Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Titles of Books.

Were it inquired of an ingenious writer what page of his work had occasioned him most perplexity, he would often point to the title-page. The curiosity which we there would excite, is, however, most fastidious to gratify.

Among those who appear to have felt this irksome situation, are most of our periodical writers. The “Tatler” and the “Spectator,” enjoying priority of conception, have adopted titles with characteristic felicity; but perhaps the invention of the authors begins to fail in the “Reader,” the “Lover,” and the “Theatre!” Succeeding writers were as unfortunate in their titles, as their works; such are the “Universal Spectator,” and the “Lay Monastery.” The copious mind of Johnson could not discover an appropriate title, and indeed in the first “Idler” acknowledged his despair. The “Rambler” was so little understood, at the time of its appearance, that a French journalist has translated it as ”Le Chevalier Errant;” and when it was corrected to L’Errant, a foreigner drank Johnson’s health one day, by innocently addressing him by the appellation of Mr. “Vagabond!” The “Adventurer” cannot be considered as a fortunate title; it is not appropriate to those pleasing miscellanies, for any writer is an adventurer. The “Lounger,” the “Mirror,” and even the “Connoisseur,” if examined accurately, present nothing in the titles descriptive of the works. As for the “World,” it could only have been given by the fashionable egotism of its authors, who considered the world as merely a circuit round St. James’s Street. When the celebrated father of reviews, Le Journal des Sçavans, was first published, the very title repulsed the public. The author was obliged in his succeeding volumes to soften it down, by explaining its general tendency. He there assures the curious, that not only men of learning and taste, but the humblest mechanic, may find a profitable amusement. An English novel, published with the title of “The Champion of Virtue,” could find no readers; but afterwards passed through several editions under the happier invitation of “The Old English Baron.” “The Concubine,” a poem by Mickle, could never find purchasers, till it assumed the more delicate title of “Sir Martyn.”

As a subject of literary curiosity, some amusement may be gathered from a glance at what has been doing in the world, concerning this important portion of every book.

The Jewish and many oriental authors were fond of allegorical titles, which always indicate the most puerile age of taste. The titles were usually adapted to their obscure works. It might exercise an able enigmatist to explain their allusions; for we must understand by “The Heart of Aaron,” that it is a commentary on several of the prophets. “The Bones of Joseph” is an introduction to the Talmud. “The Garden of Nuts,” and “The Golden Apples,” are theological questions; and “The Pomegranate with its Flower,” is a treatise of ceremonies, not any more practised. Jortin gives a title, which he says of all the fantastical titles he can recollect is one of the prettiest. A rabbin published a catalogue of rabbinical writers, and called it Labia Dormientium, from Cantic. vii. 9. “Like the best wine of my beloved that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.“ It hath a double meaning, of which he was not aware, for most of his rabbinical brethren talk very much like men in their sleep.

Almost all their works bear such titles as bread — gold — silver — roses — eyes, &c.; in a word, anything that signifies nothing.

Affected title-pages were not peculiar to the orientals: the Greeks and the Romans have shown a finer taste. They had their Cornucopias, or horns of abundance — Limones, or meadows — Pinakidions, or tablets — Pancarpes, or all sorts of fruits; titles not unhappily adapted for the miscellanists. The nine books of Herodotus, and the nine epistles of Æschines, were respectively honoured by the name of a Muse; and three orations of the latter, by those of the Graces.

The modern fanatics have had a most barbarous taste for titles. We could produce numbers from abroad, and at home. Some works have been called, “Matches lighted at the Divine Fire,"— and one “The Gun of Penitence:” a collection of passages from the fathers is called “The Shop of the Spiritual Apothecary:” we have “The Bank of Faith,” and “The Sixpennyworth of Divine Spirit:” one of these works bears the following elaborate title: “Some fine Biscuits baked in the Oven of Charity, carefully conserved for the Chickens of the Church, the Sparrows of the Spirit, and the sweet Swallows of Salvation.” Sometimes their quaintness has some humour. Sir Humphrey Lind, a zealous puritan, published a work which a Jesuit answered by another, entitled “A Pair of Spectacles for Sir Humphrey Lind.” The doughty knight retorted, by “A Case for Sir Humphrey Lind’s Spectacles.”

Some of these obscure titles have an entertaining absurdity; as “The Three Daughters of Job,” which is a treatise on the three virtues of patience, fortitude, and pain. “The Innocent Love, or the Holy Knight,” is a description of the ardours of a saint for the Virgin. “The Sound of the Trumpet,” is a work on the day of judgment; and “A Fan to drive away Flies,” is a theological treatise on purgatory.

We must not write to the utter neglect of our title; and a fair author should have the literary piety of ever having “the fear of his title-page before his eyes.” The following are improper titles. Don Matthews, chief huntsman to Philip IV. of Spain, entitled his book “The Origin and Dignity of the Royal House,” but the entire work relates only to hunting. De Chantereine composed several moral essays, which being at a loss how to entitle, he called “The Education of a Prince.” He would persuade the reader in his preface, that though they were not composed with a view to this subject, they should not, however, be censured for the title, as they partly related to the education of a prince. The world was too sagacious to be duped, and the author in his second edition acknowledges the absurdity, drops “the magnificent title,” and calls his work “Moral Essays.” Montaigne’s immortal history of his own mind, for such are his “Essays,” has assumed perhaps too modest a title, and not sufficiently discriminative. Sorlin equivocally entitled a collection of essays, “The Walks of Richelieu,” because they were composed at that place; “The Attic Nights” of Aulus Gellius were so called, because they were written in Attica. Mr. Tooke, in his grammatical “Diversions of Purley,” must have deceived many.

