Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Life and Habits of a Literary Antiquary. — Oldys and His Manuscripts.

Such a picture may be furnished by some unexpected materials which my inquiries have obtained of Oldys. This is a sort of personage little known to the wits, who write more than they read, and to their volatile votaries, who only read what the wits write. It is time to vindicate the honours of the few whose laborious days enrich the stores of national literature, not by the duplicates but the supplements of knowledge. A literary antiquary is that idler whose life is passed in a perpetual voyage autour de ma chambre; fervent in sagacious diligence, instinct with the enthusiasm of curious inquiry, critical as well as erudite; he has to arbitrate between contending opinions, to resolve the doubtful, to clear up the obscure, and to grasp at the remote; so busied with other times, and so interested for other persons than those about him, that he becomes the inhabitant of the visionary world of books. He counts only his days by his acquisitions, and may be said by his original discoveries to be the creator of facts; often exciting the gratitude of the literary world, while the very name of the benefactor has not always descended with the inestimable labours.

Such is the man whom we often find leaving, when he dies, his favourite volumes only an incomplete project! and few of this class of literary men have escaped the fate reserved for most of their brothers. Voluminous works have been usually left unfinished by the death of the authors; and it is with them as with the planting of trees, of which Johnson has forcibly observed, “There is a frightful interval between the seed and timber.” And he admirably remarks, what I cannot forbear applying to the labours I am now to describe: “He that calculates the growth of trees has the remembrance of the shortness of life driven hard upon him. He knows that he is doing what will never benefit himself; and where he rejoices to see the stem rise, is disposed to repine that another shall cut it down.” The days of the patriotic Count Mazzuchelli were freely given to his national literature; and six invaluable folios attest the gigantic force of his immense erudition; yet these only carry us through the letters A and B: and though Mazzuchelli had finished for the press other volumes, the torpor of his descendants has defrauded Europe of her claims.1 The Abbé Goujet, who had designed a classified history of his national literature, in the eighteen volumes we possess, could only conclude that of the translators, and commence that of the poets; two other volumes in manuscript have perished. That great enterprise of the Benedictines, the “Histoire Litéraire de la France,” now consists of twelve large quartos, and the industry of its successive writers has only been able to carry it to the twelfth century. David Clement designed the most extensive bibliography which had ever appeared; but the diligent life of the writer could only proceed as far as H. The alphabetical order, which so many writers of this class have adopted, has proved a mortifying memento of human life! Tiraboschi was so fortunate as to complete his great national history of Italian literature. But, unhappily for us, Thomas Warton, after feeling his way through the darker ages of our poetry, in planning the map of the beautiful land, of which he had only a Pisgah-sight, expired amidst his volumes. The most precious portion of Warton’s history is but the fragment of a fragment.

Oldys, among this brotherhood, has met perhaps with a harder fate; his published works, and the numerous ones to which he contributed, are now highly appreciated by the lovers of books; but the larger portion of his literary labours have met with the sad fortune of dispersed, and probably of wasted manuscripts. Oldys’s manuscripts, or O. M. as they are sometimes designated, are constantly referred to by every distinguished writer on our literary history. I believe that not one of them could have given us any positive account of the manuscripts themselves! They have indeed long served as the solitary sources of information — but like the well at the wayside, too many have drawn their waters in silence.

Oldys is chiefly known by the caricature of the facetious Grose; a great humourist, both with pencil and with pen: it is in a posthumous scrap-book, where Grose deposited his odds and ends, and where there is perhaps not a single story which is not satirical. Our lively antiquary, who cared more for rusty armour than for rusty volumes, would turn over these flams and quips to some confidential friend, to enjoy together a secret laugh at their literary intimates. His eager executor, who happened to be his bookseller, served up the poignant hash to the public as “Grose’s Olio!”2 The delineation of Oldys is sufficiently overcharged for “the nonce.” One prevalent infirmity of honest Oldys, his love of companionship over too social a glass, sends him down to posterity in a grotesque attitude; and Mr. Alexander Chalmers, who has given us the fullest account of Oldys, has inflicted on him something like a sermon, on “a state of intoxication.”

Alas! Oldys was an outcast of fortune,3 and the utter simplicity of his heart was guileless as a child’s — ever open to the designing. The noble spirit of a Duke of Norfolk once rescued the long-lost historian of Rawleigh from the confinement of the Fleet, where he had existed, probably forgotten by the world, for six years. It was by an act of grace that the duke safely placed Oldys in the Heralds’ College as Norroy King of Arms.4 But Oldys, like all shy and retired men, had contracted peculiar habits and close attachments for a few; both these he could indulge at no distance. He liked his old associates in the purlieus of the Fleet, whom he facetiously dignified as “his Rulers,” and there, as I have heard, with the grotesque whim of a herald, established “The Dragon Club.” Companionship yields the poor man unpurchased pleasures. Oldys, busied every morning among the departed wits and the learned of our country, reflected some image from them of their wit and learning to his companions: a secret history as yet untold, and ancient wit, which, cleared of the rust, seemed to him brilliant as the modern!

It is hard, however, for a literary antiquary to be caricatured, and for a herald to be ridiculed about an “unseemly reeling with the coronet of the Princess Caroline, which looked unsteady on the cushion, to the great scandal of his brethren,”— a circumstance which could never have occurred at the burial of a prince or princess, as the coronet is carried by Clarencieux, and not by Norroy. Oldys’s deep potations of ale, however, give me an opportunity of bestowing on him the honour of being the author of a popular Anacreontic song. Mr. Taylor informs me that “Oldys always asserted that he was the author of the well-known song —

Busy, curious, thirsty fly!

and as he was a rigid lover of truth, I doubt not that he wrote it.” My own researches confirm it: I have traced this popular song through a dozen of collections since the year 1740, the first in which I find it. In the later collections an original inscription has been dropped, which the accurate Ritson has restored, without, however, being able to discover the writer. In 1740 it is said to have been “made extempore by a gentleman, occasioned by a fly drinking out of his cup of ale;”— the accustomed potion of poor Oldys!5

Grose, however, though a great joker on the peculiarities of Oldys, was far from insensible to the extraordinary acquisitions of the man. “His knowledge of English books has hardly been exceeded.” Grose, too, was struck by the delicacy of honour, and the unswerving veracity which so strongly characterised Oldys, of which he gives a remarkable instance.6 We are concerned in ascertaining the moral integrity of the writer, whose main business is with history.

At a time when our literary history, excepting in the solitary labour of Anthony Wood, was a forest, with neither road nor pathway, Oldys, fortunately placed in the library of the Earl of Oxford, yielded up his entire days to researches concerning the books and the men of the preceding age. His labours were then valueless, their very nature not yet ascertained, and when he opened the treasures of our ancient lore in “The British Librarian,” it was closed for want of public encouragement. Our writers, then struggling to create an age of genius of their own, forgot that they had had any progenitors; or while they were acquiring new modes of excellence, that they were losing others, to which their posterity or the national genius might return. (To know, and to admire only, the literature and the tastes of our own age, is a species of elegant barbarism.)7 Spenser was considered nearly as obsolete as Chaucer; Milton was veiled by oblivion, and Shakspeare’s dramas were so imperfectly known, that in looking over the play-bills of 1711, and much later, I find that whenever it chanced that they were acted, they were always announced to have been “written by Shakspeare.” Massinger was unknown; and Jonson, though called “immortal” in the old play-bills, lay entombed in his two folios. The poetical era of Elizabeth, the eloquent age of James the First, and the age of wit of Charles the Second, were blanks in our literary history. Bysshe, compiling an Art of Poetry in 1718, passed by in his collection “Spenser and the poets of his age, because their language is now become so obsolete that most readers of our age have no ear for them, and therefore Shakspeare himself is so rarely cited in my collection.” The best English poets were considered to be the modern; a taste which is always obstinate!

All this was nothing to Oldys; his literary curiosity anticipated by half a century the fervour of the present day. This energetic direction of all his thoughts was sustained by that life of discovery which in literary researches is starting novelties among old and unremembered things; contemplating some ancient tract as precious as a manuscript, or revelling in the volume of a poet whose passport of fame was yet delayed in its way; or disinterring the treasure of some secluded manuscript, whence he drew a virgin extract; or raising up a sort of domestic intimacy with the eminent in arms, in politics, and in literature in this visionary life, life itself with Oldys was insensibly gliding away — its cares almost unfelt!

