Recently I’ve been exploring the very active literary lives of eighteenth-century lower gentry and middle-class individuals. Many of these socially obscure people not only composed and exchanged verse in manuscript form within their own social networks, but also copied out and arranged contemporary poetry that they found in printed sources. My primary evidence for this is the manuscript verse miscellany. Many of us are familiar with the idea of a commonplace book—a catchall name for books of extracts, in which poetry might share space with Spectator essays, sermons, recipes, and lists of post-road mileages that the compiler wished to remember and consult as needed. The eighteenth-century manuscript verse miscellany is often catalogued as a commonplace book, but it is actually something different. First, it focuses on verse as a distinct form (often including rhymed riddles and epitaphs) and presents poems in their entirety, rather than as excerpts organized under headings like “Of Melancholy” or “On Tobacco.” It is generally the work of one creator, written in a single hand, indicating a coherent vision for what the book was to be, even when the process of selection, copying, and arranging took place over several years. The presence of decorative features further suggests an intention to create a unified aesthetic object adhering to recognized genre conventions.
In such a book, most of the poetry is relatively contemporary, covering recent decades: it records what its creator found meaningful, entertaining, and fashionable in their own time. Of the hundreds of volumes that meet these criteria scattered in archives around the world, the Folger Shakespeare Library is home to dozens.
In September 2019 I was privileged to hold a short-term fellowship at the Folger which allowed me to study 38 manuscript poetry miscellany volumes. Here I’ll discuss what two compilations, from opposite ends of my study period of 1701-1820, can tell us about the poetic lives of “ordinary folks” of the time.
At some point in the 1720s, a well-educated young person attentive to literary fashions decided to compile a book of contemporary poems, creating what is now Folger MS M.a.174. There is no name attached to the book, but the androcentric point of view of its contents, the interest in Latin poetry and translation, and the presence of verse connected to universities or schools lead me to imagine a male compiler.1 In a bound book of blank pages procured for that purpose, he brought together an eclectically pleasing mix of tributes to Isaac Newton, George Frederic Handel, and various painters; witty satires on the poet Ambrose Phillips; verses in praise of beautiful young women and wax dolls; and the thoughts of “A Lady on the Death of her Husband.” We know the latter poem was written by the very popular Elizabeth Rowe, but poems in this collection appear without attribution even when their authors are identified by contemporaries, suggesting this compiler was either peripheral to the London literary scene or simply uninterested in authorship. Each entry is copied in the same neat hand, with a bold diagonal stroke from top right to lower left marking its conclusion.
Finally, after carefully numbering 192 pages and constructing a table of contents, the book’s creator put a finishing touch on the volume by copying into its front endpapers an essay from Mist’s Journal for October 9, 1725. It’s an appropriate preface, beginning, “Poetry is chiefly addressd to the Imaginations [sic], and is one of the finest Sources of Pleasure the Mind is capable of….” Ultimately, this compiler valued his creation enough to have it custom-bound in expensive morocco leather with gilt decoration.
In 1793, “A.T.W.” began keeping a manuscript book, now Folger MS M.a.182, whose first entry was “A Theme. Retirement. An Allegory.” This was a prose piece that this compiler later annotated with the note: “The only excuse for the above nonsense is, that it was written at Fifteen; & was inserted here at the request of a fond & partial father who would not suffer it to be corrected.”
Switching immediately thereafter to poetry with interspersed anecdotes and quotations, A.T.W. records a rich mixture of works by the likes of Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale Piozzi, David Garrick, Mehetabel Wright, the Della Cruscans, and Robert Burns. One poem, attributed to a Richard Wharton, was, we are told in a note, “written purposely for this collection Mr. Wharton having promised to contribute to it.”
Poems by and about various male Whartons, celebrating their educational, clerical, and political achievements, suggest that the “W” in “A.T.W” stands for “Wharton.” At this point, I don’t know any more about A.T.W., but the presence in the book of a proportionately large number of public poems to and by women, several courtly love poems addressed to a young lady that I’ll discuss further below, and the celebration of male public careers in the compiler’s network while there is no hint of a similar profile for A.T.W. lead me to think of A.T.W. as a woman of the gentry or professional class.
