Sunday, October 19, 2008

'Burning Several Poems of Ovid, Martial, Oldham, Dryden, &c' (Isaac Watts)

The early eighteenth-century writer Isaac Watts was well-known for creating many hundreds of hymns, any number of which are currently being subjected to breathless covers on YouTube. He was also a poet, and in his Horæ Lyricæ: Poems Chiefly of the Lyric Kind, including an entertaining work entitled ‘Burning Several Poems of Ovid, Martial, Oldham, Dryden, &c’. The poem is said to be about how the notorious John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (here Strephon), recanted his saucy ways, and ‘refined’ his soul by throwing some of his own poems into the fire.

Fair enough, but I’ve never been quite sure about the title of the poem, which seems to be suggesting that Watts (or at least his editor) would have preferred to burn more than just the works of Rochester.

The poem:

I judge the Muse of lewd Desire;
Her Sons to Darkness, and her works to Fire.
In vain the Flatterers of their Wit
Now with a melting Strain, now with an heavenly Flight
Would tempt my Virtue to approve
Those gaudy Tinders of a lawless Love.
So Harlots dress: They can appear
Sweet, modest, cool, divinely Fair,
To charm a Cato’s Eye; but all within
Stench, impudence and Fire, and ugly raging Sin.
Die Flora, die in endless Shame,
Thou prostitute of blackest Fame,
Stript of thy false Array.
Ovid and all ye wilder Pens
Of modern Lust, who gild our Scenes,
Poyson the British Stage, and paint Damnation gay,
Attend your Mistress to the Dead;
When Flora dies her Imps should wait upon her Shade.
Strephon of noble Blood and Mind
(For ever shine his Name!)
As Death approach’d his Soul refin’d,
And gave his looser Sonnets to the Flame.
“Burn, burn, he cry’d with sacred Rage,
“Hell is the due of every Page,
“Hell be the Fate. (But O indulgent Heaven!
“So vile the Muse, and yet the Man forgiv’n!)
“Burn on, my Songs, for not the silver Thames
“Nor Tyber with his yellow Streams
“In endless Currents rolling to the Main
“Can e’er dilute the Poyson, or wash out the Stain.
So Moses by divine Command
Forbid the leprous House to stand,
When deep the fatal Spot was grown,
Break down the Timber and dig up the Stone.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Asbestos Books: Dr Bruckman's Incombustible Paper

A bookseller in the UK, Keith Fletcher of Hertfordshire, writes to tell me of the following curious item he currently has in stock, Charles Owen’s An Essay towards a Natural History of Serpents (London: Printed for the Author, 1742). Keith’s note on the book is tremendously good, and more than worth posting here:
"A wide-ranging study of snakes and other reptiles including salamanders, chameleon, and crocodiles. The author’s considerable erudition leads him into the investigation of the pharmacology of poisons, not just of snakes but animals, insects and plants as well. He treats also the folklore of his subject and, for instance, when discussing the salamander’s resistance to fire digresses for a full page (p.95) on the subject of asbestos and ‘incombustible paper’. “Whoever would be further informed about this wonderful incombustible stone, may peruse Dr. Bruckman, Professor at Brunswick, who has publish’d a Natural History of the Asbestos, or Incombustible Paper; and what is most remarkable has printed four copies of his book on this paper, which are deposited in the Library of Wolfembuttle” (p.95). [Keith comments: I find nothing in the on-line catalogue of the Herzog August Biblioteck at Wolfenbuttel - but surely they weren’t lost in a fire!]"

Friday, October 3, 2008

Destroying manuscripts: Captain David Porter

Captain David Porter was a famous American naval commander, the only American commander to sail against the British in the Pacific Ocean during the War of 1812. After success in the Atlantic, he exceeded his authority by choosing to round Cape Horn, ultimately capturing more than a dozen British whalers and doing damage to British shipping estimated at more than half a million pounds. Porter even illegally annexed Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas. He was later blockaded at Valparaiso, and forced to surrender. Nonetheless, when he eventually returned home he was hailed a hero and went on to have a lengthy and controversial career in the Americas.

What’s interesting here, however, is that Porter always intended to sail into the Pacific, and was anxious that some of his crew might have guessed his intentions and leaked their suspicions in letters or journals. Hence this note, which appeared in the 1815 edition of his voyages:

“Prior to the pilots leaving us, I caused him to deliver into my possession all letters which might have been given him by the crew, apprehensive that, from some accidental cause, they might become possessed of a knowledge of our destination; they all however contained only conjectures, except one, the writer of which asserted, as he stated from good authority, that we were bound on the coast of Africa: as come of their conjectures were not far from being correct, I thought I best to destroy the whole of them, and forbid the pilot’s taking any more without my consent. To the officers who were desirous of writing to their friends, I enjoined particularly not to mention the movements of the ship in any way.”

It’s not insignificant, in this regard, to point out that it is thought his book was suppressed when it was first published.