[Ed. Note: Today’s post is by Simran Thadani who received her Ph.D. in 2013 from Penn’s Department of English with a specialization in book history and special collections]
John Dryden, perhaps the most prolific seventeenth-century English poet, playwright, and commentator, is well known for his adaptations of older texts. In his last work, Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), Dryden translated works by Homer, Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. But although Dryden styled Chaucer the “Father of English poetry,” and reprinted Chaucer’s original Middle English poems in the Fables, one might suspect that Dryden’s eighteenth-century readers didn’t think Chaucer a worthwhile subject of study.
I make this claim based on two readers’ manuscript annotations in Penn’s copy of the Fables (Kislak Center, RBC Folio PR3418 .F3 1700). The unidentified readers, whom I’ll call A and B, engaged broadly with Dryden’s text. Here are some different things they wrote while reading:
Definitions: Reader A looked up the meanings of several unfamiliar terms. For instance, the word “horoscope” is defined as the “configuration of the planets at the hour of Birth,” while a “Quartil” is explained as “when planets are 3 signs distant = to one quarter or 90 degrees” (sigs. C1v, D2r).
Other specialized terms come from fields like fencing—to “foin” is “to push in fencing”; armory—a “Morion” is a “helmet, armour for the head”; and botany—“Fumetery, Centaury, and Spurge” are “an herb,” “a plant,” and “laurel or mezerion,” respectively (sigs. E4v, K1r, 2G3v; all definitions from the OED).
Almost all these words originated in the medieval or Renaissance periods: the OED says “horoscope” was first used in 1050 CE (and then in Chaucer’s Astrolabe), “quartile” in 1500, “foin” in about 1450, “morion” in 1547, “centary” in about 1000 (and then in Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale”), and “spurge” in 1387. But none were in common use in 1700, so Dryden’s use of Chaucer’s idiom, while serving as an evocative tribute to the older poet, was obviously hard for Dryden’s readers to navigate. This reader was evidently more comfortable with Dryden’s classical and Biblical sources than his medieval vocabulary, for very few allusions—such as to Samson, Solomon, Medea, or Circe—are glossed.
Corrections to typographical errors: It’s hard to say which reader made these corrections from the handwriting alone, since the marks are so small and generic. Here, “chast” and “hast” are given terminal “e”s, with commas inserted to clarify the syntax (sig. 3Q1r):
In a more substantive correction, the word “Orphans” in Dryden’s triplet is emended to “Orpheus,” restoring the correct allusion to the musician, his “Wife” Eurydice, and the “Tyrant” Pluto (sig. 2I3v).
“Post mediam noctem visus, cum somnia vera,” from Horace’s tenth Satire, is a description of Romulus “appearing … after midnight, when dreams are true.” Similarly, “Namque sub auroram, jam dormitante lucerna, / Somnia quo cerni tempore vera solent,” from Ovid’s Heroides, refers to the time “just before dawn, when the star is sinking, / A time of sleep when true dreams are often experienced.”
Dryden’s “Love’s a Malady without a Cure” has a more direct precedent, “nullis amor, est medicabilis, herbis,” although the reader does not provide the source (Ovid’s Metamorphoses) (sig. E3r).
Ovid’s Ars amatoria is the source for the note “Jupiter ex alto, perjuria videt amantum,” which follows the comment that “Jove but laughs at Lovers Perjury” (sig. E3v).
The reader was obviously familiar with unattributed Latin proverbs, too, citing “amare et sapere vix deo conceditur” next to Dryden’s “to be wise and love, / Is hardly granted to the Gods above” (sig. F3v).
Crucially, neither reader goes back to Chaucer’s originals, which boast no annotations at all. Of course, blank margins don’t necessarily mean an ignored text, but still, they give us no evidence of these readers’ engagement with Chaucer, and in fact suggest a lack thereof, given how much manuscript material is to be found in Dryden’s text by comparison. It doesn’t help that Dryden doesn’t even mention the Chaucerian originals.
The annotations to Dryden’s Fables, then, start to seem like evidence of Chaucer’s obsolescence, and testimony to Dryden’s success in rendering the past legible for his readers.
 It was likely that Dryden had some say in the decision to reprint Chaucer’s original poems in the Fables; he had worked closely with Jacob Tonson, his publisher, for some time by then. None of the other three poets’ original works were included, so at least Chaucer was special in that context. But his Middle English texts were stripped of all notes and scholarly apparatus, relegated to the back of the volume where they could easily be overlooked or forgotten, printed in smaller type than Dryden’s text, and not even mentioned in the table of contents! Why would they have been included at all, then, since the cost of printing them would obviously have increased Tonson’s expenses and decreased his profits?
 Needless to say, the publication date of Warton’s essay provides a terminus post quem for Reader B’s annotations, which cannot have been made before 1756. It is worth noting that (a) Warton discusses not Chaucer himself, but Pope and Dryden’s versifications of Chaucer, and (b) the second excerpt from Warton also contains a reference to Spenser—again ignoring the fourteenth-century poetry in deference to its successors.