A rhodomontade title-page was once a great favourite. There was a time when the republic of letters was over-built with “Palaces of Pleasure,” “Palaces of Honour,” and “Palaces of Eloquence;” with “Temples of Memory,” and “Theatres of Human Life,” and “Amphitheatres of Providence;” “Pharoses, Gardens, Pictures, Treasures.” The epistles of Guevara dazzled the public eye with their splendid title, for they were called “Golden Epistles;” and the “Golden Legend” of Voragine had been more appropriately entitled leaden.

They were once so fond of novelty, that every book recommended itself by such titles as “A new Method; new Elements of Geometry; the new Letter Writer, and the new Art of Cookery.”

To excite the curiosity of the pious, some writers employed artifices of a very ludicrous nature. Some made their titles rhyming echoes; as this one of a father, who has given his works under the title of Scalæ Alæ animi; and Jesus esus novus Orbis. Some have distributed them according to the measure of time, as one Father Nadasi, the greater part of whose works are years, months, weeks, days, and hours. Some have borrowed their titles from the parts of the body; and others have used quaint expressions, such as — Think before you leapWe must all dieCompel them to enter. Some of our pious authors appear not to have been aware that they were burlesquing religion. One Massieu having written a moral explanation of the solemn anthems sung in Advent, which begin with the letter O, published this work under the punning title of La douce Moelle, et la Sauce friande des os Savoureux de l’Avent.1

The Marquis of Carraccioli assumed the ambiguous title of La Jouissance de soi-même. Seduced by the epicurean title of self-enjoyment, the sale of the work was continual with the libertines, who, however, found nothing but very tedious essays on religion and morality. In the sixth edition the marquis greatly exults in his successful contrivance; by which means he had punished the vicious curiosity of certain persons, and perhaps had persuaded some, whom otherwise his book might never have reached.

If a title be obscure, it raises a prejudice against the author; we are apt to suppose that an ambiguous title is the effect of an intricate or confused mind. Baillet censures the Ocean Macromicrocosmic of one Sachs. To understand this title, a grammarian would send an inquirer to a geographer, and he to a natural philosopher; neither would probably think of recurring to a physician, to inform one that this ambiguous title signifies the connexion which exists between the motion of the waters with that of the blood. He censures Leo Allatius for a title which appears to me not inelegantly conceived. This writer has entitled one of his books the Urban Bees; it is an account of those illustrious writers who flourished during the pontificate of one of the Barberinis. The allusion refers to the bees which were the arms of this family, and Urban VIII. is the Pope designed.

The false idea which a title conveys is alike prejudicial to the author and the reader. Titles are generally too prodigal of their promises, and their authors are contemned; but the works of modest authors, though they present more than they promise, may fail of attracting notice by their extreme simplicity. In either case, a collector of books is prejudiced; he is induced to collect what merits no attention, or he passes over those valuable works whose titles may not happen to be interesting. It is related of Pinelli, the celebrated collector of books, that the booksellers permitted him to remain hours, and sometimes days, in their shops to examine books before he purchased. He was desirous of not injuring his precious collection by useless acquisitions; but he confessed that he sometimes could not help being dazzled by magnificent titles, nor being mistaken by the simplicity of others, which had been chosen by the modesty of their authors. After all, many authors are really neither so vain, nor so honest, as they appear; for magnificent, or simple titles, have often been given from the difficulty of forming any others.

It is too often with the Titles of Books, as with those painted representations exhibited by the keepers of wild beasts; where, in general, the picture itself is made more striking and inviting to the eye, than the inclosed animal is always found to be.

1 Religious parody seems to have carried no sense of impropriety with it to the minds of the men of the 15th and 16th centuries. Luther was an adept in this art, and the preachers who followed him continued the practice. The sermons of divines in the following century often sought an attraction by quaint titles, such as —“Heaven ravished”—“The Blacksmith, a sermon preached at Whitehall before the King,” 1606. Beloe, in his Anecdotes of Literature, vol. 6, has recorded many of these quaint titles, among them the following:—”The Nail hit on the head, and driven into the city and cathedral wall of Norwich. By John Carter, 1644.” ”The Wheel turned by a voice from the throne of glory. By John Carter, 1647.” ”Two Sticks made one, or the excellence of Unity. By Matthew Mead, 1691.” ”Peter’s Net let downe, or the Fisher and the Fish, both prepared towards a blessed haven. By R. Matthew, 1634.” In the middle of the last century two religious tracts were published, one bearing the alarming title, “Die and be Damned,” the other being termed, “A sure Guide to Hell.” The first was levelled against the preaching of the Methodists, and the title obtained from what the author asserts to be the words of condemnation then frequently applied by them to all who differed from their creed. The second is a satirical attack on the prevalent follies and vices of the day, which form the surest “guide,” in the opinion of the author, to the bottomless pit.

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