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Friday, July 15, 2011

Of Epigrams and Ear-Strings

Today's guest post is by Kate Duffy, a Collections Intern at the Rosenbach Museum & Library.


Greetings, Rosen-blog readers! This post is full of commonplaces. But stifle your yawn! The word "commonplace" did not always carry connotations of triteness and cliché. For early modern Europeans, commonplaces were witty verses, notable observations, or other compelling turns-of-phrase. Here are a few examples:


A fish was sent me in a dish from the Archbish---

Hop shall not be there, because he would give me no beer


Treason is like a basilisk’s eye

First seeing kills, but first being seen doth die


Grave was George Grave, his graveness made him die

Grave should to grave, yet Grave doth graveless lie


Many individuals kept what they referred to as “commonplace books” to record and organize lines that they had heard, read, or come up with themselves. Beginning with a blank book, the owner would fill pages with his or her favorite commonplaces, storing them for future use. The books were mostly handwritten and idiosyncratic, each one representing the tastes of its compiler.


The Rosenbach holds a first-rate collection of seventeenth-century British commonplace books. Edwin Wolfe 2nd, a renowned bibliophile who worked for Dr. Rosenbach in the 1930's and 40's, created a handwritten card index of the thousands of verses they contain. As part of my internship, I am entering information from Wolfe's index into an online database, the Union First Line Index of British Verse. (Kathy Haas, my internship supervisor, blogged a bit about the database when this project first began last summer.)


The commonplaces in our collection capture a certain peculiar essence of seventeenth-century Britain. They can be bawdy, romantic, political, or at times completely mystifying. I've been jotting down my favorite lines, in effect creating my own commonplace book.


Take this verse, an epitaph for Sir Henry Cromwell:


This tomb encloses

one man and three noses.


I'm not sure what it means, but I'm intrigued. And then there's this one, an “Epigram of Tobacco”:


They that will learne to drinke a health in Hell

Must learne on earth to take Tobacco well

To take Tobacco well, to take Tobacco well:

For in Hell they drink nor wine, nor Ale, nor Beere,

but fire, and smoake, and stench, as we do heere.


(Sidenote: archaic English spellings are great! I wish we still used the letter "thorn," which can stand in for "th" and looks like this: þ )


Did you know that fashion-conscious men of the early modern period sometimes threaded strings through holes in their left ears? (Pictures!) The poet William Strode made this trend the subject of a verse entitled "On an ear-string."


When idle words are passing here

I warn and pull you by the ear.


Commonplace books may be compared to Twitter or Facebook feeds; the most popular bons mots were copied or "re-tweeted" again and again. Perhaps today's LOLcat-producers, bloggers, and viral video stars are our versions of poets like Strode, John Donne, and Thomas Carew. No doubt researchers of the future will be as amused by our strange cultural sensibilities as I am by poems about ear-strings and men buried with three noses.


At any rate, commonplace books are invaluable sources for studying the history of readership, literary culture, and the transmission of poetry. If you'd like to find your own favorite commonplaces, visit the Union First Line Index or schedule an appointment at the Rosenbach to view the books in person!

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