. As such, Sonnet 81 acts as a fulcrum between the two sections of the sequence; however, this is not the only reason for the poem’s importance. Uniquely among the sonnets, it is prefaced by a full page of preliminary discussion, including advice on how the poem should be read. These instructions are necessary because rather than being printed in the style of the other poems, this sonnet is shaped to resemble an urn, with numbers and letters running down the left and right sides of the image. Over the page, the sonnet is printed in the standard form of the others, where some of the poem’s formal structures become clear:

A   At last, though late, farewell old wellada;                 A

m   Mirth for mischance strike up a new alarm;           m

a   And Ciprya la nemica mia                                             a

r   Retire to Cyprus Ile and cease thy war,                      r

e   Else must thou prove how Reason can by charm     e

E   Enforce to flight thy blindfold brat and thee.           E

s   So frames it with me now, that I confess                    s

t   The life I led in Love devoid of rest                              t

I   It was a Hell, where none felt more than I,                I

n   Nor any with like miseries forlorn.                             n

s   Since therefore now my woes are waxed less,           s

a   And Reason bids me leave old wellada,                     a

n   No longer shall the world laugh me to scorn:          n

i    I’ll choose a path that shall not lead awry.                i

r   Rest then with me from your blind Cupid’s car        r

e   Each one of you that serve and would be free.         e

,,   His double thrall that Liv’s as Love thinks best

,,   Whose hand still Tyrant-like to hurt is press’t,


Once unpacked, we can see that the poem is a ‘regular’ (in Watson’s work) eighteen-line, unrhymed sonnet, with a double acrostic. Each line begins and ends with the same letter, which are printed separately in the left and right margins, spelling out ‘amare est insanire’ – to love is to go mad.

[7]  I want to focus specifically on the fact that the ‘shaped’ and ‘regular’ versions of the sonnet are on the recto and verso of the same leaf, and argue that attention to this detail adds several possible interpretations to the poem itself. Especially on a first reading, it is very difficult to follow the shaped version without reference to the standard printing: to create the urn pattern, Watson is forced to break his lines into several sections and space them at irregular intervals, leading to a poem that is almost unrecognisable from the regular version on the other side of the page. As a result, it can be difficult to discern some of the patterns in the shaped version, from individual lines being unclearly demarcated, to the pattern of initial and terminal letters being obscured by their distance from one another. While the introduction to the poem somewhat optimistically emphasises its intelligibility, it also notes that the ‘whole pillar is but just 18 verses, as will appear in the page following it’ (sig.K4v). For a reader to notice much less appreciate, the formal ingenuity of Watson’s poem it is necessary to compare the shaped and regular versions almost on a line-by-line basis. Certain features, such as the aforementioned initial and terminal letters, are difficult to discern in the shaped version, given that lines of the regular version often appear in the middle of lines when shaped into the distinctive urn form. Given that these poems sit on the recto and verso of the same page, the reader is almost obligated to turn the page forwards and backwards in the course of reading. In at least one copy of Hekatompathia (British Library C.14.a.1) one can see the feint outlines of the poem on the opposite leaf. This is particularly apparent for these two poems because of the differences in shape, and the result is to create a palimpsestic ‘ghost’ of one poem on the other. Though a consequence of the methods of book production, this provides an evocative point of contact between these two poems, and should remind us of the interpretive consequences that even this sort of bibliographic minutiae might hold.

Figure one: Thomas Watson, Hekatompathia (1582), sig. L1r. © British Library Board C.14.a.1


Figure two: Hekatompathia, sig. L1v. © British Library Board. C.14.a.1


[8]   This act of page-turning has direct ramifications for our understanding of the poem, beyond any frustration the reader might feel in deciphering the shaped image. The poem is one that thematically hovers between states of movement and stasis; the opening stanza for example sees the speaker relegating Venus and her ‘blindfold brat’ to Cyprus in a defiant act of ‘Reason’ triumphing over their allures. And while we have this expulsion of love from the speaker, we also see him reminiscing on the inescapable discomfort he experienced while in love:

So frames it with me now, that I confess
The life I ledde in Loue deuoyd of rest
It was a Hell, where none felt more then I,
Nor any with like miseries forlorn. (ll.7-10)

The phrase ‘deuoyd of rest’ seems particularly crucial, given the physical interaction of the reader with the text in the course of reading the poem. In much the same way that the speaker describes his own restlessness, the reader is also engaged in constant motion between the two versions of the poem. It is worth noting that these lines in the shaped version of the poem are visually the longest on the page, as if thematic exploration of duration here was being replicated typographically.