The life of a literary antiquary partakes of the nature of those who, having no concerns of their own, busy themselves with those of others. Oldys lived in the back ages of England; he had crept among the dark passages of Time, till, like an old gentleman usher, he seemed to be reporting the secret history of the courts which he had lived in. He had been charmed among their masques and revels, had eyed with astonishment their cumbrous magnificence, when knights and ladies carried on their mantles and their cloth of gold ten thousand pounds’ worth of ropes of pearls, and buttons of diamonds; or, descending to the gay court of the second Charles, he tattled merry tales, as in that of the first he had painfully watched, like a patriot or a loyalist, a distempered era. He had lived so constantly with these people of another age, and had so deeply interested himself in their affairs, and so loved the wit and the learning which are often bright under the rust of antiquity, that his own uncourtly style is embrowned with the tint of a century old. But it was this taste and curiosity which alone could have produced the extraordinary volume of Sir Walter Rawleigh’s life — a work richly inlaid with the most curious facts and the juxtaposition of the most remote knowledge; to judge by its fulness of narrative, it would seem rather to have been the work of a contemporary.8

It was an advantage in this primæval era of literary curiosity, that those volumes which are now not even to be found in our national library, where certainly they are perpetually wanted, and which are now so excessively appreciated, were exposed on stalls, through the reigns of Anne and the two Georges.9 Oldys encountered no competitor, cased in the invulnerable mail of his purse, to dispute his possession of the rarest volume. On the other hand, our early collector did not possess our advantages; he could not fly for instant aid to a “Biographia Britannica,” he had no history of our poetry, nor even of our drama. Oldys could tread in no man’s path, for every soil about him was unbroken ground. He had to create everything for his own purposes. We gather fruit from trees which others have planted, and too often we but “pluck and eat.”

Nulla dies sine linea, was his sole hope while he was accumulating masses of notes; and as Oldys never used his pen from the weak passion of scribbling, but from the urgency of preserving some substantial knowledge, or planning some future inquiry, he amassed nothing but what he wished to remember. Even the minuter pleasures of settling a date, or classifying a title-page, were enjoyments to his incessant pen. Everything was acquisition. This never-ending business of research appears to have absorbed his powers, and sometimes to have dulled his conceptions. No one more aptly exercised the tact of discovery; he knew where to feel in the dark: but he was not of the race — that race indeed had not yet appeared among us — who could melt into their Corinthian brass the mingled treasures of Research, Imagination, and Philosophy!

We may be curious to inquire where our literary antiquary deposited the discoveries and curiosities which he was so incessantly acquiring. They were dispersed, on many a fly-leaf, in occasional memorandum-books; in ample marginal notes on his authors — they were sometimes thrown into what he calls his “parchment budgets,” or “Bags of Biography — of Botany — of Obituary”— of “Books relative to London,” and other titles and bags, which he was every day filling.10 Sometimes his collections seem to have been intended for a series of volumes, for he refers to “My first Volume of Tables of the eminent Persons celebrated by English Poets”— to another of “Poetical Characteristics.” Among those manuscripts which I have seen, I find one mentioned, apparently of a wide circuit, under the reference of “My Biographical Institutions. Part third; containing a Catalogue of all the English Lives, with Historical and Critical Observations on them.” But will our curious or our whimsical collectors of the present day endure without impatience the loss of a quarto manuscript, which bears this rich condiment for its title —“Of London Libraries; with Anecdotes of Collectors of Books; Remarks on Booksellers; and on the first Publishers of Catalogues?” Oldys left ample annotations on “Fuller’s Worthies,” and “Winstanley’s Lives of the Poets,” and on “Langbaine’s Dramatic Poets.” The late Mr. Boswell showed me a Fuller in the Malone collection, with Steevens’s transcriptions of Oldys’s notes, which Malone purchased for 43l. at Steevens’s sale; but where is the original copy of Oldys? The “Winstanley,” I think, also reposes in the same collection. The “Langbaine” is far-famed, and is preserved in the British Museum, the gift of Dr. Birch; it has been considered so precious, that several of our eminent writers have cheerfully passed through the labour of a minute transcription of its numberless notes. In the history of the fate and fortune of books, that of Oldys’s Langbaine is too curious to omit. Oldys may tell his own story, which I find in the Museum copy, p. 336, and which copy appears to be a second attempt; for of the first Langbaine we have this account:—

When I left London in 1724, to reside in Yorkshire, I left in the care of the Rev. Mr. Burridge’s family, with whom I had several years lodged, among many other books, goods, &c., a copy of this “Langbaine,” in which I had wrote several notes and references to further knowledge of these poets. When I returned to London, 1730, I understood my books had been dispersed; and afterwards becoming acquainted with Mr. T. Coxeter, I found that he had bought my “Langbaine” of a bookseller who was a great collector of plays and poetical books: this must have been of service to him, and he has kept it so carefully from my sight, that I never could have the opportunity of transcribing into this I am now writing in the notes I had collected in that.11

This first Langbaine, with additions by Coxeter, was bought, at the sale of his books, by Theophilus Cibber: on the strength of these notes he prefixed his name to the first collection of the “Lives of our Poets,” which appeared in weekly numbers, and now form five volumes, written chiefly by Shiels, an amanuensis of Dr. Johnson. Shiels has been recently castigated by Mr. Gifford.

