Pointing at Gondibert


As promised, this post analyzes the manicules that gesture from the margins of a Folger copy of William D’Avenant’s Gondibert (and grace the header of this blog). This post is adapted from a paper I gave at the SHARP conference in Philadelphia last summer and it focuses on a single opening in the book.


D’Avenant’s Gondibert is a rollicking heroic poem set in medieval Lombardy.[1] The narrative itself features stag hunting in the Italian countryside, power struggles in Bergamo and Verona, numerous yearning lovers, elaborate funerals for beloved warriors, and a detailed description of a gentleman’s library and scientific endeavors, among other things. But the work is perhaps best known for its lengthy preface in which D’Avenant proposes a model for heroic poetry. Despite the extended analysis of heroic poetry in D’Avenant’s preface, Gondibert has been variously discussed as an epic, a romance, and a drama. This generic confusion or indeterminacy is further fueled by the fact that D’Avenant never completed the work, only ever finishing three of the poems’ five anticipated books (a model designed to mimic the five act structure of classical drama). While D’Avenant composed the preface and the first two books of the poem among Royalist exiles in Paris (and even shared early drafts of the poem and the preface with Thomas Hobbes), he wrote the third book under inhospitable circumstances in Cower-Castle on the Isle of Wight after he was captured at sea en route to take up the governorship of Maryland on the orders of the exiled court Charles II. These three navigations I’ve mentioned – the terrain traversed and adventures shared by the characters within Gondibert, the inter-generic play of the work as an heroic poem undergirded with a dramatic structure, and D’Avenant’s own movement between freedom and captivity or England, France, and the Atlantic – are the background to and constitutive aspects of the textual life of Gondibert.

Indeed, D’Avenant was concerned about the way his reader would navigate his work textually, physically, and morally. In the preface he likens the plan of his heroic poem to a coasting map “where the Shelves and Rocks are describ’d as well as the safe Channell; the care being equall how to avoid as to proceed.” If D’Avenant offered his readers a paradigm for navigating his heroic poem, if he indicated both the safe pathways and the dangerous rocks, how did these readers actually negotiate the pages of Gondibert?

A heavily annotated copy of the 1651 first edition of Gondibert held at the Folger Shakespeare Library shows how one reader navigated the pages of D’Avenant’s heroic poem. An early reader covered the preliminary materials in this copy with manicules—or pointing hands—and left the text of the poem itself untouched. As Bill Sherman suggests in his chapter on the manicule in Used Books, “When we encounter [manicules] among the asterisks, trefoils, ticks, “treaks,” crosses, brackets, running commentaries, and endless nota benes, they have the uncanny power to conjure up the bodies of dead writers and readers.”[2] Sherman’s meditation on the relationship between the pictorial hand and the hands of authors, readers, and annotators long-dead raises questions about the aims and ambitions of the history of reading in general and the annotated Folger copy of Gondibert in particular. Taking this specific copy as a starting point, I ask: What does it mean to “point” at Gondibert? What does it mean to cover the preliminaries with manicules and leave the text of the poem unmarked? And what can this specific copy tell us about the history of reading? To begin to answer this question I’ve selected a single opening of the Folger copy which captures the practices of this individual annotator and highlights the central intergeneric debates at the heart of both the preface to Gondibert and the debates about the poem’s genres since.


Folger D325 Copy 1, C3v-C4r, Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library


This specific copy of Gondibert is a 1651 first edition of the poem.[3] It’s a quarto printing with large margins bound in a contemporary stamped calf binding. The opening above (and the one I’ll focus on here) spans pages eighteen and nineteen from D’Avenant’s seventy page preface and includes examples of the range of marks this reader made in this copy (sigs. C3v-C4r). First, there are three distinct manicules that point to sections of text. Most of the manicules in this book are drawn in a brown ink of varying shades though some are also drawn in pencil.[4] Second, there is one multi-part annotation that includes a manicule, a line that marks a section of lines, and the lone word in an italic or round hand: “Ambition.”[5] While the line marker is used frequently by this reader, the word “Ambition” is the only linguistic, verbal, or non-pictorial annotation in this copy. Based on the hand used to write this single word, the use of manicules, the binding of the book, and the publication date I think it is most plausible that this book was annotated in the late-seventeenth or early-eighteenth century (1651-1700).

Before the point in the preface where these specific annotations occur D’Avenant has already explained some general attributes of heroic poetry (the role of the poet, the legacy of Spenser, the difference between imitation and originality) and some of the specifics of his own heroic poem (a Christian hero, action set in a former age, the poem’s Italian setting, and finally, the moral impact of his work.) Following the precedent of Spenser and earlier writers of heroic verse, D’Avenant argues for the moral benefit of the heroic poetry for gentlemen: the men engaged in court politics and the men at arms, encamped with the nations army and navy. In the opening I’ve selected, D’Avenant continues to speculate about the lessons his readers might learn from heroic poetry and the kinds of readers who might best learn these lessons.