[9]  Having expelled love, the speaker endeavours to change his behaviour in order that those around him might no longer ‘laugh me to scorne’ (ll.13) in a manner reminiscent of many prodigal-son stories from the period (Helgerson 1976; Crane 1993). For all of this promise of future progression, however, the speaker also encourages fellow lovers to ‘[r]est then with me’ (ll.15). If the reader’s engagement in the act of page-turning is necessary to understand both versions of this poem, we might see these thematic concerns played out in a material sense: while the reader will follow the speaker on his journey beyond love, they are also temporarily suspended from proceeding. Between the two versions of the poem and the preceding page of explanation, this single poem covers three pages, creating a bibliological pause that is very similar to that imagined by the poem itself. One might also suggest that the two versions of this poem articulate the difficulty in leaving such love behind: while the shaped version seems to suggest a final, funereal relinquishment of love, on the very next page the reader finds the poem unpacked into the same structure that has characterised all of the poems in the sequence to this point. That a further eighteen sonnets follow this dramatic renunciation may suggest that the speaker has a more difficult time abandoning love than he initially declares.

[10]  In the closing couplet to the poem, with a reference to Sophocles’ Ajax, the speaker reaffirms his new position on love and the suffering it brings to those ensnared by it: ‘His double thrall that liu’s as Loue thinks best / Whose hand still Tyrant like to hurt is prest’ (ll.17-18). That the hand acts as the central metaphor of the final line is crucial given the positioning of the two versions of the poem I have been describing, once again signalling the interaction of the reader’s hand in moving between the two versions. It is also an unusual metaphor in the context of Petrarchan verse – though bodily suffering is a resource for poets writing in this genre, it is less common than the detailed internal and behavioural anguish usually described. As a result, it is tempting to see this particular poem as calling attention to the physical way his readers might be interacting with the text. Finally, it is also worth dwelling on Watson’s choice of double acrostic: ‘amare est insanire’. If the material-textual form of this poem has encouraged readers to experience its thematic concerns in a physical as well as intellectual sense, the act of necessary page-turning might be seen to replicate the meaning of the acrostic. Trapped between the two poems, attempting to compare their forms with the copious notes that precede them, the reader might be seen to enact their own small act of ‘insanire’ in the course of reading.

[11]  I would suggest that this was a conscious decision by Watson, rather than a fortuitous accident of the print shop. Positioning the poem at the outset of a new section and ostentatiously shaping one version calls attention to the poem as a crucial moment in a thematic and narrative sense. The complex mise-en-page of text and paratext throughout the volume also suggests a sensitivity to the inflections material presentation might bring to the interpretive process. Finally, the poem contains a number of themes and metaphors that might be seen to correlate with the reader’s page-turning in the process of reading the poem. The individual page here becomes a vehicle for physically replicating the thematic content of the poem, and using the material process of page-turning to engage the reader in a deeper involvement with the text that is quite beyond the abilities of language alone.

[12]  Watson’s poem allows for a detailed reading of how page-turning in this instance generates a stasis in the progression through the volume, but other writers can also be seen to encourage the same kind of tactile engagement between their text and readers, though with different purposes in mind. A number of examples can be found in the work of Edmund Spenser, who like Watson was intensely interested in the material form of his poetry, and the resulting interaction with its content. On at least one occasion he imagined precisely this moment of a reader’s handling of his text, with the opening lines of Amoretti (1595) Sonnet 1 jealously saying of the book itself: ‘[h]appy ye leaves as when those lily hands, […]/ shall handle you…’ (ll.1-3)

[13]  An occasion when page-turning plays a larger interpretive role is The Shepheardes Calender (1579), a work famous for its combination of woodcuts, typographical semiotics, and elaborate glosses before and after each eclogue. The way in which the glosses in particular playfully toy with the reader have allowed for some excellent scholarship on the ways that Spenser used both text and paratext to multiply interpretative possibilities to readers (McCabe 1995). At the same time, one of the most curious, and rarely-discussed aspects of Spenser’s text is that there is no clear indication as to whether any given word or phrase has been glossed. Annotated texts frequently tended to have their glosses on the same page as the text, for obvious reasons of clarity for the reader. This is especially relevant for Spenser when we realise that some of the direct antecedents for Spenser’s volume, such as the annotated editions of Virgil (the first example printed in England by Henry Bynneman in 1570), located their commentary around the text with each annotation marked in the verse by an asterisk (Wilson-Okamura 2015: 15-26).

[14]  As a result of this lack of notation, the reader is left in a constant state of uncertainty as to whether the line they are reading has been discussed by E.K., and would need to read the text either by turning to the end of each eclogue in order to check, or by reading the glosses after the eclogue, and turning back to the poetry to understand the context for the commentary. In the glosses to ‘Januarie’ for example, one might imagine the surprise of the name ‘Hobbinol’ being glossed by a lengthy digression on ‘paederastice’. Though this reading is instantly derided, one can nonetheless imagine readers immediately returning to the stanza in question to reread what had provoked such a heated response from the annotator. The deliberate archaisms and regionalisms that litter Spenser’s writing necessarily distance the reader from easy comprehension of the text at first sight, a point made by both Paula Blank (1996) and Hannah Crawforth (2011). The ‘strangeness’ of Spenser’s text can only be appreciated by recognising that it is necessary to move physically around the book in the course of reading, and that this in some senses cooperates with the interpretive playfulness that is clearly at work in this text.

[15]  A more complicated Spenserian example, however, is the moment between Books I and II of The Faerie Queene (1590), where the reader turns the leaf to find a full-page woodcut of St. George slaying the dragon immediately facing the proem to Book II. This is a unique moment in the text, given that it is the only image that appears in the 1590 text, or indeed any text published during Spenser’s lifetime after The Shepheardes Calender. Though the printing of the 1590 text is thought to have been ‘a story of accident, confusion, and revision’ (Zurcher 2006: 117) its placement here and subsequent reappearance in the same position in the 1596 edition, raises the question of its interpretive place in Spenser’s text. The woodcut was owned by the printer for the volume, John Wolfe (Luborsky and Ingram 1998: I. 311), and used for several pamphlets before appearing in The Faerie Queene. This has led Paul J. Voss (2001) to make a strong case for its associations with Henri I of Navarre, who later appears in Book VI in allegorical guise. While these intertextual readings have great relevance to understanding this image and its political ramifications, I believe the woodcut has meaning for the text quite independent of a reader’s familiarity with it from other publications. To explore this, it will be useful to consider the mechanics of page turning, and the surprising aspect of this image upon turning the last page of Book I.

[16]  Book I concludes with Redcrosse triumphantly slaying the dragon, and promising to marry Una after his labours for the Faerie Queene are concluded. Book I then ends with a nautical metaphor reflecting on the narrative itself: ‘[f]or we be come unto a quiet rode, / Where we must land some of our passengers, / And light this wearie vessell of her lode.’ (I.xii.42.2-4). These ‘passengers’ are presumably the main protagonists of Book I, given that Book II largely consists of new characters in new settings. After leaving these characters behind, however, and turning the page, the reader is once again confronted by an image of Redcrosse, and in that context this image is more provocative than might be suspected. On the one hand, it reinforces the theological and national narrative at work in Book I: unlike the ‘passengers’ who return to rest, Redcrosse / the individual Christian / England as a devout nation need to continue their mission. That the woodcut appears after the text has concluded reinforces the endlessness of both Spenser’s epic form and the ongoing need for action on the behalf of his readers themselves.