These literary jobbers nowhere distinguished Coxeter’s and Oldys’s curious matter from their own. Such was the fate of the first copy of Langbaine, with Oldys’s notes; but the second is more important. At an auction of some of Oldys’s books and manuscripts, of which I have seen a printed catalogue, Dr. Birch purchased this invaluable copy for three shillings and sixpence.12 Such was the value attached to these original researches concerning our poets, and of which, to obtain only a transcript, very large sums have since been cheerfully given. The Museum copy of Langbaine is in Oldys’s handwriting, not interleaved, but overflowing with notes, written in a very small hand about the margins, and inserted between the lines; nor may the transcriber pass negligently even its corners, otherwise he is here assured that he will lose some useful date, or the hint of some curious reference. The enthusiasm and diligence of Oldys, in undertaking a repetition of his first lost labour, proved to be infinitely greater than the sense of his unrequited labours. Such is the history of the escapes, the changes, and the fate of a volume which forms the groundwork of the most curious information concerning our elder poets, and to which we must still frequently refer.

In this variety of literary arrangements, which we must consider as single works in a progressive state, or as portions of one great work on our modern literary history, it may, perhaps, be justly suspected that Oldys, in the delight of perpetual acquisition, impeded the happier labour of unity of design and completeness of purpose. He was not a Tiraboschi — nor even a Niceron! He was sometimes chilled by neglect, and by “vanity and vexation of spirit,” else we should not now have to count over a barren list of manuscript works; masses of literary history, of which the existence is even doubtful.

In Kippis’s Biographia Britannica we find frequent references to O. M., Oldys’s Manuscripts. Mr. John Taylor, the son of the friend and executor of Oldys, has greatly obliged me with all his recollections of this man of letters; whose pursuits, however, were in no manner analogous to his, and whom he could only have known in youth. By him I learn, that on the death of Oldys, Dr. Kippis, editor of the Biographia Britannica, looked over these manuscripts at Mr. Taylor’s house. He had been directed to this discovery by the late Bishop of Dromore, whose active zeal was very remarkable in every enterprise to enlarge our literary history. Kippis was one who, in some degree, might have estimated their literary value; but, employed by commercial men, and negotiating with persons who neither comprehended their nature, nor affixed any value to them, the editor of the Biographia found Oldys’s manuscripts an easy purchase for his employer, the late Mr. Cadell; and the twenty guineas, perhaps, served to bury their writer! Mr. Taylor says —“The manuscripts of Oldys were not so many as might be expected from so indefatigable a writer. They consisted chiefly of short extracts from books, and minutes of dates, and were thought worth purchasing by the doctor. I remember the manuscripts well; though Oldys was not the author, but rather recorder.” Such is the statement and the opinion of a writer whose effusions are of a gayer sort. But the researches of Oldys must not be estimated by this standard; with him a single line was the result of many a day of research, and a leaf of scattered hints would supply more original knowledge than some octavos fashioned out by the hasty gilders and varnishers of modern literature. These discoveries occupy small space to the eye; but large works are composed out of them. This very lot of Oldys’s manuscripts was, indeed, so considerable in the judgment of Kippis, that he has described them as “a large and useful body of biographical materials, left by Mr. Oldys.” Were these the “Biographical Institutes” Oldys refers to among his manuscripts? “The late Mr. Malone,” continues Mr. Taylor, “told me that he had seen all Oldys’s manuscripts; so I presume they are in the hands of Cadell and Davies.” Have they met with the fate of sucked oranges? — and how much of Malone may we owe to Oldys?