The reader who added the manicules followed D’Avenant’s lead to a point. On the verso, the two pointing hands indicate sentences that demonstrate D’Avenant’s commitment to educating promising gentlemen, rather than the common man. Gondibert is not necessarily addressed to ALL readers. D’Avenant writes,

The common Crowd (of whom we are hopelesse) we desert, being rather to be corrected by laws (where precept is accompanied with punishment) then to be taught by Poesy; for few have arriv’d at the skill of Orpheus, or at his good fortune, whome we may suppose to have met with extraordinary Grecian Beasts, when so successfully he reclaim’d them with his Harp.

To D’Avenant, “the common Crowd,” or all who are excluded from the court, camp, and bloodlines of prerogative D’Avenant had previously discussed, need to be morally educated by law, rather than poetry, because law combines reinforcement with moral lessons.[6] The second manicule on the page points to another sentence that continues this line of argumentation and argues that gentlemen should imitate the lives, deeds, and morals of heroic figures, and the common crowd should not.

The marked passage on the facing page, however, reveals the peril even high-born readers may face when they read heroic poetry. The complex annotation on the recto begins after the quote about navigation with which I began. It appears that our annotator was quite interested in the “shelves and rocks” that might disrupt a reader, or a gentleman’s, smooth sailing. D’Avenant suggests that the two greatest dangers are love and ambition and looking at the annotation, I suggest that our reader was most concerned with “Ambition.” The manicule and line highlight the next sentence in which D’Avenant explains the particular vagaries of ambition.

Yet Ambition (if the vulgar acception of the word were corrected) would signifie no more then an extraordinary lifting of the feet in the rough ways of Honor, over the impediments of Fortune; and hath a warmth (till it be chas’d into a Feaver) which is necessary for every virtuous breast

In D’Avenant’s definition, ambition is essential to a gentleman’s success, but can also overwhelm, distract, and render feverish honorable pursuits. Like love, ambition must be carefully calibrated so it is a strength rather than a hindrance. It is this quality of ambition, I think, that draws our annotator to this moment in the introduction: Properly calibrated ambition can mean the difference between the safe channel and the rocks.

I’m going to skip the final manicule for now (it points to a standard-fare joke at the expense of friars) to think more about the kind of generic and readerly implications of our annotator’s focus on ambition. The plots of heroic poems are conventionally motivated by ambitions and attempts to thwart the ambitions of others. And in Gondibert the headstrong actions of young noblemen bring Lombardy into civil war. Our annotator’s particular attention to the question of ambition as an obstacle raises one further question: if Gondibert can teach a gentleman how to avoid the problem of excessive ambition, why didn’t our reader mark any of the many places in the poem where ambition poses a danger? Why did our reader leave the margins of the poem itself entirely blank? Perhaps the answer is that the detailed advice D’Avenant provides in the preface may be more comprehensible than the advice latent in the poem itself. Our reader preferred to point to D’Avenant’s clearly articulated points than explore the intergeneric morass of D’Avenant’s unfinished heroic poem.

This is not to say that our annotator did not read the poem, we have no way to know that, but we do know that he either did not read it with pen in hand or his pen found nothing he wished to note. Just as D’Avenant offers his reader a way to navigate the trials and tribulations of life in court or camp, our reader perhaps navigated clear channels of lessons about poetry, morality, and a kind of national belonging included in the preface and glossed over the obstacles and impediments of the heroic poem itself.



[1] William D’Avenant, Gondibert: An Heroick Poem, written by Sr William D’Avenant. London: Printed by Tho[mas] Newcomb for John Holden, and are to be sold at his Shop at the sign of the Anchor in the New-Exchange, 1651 [1650]. Wing D324. Thomason Dates January 1650, E.782[1]. Sir William Davenant’s Gondibert edited by David F. Gladish Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

[2] William H. Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) 29.

[3] George Thomason, London bookseller and collector dated his copy “Jan 1650.” Publication of this edition advertised in Mercurius Politicus 29, 19-26 December 1650 p 486 AND Perfect Diurnall “The first Heroick Poem in the Englih Tongue written by Sir William Davenant, a Booke much commended by the learned Mr. Hobs, and long expected, is now published in print” 16-23 December 1650 p 716

[4] Only a few cases can I see pencil with pen traced over it. The text may have been read and annotated multiple times.

[5] The other annotations in the volume are standard annotations that appear across a lot of copies. Gladish, xxxiv-vi. The UPenn copy, the Folger copy, the NYPL copy, and the Thomason digitized copy all have the same ones.

[6] D’Avenant significantly revises this theory in 1654 in the tract A Proposition for the Advancement of Mortalitie, By a new way of Entertainment of the People wherein he argues that theater, spectacle, and painting can shock, awe, and impress the common citizen to higher moral caliber. [William D’Avenant], A Proposition for the Advancement of Mortalitie, By a new way of Entertainment of the People (London: Printed in the Yeer 1654).