Monday, July 12, 2010


The Transmission of Texts

Tom Stoppard, The Invention of Love (New York: Grove Press, 1998), pp. 24-25:
Housman But isn't it of use to establish what the ancient authors really wrote?

Jowett It would be on the whole desirable rather than undesirable and the job was pretty well done, where it could be done, by good scholars dead these hundred years and more. For the rest, certainty could only come from recovering the autograph. This morning I had to have typewritten an autograph letter I wrote to the father of a certain undergraduate. The copy as I received it asserted the Master of Balliol had a solemn duty to stamp out unnatural mice. In other words, anyone with a secretary knows that what Catullus really wrote was already corrupt by the time it was copied twice, which was about the time of the first Roman invastion of Britain: and the earliest copy that has come down to us was written about 1,500 years after that. Think of all those secretaries! — corruption breeding corruption from papyrus to papyrus, and from the last disintegrating scrolls to the first new-fangled parchment books, with a thousand years of copying-out still to come, running the gauntlet of changing forms of script and spelling, and absence of punctuation — not to mention mildew and rats and fire and flood and Christian disapproval to the brink of extinction as what Catullus really wrote passed from scribe to scribe, this one drunk, that one sleepy, another without scruple, and of those sober, wide-awake and scrupulous, some ignorant of Latin and some, even worse, fancying themselves better Latinists than Catullus — until! — finally and at long last — mangled and tattered like a dog that has fought its way home, there falls across the threshold of the Italian Renaissance the sole surviving witness to the thirty generations of carelessness and stupidity: the Verona Codex of Catullus; which was almost immediately lost again, but not before being copied with one last opportunity for error. And there you have the foundation of the poems of Catullus as they went to the printer for the first time, in Venice 400 years ago.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?