A few weeks ago we visited the Marks of Genius exhibition in the recently refurbished Weston Library which is part of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is a remarkable exhibition with an overwhelming collection of riches in terms of manuscripts and rare books. You might expect to see a copy of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton. But one of the items that bowled me over was the original manuscript of ‘An Essay on Criticism’ written in Alexander Pope’s own hand and used by the printer to prepare the first edition in 1711. It was open at the first page and you could see Pope’s annotations and corrections. Pope instructed the printer to put the following lines at the top of the second page:
Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own
I think he would be astonished at our ability today, not only to believe but, to publish our judgments in blogs. We might have the technology to synchronise our time-keeping devices, whether they are watches or smart phones, but there is still a huge diversity of opinions.
The other item in the exhibition that fascinated me was an unpublished manuscript by Jane Austen of a novel called ‘The Watsons‘. It is tempting to think that the prose written by great authors flows effortlessly onto the page. However, this was clearly not the case for Jane Austen as can be seen from the many crossings out and insertions in this handwritten manuscript. It should perhaps encourage my students who frequently have reports and manuscripts returned to them containing a similar level of my deletions and additions [see my post entitled ‘Reader, Reader, Reader‘ on April 15th, 2015].
The Bodleian Library has digitised the entire exhibition so you can see exactly what I have written about above by following the links to their website: