A is for Aphra

Posted by Unknown on Sunday, September 28, 2014 with No comments
Welcome to our new-look blog, and to phase two of the Digital Miscellanies project! I'm Carly, and over the next three years I'll be working with our academic partners and technical developers to expand and remodel the DMI; I'll also be immersing myself in the data to inform my research into the poetry printed in eighteenth-century miscellanies. If you'd like to know more about the work we're doing to develop the Index, have a look at our Work In Progress page.

We're almost a month into the project, and having started out as a somewhat wobbly novice database user, I've hit my stride with creating new records for the Index. I'm adding records for miscellanies published between 1680 and 1699; these records are part of the new content which will be made public when the DMI site is relaunched, with a new search interface, in around two years' time.

The first miscellany I added to the database was a 1685 collection creatively titled Miscellany, Being a Collection of Poems by Several Hands. Its editor was Aphra Behn - playwright, poet, novelist, spy and pioneering self-made woman of the Restoration era. I'm not actually working alphabetically, as the title of this post suggests - I simply searched the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) for late seventeenth-century books with 'miscellany' in the title, and picked an interesting-looking place to start.

Before I go on, let me retract some of the sarcasm in my observation that Behn's Miscellany is 'creatively titled'. In fact, a search of ESTC reveals that the idea of calling a collection of poetry a 'miscellany' was a relatively new one in the 1680s: before the appearance of Behn's Miscellany in 1685, only three other collections of verse had been published with 'miscellany' in the title. The first example of a verse collection advertised as a 'miscellany' appeared in 1673, when the London publisher William Cademan brought out Westminster Quibbles in Verse: [...] Or, A Miscellany of Quibling Catches, Joques and Merriments. Here, though, the word 'miscellany' lurks down in the second subtitle, and on closer inspection Cademan's text isn't even properly miscellaneous: it's a collection of hundreds of jests in the same six-line verse form, or 506 Humorous Sestets to Amuse Your Friends. It wasn't until the publication of Miscellany Poems in 1684 - the first of a series of collections issued by the pre-eminent literary publisher Jacob Tonson - that 'miscellany' became a familiar label for collections of poetry in print.

Behn's Miscellany takes shape around the warp and weft of love themes and fashionable classicism. Translations from Horace, Ovid, Catullus, Virgil and other ancient poets intermingle in the volume with original songs and poems about amorous pleasure and pain. The collection also includes satires targeting degenerate factions at home and degenerate foreigners abroad; elsewhere in the volume, a more personal, sociable world appears in a number of epistles, elegies, prologues and epilogues associated with Behn's own creative life and milieu (one of these is a 'Pindaric' poem in praise of Behn herself, written by the playwright Edward Howard). "The resulting medley", as Barbara Benedict observes (see below), "allows topical and universal interpretations".

However, entering the contents of this miscellany into the DMI database has revealed something interesting - that in the eighteenth century, when readers for whom the topical resonance of the poems had faded might have appreciated their universal meanings, the poems had mostly fallen out of the miscellany tradition. Only eleven of the poems which appear in the 299 pages of verse in Behn's collection were subsequently printed in eighteenth-century miscellanies. Three of these are associated with the Earl of Rochester, including Behn's own elegy on Rochester's death in 1680:

Mourn, Mourn, ye Muses, all your loss deplore,
The Young, the Noble Strephon is no more.

It seems that however well-received Behn's Miscellany may have been at the end of the seventeenth century, it did not leave a legacy for eighteenth-century literary culture. Over the past weeks, my work entering poems into the database - and in the process finding out which ones are already there and which are not - has revealed more of these curiously stunted textual histories, which I hope to write about on this blog in future. As well as being a systematic process, data entry has proved to be a fast-track route into literary history, allowing me to explore the longevity (or otherwise) of seventeenth-century poems in the later miscellany tradition.

Aphra Behn, ed., Miscellany, Being a Collection of Poems by Several Hands (London, 1685). ESTC R3358.

Barbara M. Benedict, Making the Modern Reader: Cultural Mediation in Early Modern Literary Anthologies (Princeton, NJ, 1996). Discussion of Behn's 1685 Miscellany is on pp. 85-87.