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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: 'The Last True Poets of the Sea' by Julia Drake

Photograph of a gold ring with blue stone and inscription in the band
Photograph of a gold ring with blue stone and inscription in the band

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Dr. Emma Poltrack shares items she presented on August 5, 2021 as an introduction to The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here. To enjoy the music played during the session, visit us on Spotify.

Julia Drake’s The Last True Poets of the Sea borrows character and plot inspiration from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, written about 1601. One of the plays we would not have without the First Folio, Twelfth Night contains cross-gender and cross-class romantic entanglements reflective of the topsy-turvy celebrations which would have accompanied the holiday its title references.

Central to Drake’s contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s story is Violet’s search for the Lyric, the shipwreck survived by her great-great-great-grandmother, Fidelia. Wrecks appear again and again in Shakespeare’s plays, reflective of the booming oceanic exploration occurring at the time and the perils that went with it. James Janeway’s A Token for Mariners is a catalogue of these dangers, compiling the historic details of 29 shipwrecks alongside a collection of prayers and sermons to aid in a variety of sea-faring situations. This illustration of the Providential eye overseeing a wreck bares striking similarities to an illustration of Shakespeare’s The Tempest from Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of the plays.

1599 world map showing longitude, latitude, and rhumb lines

World Map, Edward Wright. 1599. Folger Shakespeare Library: Map W89c no.3.

Maritime explorers were aided by improvements in technology and cartography, including Edward Wright’s contribution of a new world map, the first world map published in England. Building upon a 1569 projection created—but never explained—by Gerardus Mercator, Wright published accurate mathematical tables needed to recreate Mercator’s work. Wright’s map showed latitudinal, longitudinal, and rhumb lines but left out speculative information, and it’s thought that Shakespeare referenced Wright’s work in Twelfth Night with the line “He does smile his face into more lynes, than is in the new Mappe, with the augmentation of the Indies.”

If she was a theater fan as a child, Fidelia Hathaway may have known of Charlotte Cushman, a wildly popular actor in the mid-19th century. Known for playing Romeo and Hamlet, Cushman also dressed in masculine attire in her personal life and had a number of romantic relationships with women including painter Rosalie Sully and sculptor Emma Stebbins (it is thought Stebbins based Angel of the Waters on Cushman). Her professional and personal lives find gentle echoes in Violet’s story, connecting Last True Poets’ fictional protagonist to a real-life Shakespeare stage legend.


Photograph of a gold ring with blue stone and inscription in the band

Memorial poesy ring. Ring in memory of one who went to sea. Gold, rock crystal and textile, 1592. Folger Shakespeare Library: H-P Reliques no.9 (realia).

Violet makes a major discovery about her family history when she learns of Fidelia’s lost twin, Septimus, through an engraving on a locket. The Folger collection contains a memento of another life lost in sea: this compelling ring whose inscription implores the wearer ‘The cruell seas, remember / Took him in November.” You can learn more about the ring, along with a token of affection between Cushman and Sully, in this blog post. More recently, the Folger suffered its own maritime misfortune when a collection of papers relating to David Garrick were lost as the result of German torpedoing during WWI.

The variety of the Folger’s holdings offers a wealth of ways to understand elements of our own time. To view all the items shown as part of our The Last True Poets of the Sea discussion, visit the collection on LUNA.

Graphic illustration of stacks of books in purple. aqua, and whiteRegistration for our September session, when we will discuss Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, opens Tuesday, August 10. We hope you make a plan to join us!

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: