Miscellanies around Britain

Posted by Jenny Batt on Wednesday, May 19, 2010 with No comments

In the second half of the eighteenth century, miscellanies (along with all kinds of books) are produced in many different parts of the country. As the century progresses, we'll be looking at miscellanies printed in Bath, Belfast, Berwick, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Carlisle, Chester, Cork, Darlington, Exeter, Glasgow, Gloucester, Leeds, Limerick, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, Oxford, Salop, Whitehaven, York, and a number of other places. By examining these miscellanies, we'll be able to observe whether there is any diversity in the types of miscellanies produced in the provinces, and point out the ways in which regional literary cultures interacted with that emanating from London.

At the beginning of the century the British book trade was much more geographically limited, with miscellany printing mainly concentrated in London, and to a lesser extent, Dublin and Edinburgh. However, even here, it is possible to witness some distinctive regional variations, particularly in miscellanies issuing from the shop of Edinburgh printer and bookseller James Watson.

A Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems Both Ancient and Modern (1706) opens with an address from the publisher to the reader which announces a direct challenge to both the English miscellanies trade, and to the dominant English literary culture:

As the frequency of Publishing Collections of Miscellaneous Poems in our Neighbouring Kingdoms and States, may, in a great measure, justify an undertaking of this kind with us; so 'tis hoped, that this being the first of its nature which has been publish'd in our own Native Scots Dialect, the Candid Reader may be the more easily induced, through the consideration thereof, to give some Charitable Grains of Allowance, if the Performance come not up to such a Point of Exactness as may please an over nice Palate.

The publisher, James Watson, deliberately invokes the London miscellanies trade and asserts the primacy of his own, peculiarly Scottish, endeavour. He suggests that there is a distinctively Scottish literary culture which might shock readers trained in a more refined (and English) literary style. As Harriet Harvey Wood has described in her edition of the Choice Collection, this book was published in the year before the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland. Watson was opposed to the Union, and Wood suggests that the Choice Collection, with its explicit focus on Scottish literary culture and the Scots language, can be seen as an 'expression of his patriotism, and as a reminder to his countrymen of a part of their national heritage which seemed in danger of being forgotten' (1991: xvii-xviii).

Over the course of three volumes – part two followed in 1709, and part three in 1711 - Watson presented a great range of Scottish texts dating from the late sixteenth century through to the beginning of the eighteenth century. High culture works including translations of Latin poems by the sixteenth century writer George Buchanan sit alongside more traditional ballads and songs including 'Christ's Kirk on the Green'. A number of poems emerge from the court of James VI (and I). Volume three begins with the spectacularly vicious 'flyting' of Alexander Montgomery and Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth, dating from the 1580s. In this exchange, Montgomery and Polwart trade some remarkable insults in a dense Scots dialect ('little foul earth tade'... 'false feckless foulmart'... 'wanshapen shit'... 'proud poisoned pyk-thank' ... 'witless vanter') and pour scorn upon each other as poets and as people. By contrast, the lyrics and epigrams of another of James' courtiers, Sir Robert Ayton, scattered throughout the three volumes, are much more refined and polite, treating of love and life at court in a standardised English literary language.

There is a modern facsimile edition of the Choice Collection, edited by Harriet Harvey Wood and published by the Scottish Text Society (James Watson's Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems, 2 vols (1977, 1991)). Volume I contains a facsimile of the text, while volume II contains an introduction and notes. This edition contains a wealth of information on Watson, on his miscellany and its importance in Scottish literary history, as well as on each individual poem.