[17]  Another aspect of this woodcut’s relationship to the text comes from the character Archimago, whose appearances bracket this image; his final attempt at deceit is the last action of Book I. He is then the instigator of the first narrative action in Book II, indeed he is the very first character named by its first Canto. Given Archimago’s protean ability to change shape and appearance, his appearance on either side of The Faerie Queene’s only woodcut directly continues the exploration of appearance and interpretation that is crucial to both Books. While Archimago continues to shift shape and attempt to mislead the heroes of the epic, the woodcut offers St. George as a counterweight, fixed and unchanging before the reader’s eyes. As a result, the woodcut also speaks to the firmness of the English Protestant identity in comparison to the mutable Catholicism symbolised by Archimago. Though a subtle moment in a lacunae between the opening two books, the woodcut nonetheless provides a final series of meanings for Book I as well as bridging the narrative and thematic gulf before Book II. Whether its placing was on Spenser’s instructions or Wolfe inserted the image on his own, the woodcut between Books I and II of The Faerie Queene acts as a crucial point of transition: as well as striking the reader with a triumphant image of Redcrosse’s success, it also reinforces the contrast between the Protestant heroes and Catholic villains that was a major theme of Book I. The reappearance of the image in 1596, this time published by Richard Field, suggests that an effort was made to retain the image and its place in the poem, and that it holds more importance to the text than has typically been assumed.

Figure three: Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1596), sig. M5v. Reproduced by kind permission of the Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge. Keynes.C.02.19


[18]  My final examples come from George Herbert’s The Temple (1633). Herbert has long been recognised as a formally ingenious poet, and one for whom form has a deep and intrinsic connection with the content of the poem itself and the broader themes of the collection (e.g. Guernsey 1999; Sanchez 2014). In addition, recent work by scholars like Adam Smyth (2012) has repositioned Herbert’s writing as one that developed in a culture intensely aware of the material nature of the books they handled and used. While Herbert can be seen to experiment in a huge number of forms across his volume, ‘The Altar’ and ‘Easter Wings’ are perhaps the best known examples of both Herbert’s work and pattern-poetry in general. Although these poems have been previously discussed in great detail, I am going to suggest that scholarship has overlooked the way in which Herbert also used the reader’s physical interaction with his text to implicate them in the theological narrative of his poems.

[19]  To begin with the more straightforward of these two examples, ‘Easter Wings’ is well known for its two distinctly shaped stanzas, bearing a visual similarity to a pair of wings if laid out vertically, as is the case in both the Williams and Tanner manuscripts, or two pairs of wings if printed horizontally, as was the case in every sixteenth-century edition (see Figure 3). As with ‘The Altar’, which will be discussed below, ‘Easter Wings’ describes the gradual contraction and expansion of the speaker in both a formal and thematic sense: as the metre contracts in the centre of each stanza, so too does the speaker reach his lowest ebb. As the reader turns the page to view the poems, and as they turn the page to move further into the volume, however, they are forced into making the poetic ‘wings’ of the book’s pages act very much like real ones – unfolding and folding in the course of reading.

[20]  Though appearing as a minor typographical joke from Herbert, this reading of the poem’s physical forms has ramifications for our understanding of the poem itself. ‘Easter Wings’ compares the suffering of the individual Christian to the cosmological drama of humanity’s fall from Eden. While the fault of Adam and Eve was ‘foolish[ness]’ (ll.2), in the speaker it is ‘sickness and shame’ (ll.3). As always in Herbert, God offers the possibility of redemption, and the speaker twice requests that he be helped to achieve what is rendered as a metaphorical ‘flight’ (ll.20) from sin. If we consider the two ways the poem was presented, vertically in manuscript, horizontally in print, we can see the interpretive effect of page-turning working in slightly different ways. In the vertical version, the two stanzas act as a single set of wings, beating as the page opens and closes. In this case, the act of page turning enacts in a physical sense precisely the act that the speaker has wished for, and just as ‘[a]ffliction shall advance the flight in me’, so does closing the page propel the reader and speaker towards the next poem. The next poem in question is ‘Holy Baptism’, a poem whose title suggests an obvious connection with the calls for redemption expressed in ‘Easter Wings’. The transition between the two poems is emphasised by the first stanza of ‘Holy Baptism (I)’, which suggests that upon viewing his sins the speaker’s ‘eyes remove / More backward still, and to that water fly’ (ll.3-4). In short, the beat of the poetic wings carries the reader further into the volume, ‘advancing’ the reader through the narrative of the collection much as the speaker of ‘Easter Wings’ imagines himself propelled from sin to grace.