So here we have two individuals—one early and the other late in the century, possibly one male and one female, probably one urbanite and one resident of northern England or southern Scotland, but both now unknown—who set out to create a miscellany volume blending favourite, publicly circulated poems with a few that had originated within their own social networks. As each of them chose materials for their blank book, who did they imagine reading it—an indulgent father? a circle of friends sharing a bottle? a future self? And as they marked off the spaces between poems, chose a preface or title, and compiled a table of contents, what generic ideal were they adhering to? For, as my brief descriptions have shown, these compilations display a certain family resemblance born of their historical moment, implying common purposes, material conditions, and processes of creation that seem to have coalesced in the long eighteenth century.2 While similar miscellanies do survive from the early modern period, they were the prized possessions of social or educational elites who often had access to poetry that circulated in manuscript only. At the other end of my study period, I begin to see books filled with cut-and-paste print rather than hand-copied poems, showing that in the nineteenth century, the ubiquity of cheap print makes it thinkable to destroy it in this way to form a scrapbook. So what enabled and motivated poetry compilation in this middle space?
Peter Beal’s dismissal of the poetry miscellany beyond 1700 provides a clue: he muses that although people continued to keep various sorts of manuscript compilations, they tend to be uninteresting “because they belong less to a flourishing manuscript culture and because most of what they contain is trivial and ephemeral material copied largely from contemporary printed sources”3 (emphasis mine). It’s significant that those print sources tend to be not single-authored books of poetry, which continued to be costly and fairly scarce, but rather, the new print products: newspapers, printed miscellanies, and above all, magazines. These relatively affordable, widely circulated vehicles delivered poetry to new categories of enthusiasts,4 who in turn made such verse their own by selecting, copying, adapting, and juxtaposing it in manuscript books. Copying with pen and ink was hard, physical work, requiring time and resources even with the development of italic and cursive hands.5 It follows, then, that the content and arrangement of materials in these books was not a matter of mindless transfer: these are the products of self-conscious, creative “making.” The result was undoubtedly miscellaneous, but variety was a valued literary quality in the eighteenth-century.6 Manuscript poetry miscellanies like Folger MS M.a.174 and M.a.182 challenge us to enlarge our criteria of literary judgement so that we in turn can value works not tightly unified in subject matter or point of view. A brief discussion of overall design and the arrangement of individual items in these two books will illustrate what I mean.
Beginnings are important for miscellany creators: in Folger MS M.a.174, the prefatory essay on poetry from Mist’s Journal is not listed in the Table of Contents and is not part of the book’s pagination, telling us it was added as a final touch. When he copied those opening words about poetry as a source of pleasure, our compiler will have noted that the essay concludes with an important caveat, in an image drawn from alchemy: “in the hands of an unskilfull Operator,” the “Volatile Spirit” of poetry “evaporates, and leaves nothing behind it but a meer Caput mortuum [i.e. a black ash residue].” Thus he not only promises that this book will afford pleasure, but also opens himself up to judgement as to whether or not he himself has been a “skilfull Operator” in the choices he has made. At the other end of the century, A.T.W. pastes a carefully written title page into her book, calling it “A miscellaneous collection in prose and verse in which are included several original pieces 1793.”
In so doing she highlights three features she considers significant: the work of curating a varied group of materials, the access to “original pieces” from within her own circle, and the book’s relation to a particular year in her life.
A.T.W.’s miscellany includes a retrospective temporal dimension, creating a stereoscopic, autobiographical effect. Layered over the initial compilation runs a sometimes-caustic meta-commentary in the voice of an older A.T.W. I have already mentioned the first item, with its later note “excus[ing] the above nonsense.” An even harsher fate awaits courtly love poems apparently once addressed to the compiler. One such piece, titled “To a lady, on her requesting the author to write poetry” and attributed to J:B:Esqr:, is vigorously crossed out, with a note at the end reading “grand nonsense, scratch it out”.
But such second thoughts are intellectual as well as personal: an epitaph on Rousseau is heavily edited, with the words “the Infidel Rousseau” replacing “the great, the good Rousseau.”
A.T.W.’s title-page epigraph matches this self-deprecating tone: “The successive evolutions of the design, sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.” But A.T.W. is quoting Samuel Johnson’s preface to his edition of Shakespeare, pointing to her learning and her literary ambition at the same time. I don’t think it’s an accident that she ends her book with a prose extract from Bishop George Horne’s 1776 commentary on the Psalms, another important book of poetry: speaking of himself in the third person, Horne writes, “Happier hours than those which have been spent in these meditations on the Songs of Sion, he never expects to see in this world…. They are gone, but have left a relish & a fragrance upon the mind, and the remembrance of them is sweet.” With this nostalgic reflection, A.T.W. casts a retrospective glow over her own experience of the pleasures of poetry.
