What was being read in 1704? Some initial findings

Posted by Jenny Batt on Wednesday, April 28, 2010 with No comments

In these early days of the project, the Indexing team have been looking at miscellanies produced in the first decade of the eighteenth century, and even at this stage some interesting findings have begun to emerge. As might be expected, big-name poets like John Dryden (1631-1700) and Matthew Prior (1664-1721) are proving to be very well represented in the miscellanies. But data collected on a host of other poems and poets is starting to suggest some of the ways the Digital Miscellanies Index might transform our understanding of eighteenth century literary culture.

The mysterious 'Mr. Wolseley'

One of the key aims of this project is to shed light on figures who were important in the eighteenth century but who are now more or less completely lost to us. One such figure is the mysterious 'Mr Wolseley', the author of about 10 poems in the miscellanies that we've looked at so far.

Looking at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, it seems likely that 'Mr Wolseley' is in fact Robert Wolseley (1648/9-1697). According to Timothy Venning's ODNB article on Wolseley, the highlights of the poet's life include being friends with the notorious Earl of Rochester; becoming involved in a 'poetical quarrel' which resulted in a duel and the death of a fellow writer; going through a subsequent reformation; and finally, assuming diplomatic duties under William III.

Wolseley's poems include translations from Ovid and Virgil, political satires and lyric songs, and appear in both literary miscellanies such as the Dryden-Tonson Miscellanies (e.g. Second Part (3rd ed, 1702); Third Part (2nd ed, 1706)), and political and topical collections like Poems on affairs of state (1702). The evidence suggests that in the years after his death in 1697, Wolseley had a solid, if minor, reputation. As the Miscellanies Indexing project continues, we'll be able to see whether this reputation persists through the century, and if and when Wolseley disappears from view. Wolseley is one of the first of many neglected poets that this project will bring to light: over the next three years, many more will follow.

Different versions of the same poet

Another key aim of the project is to examine the ways in which different miscellanies shape how poets and poems were read. Different miscellanies framed authors in different ways, presenting a particular 'version' of them to their readers. This can be seen neatly in the case of Elizabeth Singer (also known as Elizabeth Singer Rowe, 1674-1737). A significant number of Singer's poems were included in Divine hymns and poems on several occasions (1704), a collection of prayers, hymns and biblical paraphrases. Singer takes a lead role in this miscellany and under her pseudonym 'Philomela' she is mentioned on the title-page. Any readers of this miscellany, or the revised edition of 1709, would have understood 'Philomela' as a pious and devout poet preoccupied by religious themes.

However, a different impression of the poet would be conveyed to readers of another miscellany published in 1704, the Dryden-Tonson collection Poetical miscellanies: the fifth part. Here. 'Mrs Singer' appears as the author of a much broader range of poems: as well as a poem on the creation story, there are dream visions, pastorals, coterie verse, and two translations of passages from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata. In this miscellany, Singer is presented as a poet interested in a more diverse range of topics, and with a more versatile poetic talent. As we fill the database with details from over 1000 miscellanies, similar patterns should emerge for many other poets, and we'll be able to trace the ways poets were packaged for, and consumed by, eighteenth century readers.

Different versions of the same poem

The Miscellanies Index will also allow us to see how individual poems are affected by the contexts in which they are presented. One interesting case is 'What art thou, O new found pain?', an ode exploring the torments of love and desire, which appears in a number of different miscellanies in the first three years of the eighteenth century. The poem appears in two miscellanies with literary pretensions, A new miscellany of original poems (1701) and the Dryden-Tonson Miscellany poems: the first part (3rd ed 1702). It also appears in the political miscellany Poems on affairs of state (vol I, 1703). These different context have the potential to inflect the poem in different ways; finding this 'pindarick' ode in the literary miscellanies might have induced readers to focus on its form; finding it in Poems on affairs of state may have caused readers to reflect on the speaker's references to courts and princes. It is likely that as the Miscellanies Indexing continues, even more different presentations of this single poem will emerge.

Curiously, in each of these miscellanies from 1701-1703, the poem is printed without attribution. It was written by the poet, playwright and novelist Aphra Behn (1640?-1689), but it seems possible that many of the poem's early eighteenth century readers would have been unaware of her authorship. A significant number of poems in miscellanies – perhaps even a majority – were published without attribution. The Digital Miscellanies Index will build up a detailed picture of which poems were attributed and which weren't, and this will help us gain an understanding of how individual poets' reputations were constructed throughout the century.