Figure four: George Herbert, The Temple (1633), sigs. B5v-B6r © British Library Board. C.58.a.26


[21]  This, of course, is only applicable to the vertical presentation of the poem. The more familiar version, however, is the horizontal printing present from the first published editions of Herbert in 1633. Here we have what are traditionally thought of as two sets of wings – and in this case we can see a slightly different relationship when the pages are closed. In the course of the poem the speaker describes the redemption offered by God as flight, and asks that he might be allowed to ‘imp my wing on thine’ (ll.9). When printed horizontally, we might see the reader turning the page as fulfilling exactly what has been requested – bringing the two sets of wings into contact with one another. Given that the two stanzas respectively describe a cosmological and a personal experience, we might see that contact as the joining or ‘imping’ between man and God.

[22]  The second of my two examples from Herbert, ‘The Altar’, marks the beginning of ‘The Church’, the central section of The Temple (see Figure 5). This body of poems stretches from the plaintive desire of the speaker to be transformed into a suitable site for God’s sacrifice, to the final moment of communion with Christ at the close of the volume. The precise nature of the narrative that connects these two points is less clear – and as several critics have suggested, it might be more helpful to see the ‘narrative’ of the sequence as a patchwork or mosaic of experiences and moments rather than a clear single trajectory of events (Toliver 1993; Lewalski 1979). At the same time, thematic and verbal relationships can be discerned between poems in proximity to one another – a method of reading that Herbert himself seems to endorse in ‘Holy Scriptures (I)’.

[23]  The opening poems of ‘The Church’ are one such example, and in the course of turning pages between them we can see Herbert transforming this quotidian act into one that metaphorically represents the relationship between man and god. The thematic trajectory of the opening three poems, ‘The Altar’, ‘The Sacrifice’, and ‘The Thanksgiving’ can be conceptualised as an exploration of the proper way of talking about, and addressing, God in poetry. ‘The Altar’ is of course a brief narrative of regeneration – one that details the speaker’s journey from a broken and fragmented state into the very kernel of his being, before once again moving outwards as a new and suitable place for Christ’s sacrifice to be demonstrated. Having reimagined himself (and his book) to be a suitable place for that expression to be made, we then move to ‘The Sacrifice’. This harrowing poem leads us through the sufferings of Christ, and is articulated in Christ’s own voice, quite unlike the other poems of The Temple.

[24]  Immediately following ‘The Sacrifice’ is ‘The Thanksgiving’, a poem that retreats from the intense ventriloquism of the previous poem, and offers up a softer and more restrained approach to the poetic project of rendering the experience of Christian faith in poetry. At the close of the poem, the speaker seems to suggest that it is the act of ventriloquizing that has demonstrated the limits of expressing these ideas in language: ‘Then for thy passion – I will do for that – / Alas, my God, I know not what’ (ll.49-50). These poems form a crucial bridge between ‘The Church Porch’ and the reader’s entrance into the ‘The Church’, and in many senses encapsulate the thematic concerns of sin and salvation that the rest of the volume explores. While not demonstrating a narrative as such, we can see the speaker confidently assert his readiness at the close of ‘The Altar’, then attempt to ventriloquize Christ in ‘The Sacrifice’, before dropping this ambitious goal and outlining a more modest program for the remainder of the volume.

[25]  To return to ‘The Altar’, however, I want to focus on what happens as we finish that poem and begin reading ‘The Sacrifice’. At the close of the Altar, the speaker begs

O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

The block capitals here are doing obvious work in connecting the two poems, and preparing us for the transition from one poem to another. And, as Helen Wilcox remarks in her excellent edition of Herbert, the two poems are also connected in the sense of having the ‘sacrifice’ literally sit on top of the ‘altar’ in the couplet (Wilcox 2007: 93-4). At the same time, however, I believe many readers of Herbert have missed a crucial moment as we transition to ‘The Sacrifice’ and begin to move through that poem. As we reach the end of the first page of ‘The Sacrifice’, we turn the page, and in the course of doing so, literally place ‘The Sacrifice’ on ‘The Altar’. The reader is not only placed in a position where (internally or aloud) they are speaking in Christ’s voice, but in the act of page turning they are also performing Christ’s actions, joining altar and sacrifice in exactly the manner envisioned by ‘The Altar’.

[26]  There is good evidence this interpretation may have been Herbert’s intention in his ordering and placement of his poems. In the first instance, ‘The Altar’ is the only poem, other than ‘Superliminary’ to be set on an individual page – the other poems in the collection do not appear to respect the boundary of the page, sometimes squeezing only the title and a few lines of the next poem to the foot of the page. As a result, having ‘The Altar’ generously spaced and bordered forces ‘The Sacrifice’ onto the next page and creates the facing-page arrangement that makes this reading possible. Behind this formatting lies Herbert’s original drafts; in both the Tanner (Bodleian MS Tanner 307) and Williams (Dr Williams’s Library MS Jones B.62) manuscripts, our most complete records of Herbert’s original compositions, the poems retain this order and spatial relationship. Like my reading of ‘Easter Wings’ above, I believe this is a moment of experiment by Herbert, allowing the material relationship of poem(s) to page to extend the already complicated relationships between the texts of the poems. If this moment of page-turning forces the reader to in some sense act as, or at least imaginatively sympathise with, Christ, it mirrors the movement of the speaker, who transitions from a pose of subservience in ‘The Altar’ to full embodiment in ‘The Sacrifice’.

Figure five: The Temple (1633), sig. A10v-A11r © British Library Board. C.58.a.26


[27]  While this act of page-turning demonstrates the material as well as thematic relationship between the two poems, it also comes at a crucial moment of ‘The Sacrifice’. In the narrative of the poem, we follow Christ from his prayers in the garden of Gethsemane to his eventual death on the cross. The final stanza on the page facing ‘The Altar’ appears to hold out the possibility of redemption that ‘The Altar’ had requested: ‘These drops being tempered with a sinner’s tears, / A Balsome are for both the Hemispheres: / Curing all wounds…’ (ll.29-31). As soon as one turns the page, however, and begins reading the eighth stanza, the role of the believer transforms into something far less hopeful: Yet my Disciples sleep; I cannot gain One houre of watching; but their drowsie brain Comforts not me, and doth my doctrine stain: Was ever grief like mine? The ‘Yet’ that opens this stanza breaks syntactically as well as thematically with the stanzas preceding it, and the effect of having this section begin on a new page is startling. Here, rather than tears of repentance, Christ laments that his disciples ‘sleep’, and more damningly ‘Comfort not me and doth my doctrine stain.’

[28]  From this point on, we see Christ undergoing his various tortures and, finally, his execution. At the same time, the ‘drops’ of Christ’s blood offer a final and rather hopeful answer to ‘The Altar’, offering the possibility of human salvation through the titular sacrifice. After turning the page, however, we are immediately confronted by human fallibility, and launched into an itinerary of suffering. In many respects, the turn of a single page moves the reader from the benevolent act of placing the sacrifice on the altar to suddenly realising the horror and intensity of what that might entail.

[29]  The relationship of these poems to one another and to the rest of the volume requires careful attention to their precise bibliographic form. The transition into the unique setting of ‘The Sacrifice’ and the subsequent retreat from this mode of expression in ‘The Thanksgiving’ is made even more startling if we appreciate how Herbert’s book lures us into assuming the role of Christ in an active sense. If Herbert has long been appreciated as a poet of exceptional formal ingenuity, there may be ways of seeing that ingenuity at play in the physical as well as the poetic forms that his poems took.

