Commonplace books

Posted by Jenny Batt on Friday, May 27, 2011 with No comments
Commonplace book A collection of short extracts including elegant turns of phrase, originally formed as an aid to literary composition, from the Lat. locus communis, 'something of general application'. More loosely, any miscellany of literary quotations and memoranda, especially if arranged under general headings.
(The Oxford Companion to the Book, I, 628)

Commonplace books are something of a hot topic in literary studies at the moment. This July sees two conferences with a significant focus on early modern commonplace books and miscellanies. The University of Reading Early Modern Studies Conference on 18-20 July has 5 separate panels on commonplace books and miscellanies (you can see the draft progamme here). Then, just a few days later, on 22 July at the University of Warwick will be a symposium on Early Modern Female Miscellanies and Commonplace Books. These two conferences look set to focus on commomplace books and miscellanies of the seventeenth century, but work is also being done on later commomplace books. Last year saw the publication of Commonplace Books and Reading in Georgian England by David Allen, as well as the launch of Kris Grint's online edition of James Mill's Commonplace books.

Printed Commonplace books

The majority of commonplace books are manuscript volumes compiled by individual readers from their own reading. But the eighteenth century also saw a significant number of mass-produced printed commonplace books. The most famous of these was Bysshe's Art of Poetry, a two-volume work which, alongside a rhyming dictionary and other hints for would-be poets, contained a digest of notable thoughts and images from a range of writers, all arranged under convenient headings.

While Bysshe was a well-known collection which went through multiple editions, Thomas Hayward's The British Muse (1738) was much less popular, but is in many ways a more interesting work.

What's most intriguing about this collection (which was dedicated to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu) is the array of sixteenth and seventeenth century writers contained within its pages. Alongside Spenser, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Drayton and Daniel, one of the most frequently quoted writers is the seldom-read poet Charles Aleyn (d.1640), extracts from whose Historie of Henrie the Seventh and The Battaile of Crescey and Poictiers are used to illustrate such concepts as 'Death', 'Falshoods' 'Arms. Armour', 'Danger', 'Battle' and 'Beauty'. Other minor figures who feature heavily include Robert Baron, John Crowne, and William Rowley. Women writers are almost entirely absent from the collection though Elizabeth Cary's Tragedy of Mariam is the source for a few quotations on 'benefits', 'debt', 'faith' and 'content'.

It's a fascinating - if hugely dense (the c. 280 pages of vol I contains 1200 items of verse) - collection which offers a valuable insight into the ways in which verse of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was encountered by readers in the eighteenth century. According to Norman Hidden, whose 'Thomas Hayward and 'The British Muse'' is one of the few essays to engage with this collection, Hayward's miscellany
was greeted by his contemporaries and a succeeding generation of critics as setting a new standard for anthologists. Thomas Warton described Hayward's work as 'the most comprehensive and exact Commonplace of the works of our most eminent poets throughout thereign of Queen Elizabeth and afterwards', and Isaac Disraeli considered his collection 'infinitely preferable to all preceding ones'.
(English, 37 (1988) 217)
Hidden ends his short piece on The British Muse by insisting that
The value of 'The British Muse' to literary historians is not to be denied; and if the work has been overlooked by many this may be because the modesty of Hayward's life, and the paucity of material concerning it, have been some sort of discouragement to look in his direction. 1988, as the 250th anniversary of the publication of 'The British Muse', could be an appropriate time to give Hayward another glance. (222)
Sadly the 250th anniversary of The British Muse did not see a marked revival of interest in the collection. However as information about the verse contained within its pages is added to the Digital Miscellanies Index it is to be hoped that, at long last, Hayward gets that second 'glance' Hidden suggests he very much deserves.