Miscellany no. 800

Posted by Jenny Batt on Sunday, December 04, 2011 with No comments
This week saw the creation of the 800th miscellany record in the Digital Miscellanies Index. The honour goes to the third edition of A museum for young gentlemen and ladies, or a private tutor for little masters and misses (1760: ESTC N35223). An octodecimo volume containing a range of eductional material and aimed at an audience of children, the collection is, as the ESTC notes 'Sometimes attributed to John Newbery and to Oliver Goldsmith'. The volume contains a miscellaneous prose illustrated with woodcut engravings, and includes a history of England; brief notes on a number of foreign countries and the seven wonders of the world; an account of volcanoes; and an explanation of the solar system. This educational compendium proved popular: first published in 1750, it had reached a seventeenth edition by 1806.

A museum qualifies - just - as a verse miscellany because the section entitled 'Letters, poems, tales, and fables, for amusement and instruction' that concludes the volume contains a small group of poems: 'The Country Squire and His Man John. A Tale', a scatalogically comic narrative; Matthew Prior's 'A Letter to the Hon. Lady Miss Cavendish Holles Harley' and 'Truth and Falshood. A Tale'; and John Gay's 'Fable of the Hare and many Friends'.

Google books has a copy of a couple of later editions of A museum, the ninth edition from 1778 and the 17th edition from 1806; a transcription of the 15th edition is also available via Project Gutenberg.

By the seventh edition in 1773, the two Prior poems were no longer included; by the eighth edition in 1776, the only remaining verse item in the collection is Gay's fable. Perhaps the later publishers of the collection had decided that this educational collection was no place for verse; perhaps they had decided that Prior's poems and the other scatalogical tale were not suitable for young readers.

This miscellany - which is perhaps a little underwhelming at first glance - exemplifies a range of key issues that the Digital Miscellanies Index sets out to explore. In the eighteenth century, verse circulated in a huge range of different ways - from beautifully produced literary collections aimed at an elite readership, to collections like this in which the literary content of the collection is very much secondary to its pedagogical aims. A museum highlights how tastes might change over a period of time: the original editors of the collection may have thought the bawdy poem about the country squire was suitable for children, but later publishers reconsidered this idea. This bawdy poem was popular poem in other collections, however - we have found it, so far, in at least ten other collections. Meanwhile, as the only poem to remain in A museum into the nineteenth century, Gay's poem would have reached a potentially huge audience of impressionable young readers: the collection, undoubtedly, plays a significant role in the dissemination of his work. Collections like A museum, then, have much to contribute to our understanding of the literary landscape of the eighteenth century.