[30]  In the examples above I have selected some varied and illustrative close readings of particular poems, and suggested that a range of effects could be achieved, from surprise to physically engaging the reader in the spiritual drama of the text. The methodology explored here can be extended to a much larger body of texts; in an abstract sense, of course, every text has some relationship with the pages on which it was written or printed, as well as what preceded and follows it. In the hands of poets who experimented formally and materially with their texts, and seemed engaged by the possibilities of print as a medium, we can see certain provocative readings emerging once we adjust our interpretive expectations to include the act of page turning. While the examples of Watson and Herbert demonstrate two examples of poets using their reader’s tactile interaction with the text to enact a sense of the narrative embodiment, the examples from Spenser show page-turning’s capabilities to surprise, to disorient, and to undercut assumptions. Beyond this, we can see a number of different effects, from ‘thematic’ breaks in grammar or sense, unexpected images in relation to what preceded it, and opportunities for playing with readers in various other ways.

[31]  Though the examples above present three poets with demonstrable interest in form (material and poetic), many of the decisions about the arrangement of the text would have relied on the publisher’s finances and the practicalities of the print shop. As such, authorial intention becomes difficult to judge in many cases. Despite this, the process of page turning was necessarily part of the reading experience, and in this sense this project connects with a recent interest in the physical senses and their relationship to literature (e.g. Moshenska 2014; Karin-Cooper 2016). Whether authorial or editorial, whether decisions in the print shop, or purely serendipitous, each act of page turning provides the grounds for close reading and produces questions about the ways that early modern readers may have understood these material dynamics.

[32]  Moving beyond individual texts, there is also scope for including a range of other types of page-turning within the scope of this methodology. Works of this period frequently direct the reader to other sources, whether classical, biblical, or contemporary, and for certain texts the act of turning the pages of other books would have been part of the reading process.[3] Commonplacing provides a more familiar site for handling pages, as in the course of reading some early modern individuals would be navigating their personal repository of sententiae (Moss 1996). One text may provoke or encourage the turning of other pages, and we need to be alert to the material dimension of intertextuality in this sense.

[33]  This project also opens other questions, particularly in respect to the ways in which we choose to edit and publish early modern texts, whether in a print or electronic medium. For example, modern editions of Herbert do not replicate spatial relationship between ‘The Altar’ and ‘The Sacrifice’. Helen Wilcox’s now-standard scholarly edition of Herbert places each poem on an individual page, with notes following it, making the reading above impossible to generate in these conditions. This is not to criticise either the publication or its editor: scholarly editions are necessarily shaped by institutional convention, technological limitations, and market demands. Rather, I have attempted here to demonstrate that even minor aspects like these can have ramifications for the interpretive project of reading and analysing early modern books. Digital facsimiles, which can provide the original texts in as much detail as one could ever expect, have fewer problems in this regard, but there may be questions to ask about the way that interacting with digital simulacrum might blind us to certain tactile interactions that were an important part of the reading process for the early modern period. In our efforts to explore all of the ways in which a text might convey meaning, especially in those forms first encountered by contemporary readers, it may be necessary for us all to turn over a new leaf, and incorporate a phenomenology of page-turning into our consideration of early modern texts.

University of York



I would like to thank Kevin Killeen and Elizabeth Oakley-Brown for their organisation of both the Scrutinising Surfaces conference and this resulting special issue. I also thank my peer-reviewers for their encouragement and helpful suggestions.

[1] See in particular Chartier’s The Order of Books (1994) and D.F. McKenzie’s Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1999). For ‘new formalism’ see in particular the useful collection of essays edited by Verena Theile and Linda Tredennick (eds.), New Formalisms and Literary Theory (2013), and Mark David Rassmussen, Renaissance Literature and its Formal Engagements (2003) for an early modern perspective. [back to text]

[2] Watson’s poems are not sonnets but their closeness to the form and their Petrarchan themes suggest an obvious kinship. Watson himself describes them as sonnets, and I will refer to them as such throughout this discussion. [back to text]

[3] I am grateful to Hannah Crawforth for pointing out these potential lines of research. [back to text]



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