Chaos in the Commonplace Book

Alison Horgan unravelled the complexities of commonplace book structures in her talk for Book History @ Sheffield. Intriguing spaces where chaos is both allowed free rein and corralled by organisational principles, commonplace books create new poetic configurations and patterns from favoured quotes and selective topics.

Order & Disorder in the Early Modern Book
Order & Disorder in the Early Modern Book


Commonplace books are both notebooks and reading diaries. Readers and writers used them to gather extracts of texts they read, sometimes along with more quotidian details, like records of family events and domestic accounts. They show people’s habits of mind, and are the antecedents to the anthologies and verse miscellanies which are now so closely associated with poetic production in the first half of the eighteenth century. As spaces where the reading and interests of an individual are built up over time they become very personal collections.

Compilers brought various strategies to their commonplacing activity. Peter Beale has written of the commonplace book mentality, the idea that more examples can always be added, which suggests an accumulative mindset behind the practice. But manuscript commonplace books were not necessarily ungoverned places: John Locke’s system of classification was widely used by individuals as a way of ordering their selections as they collected them. He recommended choosing a ‘head’ word (also known as a locus, or place) which then became the key to accessing the compilation.  

Alison used a case study from her research: Edward Bysshe’s Art of English Poetry (1702). This text is important because it lies on the cusp of commonplace books and miscellanies, and because it shows the new configurations of poetry that are created by the juxtaposition of several shorter extracts. Bysshe arranges his extracts in a way that leads to the creation of new poems from several snippets.  Thus under the heading of ANGER we read:

Swol’n with Revenge, his blood-shot Eyes did glare.

Like ruddy Meteors, blazing in the Air.

And Storms of Terrour threaten’d in his Looks.

He swells with Wrath, he makes outrageous Moan,

He frets, he fumes, he stares, he stamps the Ground.

Rage flash’d like Lightning from his livid Eyes (p.10)


… but these lines are not one poem, rather are pairs taken from three sources. There is a creative fluidity to the eighteenth commonplace book that pre-empts the scrapbook and favourites lists of twenty-first century social media: readers become writers who curate their own content.


(Alison is a PhD student in the School of English; this post is based on her talk. She runs the Eighteenth Century Reading Group @18thC_sheff and you can also find her here @AlisonLHorgan)