How Samuel Richardson read bawdy verse

Posted by Jenny Batt on Sunday, April 01, 2012 with No comments
By looking at the poems that were published in miscellanies across the course of the eighteenth century, we can start to get an idea of the different ways a particular poet was thought of in the century and which of their poems were most widely circulated, of how frequently those poems were correctly attributed, and what kinds of company they were keeping in the miscellanies in which they appeared.

I considered these possibilities, briefly, at a roundtable on 'Poetry and the Archive' at the annual conference of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, a week or so ago. The example I used was the late seventeenth-early eighteenth century poet Matthew Prior. Though seldom studied today, Prior was a major figure in his day, and our database reveals how his verse continued to circulate throughout the eighteenth century. So far, we've got over 250 poems (or parts of poems) in the database attributed to Prior; between them, these appear more than 950 times across a range of miscellanies.

The poems that were most frequently reprinted give an insight into how Prior's eighteenth century reputation might have been constructed. While his ambitious panegyric 'Ode in imitation of Horace's second ode from book three' has a considerable dissemination, appearing 14 times so far, it is his bawdy, comic verse that seems to have had the widest circulation. 'Hans Carvel' has shown up 19 times so far, while 'The Ladle' appears 15 times. These comic verses appeared - sometimes anonymously, but sometimes with attribution to Prior - in collections ranging from A collection of poems (1701) and Poetical miscellanies: the fifth part (1705) to The muse in a good humour (1744), The agreeable medley (1748) and Tales to kill time (1757).

With this in mind it was interesting, then, to come across intriguing references to Prior's work in Michael E. Connaughton's essay on 'Richardson's Familiar Quotations: Clarissa and Bysshe's Art of English Poetry' [1]. The essay is an attempt to understand how the novelist Samuel Richardson (author of Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison) engaged with literary texts. Richardson's novels contain many quotations from verse and drama, which, as Connaughton shows, are taken not from their original sources in Shakespeare or Dryden, but rather are copied from Edward Bysshe's useful compendium of poetic excerpts, The Art of English Poetry (first printed 1702). One group of quotations, however, puzzle Connaughton: a set of references to Prior's 'The Ladle' and 'Hans Carvel'. The bawdy comic tone of these verses is not really in keeping with Richardson's rather moralistic approach to literature, and Connaughton writes:
It is most interesting, of course, that Richardson, regardless of his disapproval, knows Prior well enough to make a rather obscure allusions [sic] to his could speculate endlessly about the circumstances under which Richardson became familiar with a poet so out of keeping with his own temperament...(192)
Thanks to the Digital Miscellanies Index, I think it is no longer necessary to 'speculate endlessly' about how Richardson became so familiar with these verses. 'Hans Carvel' and 'The Ladle' had been widely circulated in a range of miscellanies for almost 50 years. These poems were not, as Connaughton hints, obscure texts. They were two of Prior's most well known, and most frequently reprinted poems, and Richardson could have encountered them in a broad range of miscellanies.

By making available information about the circulation of an author's works, the Digital Miscellanies Index will help us understand how eighteenth century readers and writers understood the literary landscape, meaning that apparently unusual connections between authors as different as Richardson and Prior are perhaps no longer as puzzling as they once were.

[1] Philological Quarterly, 60:2 (Spring 1981) 183-195.