When we move from overall structuring principles to examine how individual poems from print sources are contextualized, M.a.174 poses a challenge. This compiler seems unconcerned about maintaining a consistent tone or political position. Like many miscellany compilers throughout the century, he includes Mary Molesworth’s heartfelt dying verses to her husband from Bath, but he also copies a cynical quatrain calling a young woman lucky for dying shortly after marriage. He worries about the immorality of masquerades and Italian opera singers, but records praise of Handel, the composer who had promoted Italian opera in England.
One repeated preoccupation of this book is the affairs of Ireland, including nine poems that encapsulate the spectrum of views on the poet Ambrose Philips’ sojourn there, during which he wrote poems praising the children of Lord Protector Carteret. Philips’ poems are juxtaposed with satiric parodies of them, followed by a few serious panegyrics of the Carteret family by other poets.
Contradictory echoes of this sequence occur twice more in the volume, with Philips first ridiculed as “Crambo,” a nickname signifying false wit,7 only to have the compiler approvingly record a “Crambo-Satyricon” poem. Rather than consistency, this compiler aims for topicality: his collection is overwhelmingly about figures in the limelight or issues of the day. This could explain why the poems are introduced by their subjects’ names rather than by their authors, and why the latter generally remain unnamed, except when, like Philips, they themselves are celebrated and controversial.
No passive consumers of reading material, the compilers of Folger MS M.a.174 and M.a.182 were perfectly comfortable appropriating social or public contemporary poetry as they saw fit—in fact, they were drawn to material that could be appropriated to their own tastes, experiences, and states of feeling. These manuscripts demonstrate that obscure miscellany creators appear not to have been constrained by any hard boundary between script and print, or amateur and professional. As they hand-crafted their books, they used selection, juxtaposition, and overall design as creative strategies for negotiating their own positions in the fast-expanding literary culture of the eighteenth century.
- Such gender designations can only be conjectural; an early eighteenth-century compilation created by Anne Milles, for example (Folger MS W.a.86), begins with drinking songs, and women frequently record poems of men admonishing women.
- Here I am influenced by Ralph Cohen’s theories of genre, as outlined, for example, in “Genre Theory, Literary History, and Historical Change,” in Theoretical Issues in Literary History, ed. David Perkins (Harvard English Studies 16, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 85-113.
- Peter Beal, “Notions in Garrison: The Seventeenth-Century Commonplace Books,” New Ways of Looking at Old Texts: Papers of the Renaissance English Text Society 1985-1991, ed. W. Speed Hill (Binghamton NY: Renaissance English Text Society, 1993), pp. 131-47, at p. 146.
- For an illuminating empirical study of the importance for readers of magazines and the provincial book trade in general, see Jan Fergus, Provincial Readers in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006). Laura Runge, in “From Manuscript to Print and Back Again: Two Verse Miscellanies by Eighteenth-century Women,” Literary Manuscripts: 17th and 18th Century Poetry from the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, www.literarymanuscriptsleeds.amdigital.co.uk, n.p., emphasizes anthologies as the source of poems rather than periodical publications.
- See Marcy L. North’s discussion of the labour involved in compiling a miscellany in the early modern period: “Amateur Compilers, Scribal Labour, and the Contents of Early Modern Poetic Miscellanies,” in Manuscript Miscellanies c. 1450-1700, 16:82–111 (English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700. Vol. 16; London: The British Library, 2011), pp. 82-111.
- See Eve Tavor Bannet, Manners of Reading: Print Culture and Popular Instruction in the Anglophone Atlantic World (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2017) for a discussion of this miscellaneous aesthetic. Also relevant is Carly Watson’s dscussion of the eighteenth-century print miscellany’s features, history, and reader appeal in Miscellanies, Poetry, and Authorship, 1680–1800 (Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).
- Kate Loveman, “Epigram and Spontaneous Wit,” in The Oxford Handbook of Eighteenth-Century Satire, ed. Paddy Bullard (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2019), pp. 501-2.
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