Miscellanies, a Disappearing Poet and a Metaphysical Jester

When does a commonplace book become a miscellany? When does a miscellany become a text book and when is John Donne not a metaphysical poet? In the eighteenth century, that’s when.

Adam Rounce’s article in the current edition of Eighteenth-Century Life, ‘The Digital Miscellanies Index and the Canon’, has given us much recent food for thought. Alison Horgan, who has worked on the data of the DMI, chose this reading to set some context for her upcoming research paper on Thursday 30th March.

Rounce opens up some provocative questions about how book historians draw broad conclusions from evidence that may be less than representative. His exploration of the way that certain poets appear in miscellanies, John Donne, George Herbert, and Abraham Cowley included, exposes some complicated shifts in poetic reputations and canonisation. Donne, it seems, was known in eighteenth-century miscellany culture not as a metaphysical poet nor a sermoniser but as a jester. It is his witty epigrams, often printed anonymously, that feature most frequently. Rounce also shows how Cowley’s work, although forever disappearing from critical attention, had a consistent audience throughout the period covered by the DMI.

Miscellanies reveal intriguing juxtapositions between authors who could elsewhere be explicitly at odds with each other. The Whig poet Richard Blackmore was roundly mocked in print by both John Dryden and Alexander Pope. But in Edward Bysshe’s Art of English Poetry, one rather alarming sequence of lines on the moment of death splices Blackmore’s words with Dryden’s and with Pope’s.

Miscellany studies are clearly thriving and we are looking forward to the next instalment when Alison, alongside Cat Evans on almanacs, will speak at our lunchtime session on Order and Disorder in the Early Modern Book.