This information enabled me to trace the manuscripts of Oldys to Dr. Kippis; but it cast me among the booksellers, who do not value manuscripts which no one can print. I discovered, by the late Mr. Davies, that the direction of that hapless work in our literary history, with its whole treasure of manuscripts, had been consigned by Mr. Cadell to the late George Robinson, and that the successor of Dr. Kippis had been the late Dr. George Gregory. Again I repeat, the history of voluminous works is a melancholy office; every one concerned with them no longer can be found! The esteemed relict of Dr. Gregory, with a friendly promptitude, gratified my anxious inquiries, and informed me, that “she perfectly recollects a mass of papers, such as I described, being returned, on the death of Dr. Gregory, to the house of Wilkie and Robinson, in the early part of the year 1809.” I applied to this house, who, after some time, referred me to Mr. John Robinson, the representative of his late father, and with whom all the papers of the former partnership were deposited. But Mr. John Robinson has terminated my inquiries, by his civility in promising to comply with them, and his pertinacity in not doing so. He may have injured his own interest in not trading with my curiosity.13 It was fortunate for the nation that George Vertue’s mass of manuscripts escaped the fate of Oldys’s; had the possessor proved as indolent, Horace Walpole would not have been the writer of his most valuable work, and we should have lost the “Anecdotes of Painting,” of which Vertue had collected the materials.

Of a life consumed in such literary activity we should have known more had the Diaries of Oldys escaped destruction. “One habit of my father’s old friend, William Oldys,” says Mr. Taylor, “was that of keeping a diary, and recording in it every day all the events that occurred, and all his engagements, and the employment of his time. I have seen piles of these books, but know not what became of them.” The existence of such diaries is confirmed by a sale catalogue of Thomas Davies, the literary bookseller, who sold many of the books and some manuscripts of Oldys, which appear to have been dispersed in various libraries. I find Lot “3627, Mr. Oldys’s Diary, containing several observations relating to books, characters, &c.;” a single volume, which appears to have separated from the “piles” which Mr. Taylor once witnessed. The literary diary of Oldys could have exhibited the mode of his pursuits, and the results of his discoveries. One of these volumes I have fortunately discovered, and a singularity in this writer’s feelings throws a new interest over such diurnal records. Oldys was apt to give utterance with his pen to his most secret emotions. Querulous or indignant, his honest simplicity confided to the paper before him such extemporaneous soliloquies, and I have found him hiding in the very corners of his manuscripts his “secret sorrows.”

A few of these slight memorials of his feelings will exhibit a sort of Silhouette likeness traced by his own hand, when at times the pensive man seems to have contemplated his own shadow. Oldys would throw down in verses, whose humility or quaintness indicates their origin, or by some pithy adage, or apt quotation, or recording anecdote, his self-advice, or his self-regrets!

Oppressed by a sense of tasks so unprofitable to himself, while his days were often passed in trouble and in prison, he breathes a self-reproach in one of these profound reflections of melancholy which so often startle the man of study, who truly discovers that life is too limited to acquire real knowledge, with the ambition of dispensing it to the world:—

I say, who too long in these cobwebs lurks,

Is always whetting tools, but never works.

In one of the corners of his note-books I find this curious but sad reflection:—

Alas! this is but the apron of a fig-leaf — but the curtain of a cobweb.

Sometimes he seems to have anticipated the fate of that obscure diligence which was pursuing discoveries reserved for others to use:—

He heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.

Fond treasurer of these stores, behold thy fate

In Psalm the thirty-ninth, 6, 7, and 8.

Sometimes he checks the eager ardour of his pen, and reminds himself of its repose, in Latin, Italian, and English.

———— Non vi, sed sæpe cadendo.

Assai presto si fa quel che si fa bene.

Some respite best recovers what we need,

Discreetly baiting gives the journey speed.

There was a thoughtless kindness in honest Oldys; and his simplicity of character, as I have observed, was practised on by the artful or the ungenerous. We regret to find the following entry concerning the famous collector, James West:—

I gave above threescore letters of Dr. Davenant to his son, who was envoy at Frankfort in 1703 to 1708, to Mr. James West,14 with one hundred and fifty more, about Christmas, 1746: but the same fate they found as grain that is sown in barren ground.

Such is the plaintive record by which Oldys relieved himself of a groan! We may smile at the simplicity of the following narrative, where poor Oldys received manuscripts in lieu of money:—

Old Counsellor Fane, of Colchester, who, in formâ pauperis, deceived me of a good sum of money which he owed me, and not long after set up his chariot, gave me a parcel of manuscripts, and promised me others, which he never gave me, nor anything else, besides a barrel of oysters, and a manuscript copy of Randolph’s poems, an original, as he said, with many additions, being devolved to him as the author’s relation.

There was no end to his aids and contributions to every author or bookseller who applied to him; yet he had reason to complain of both while they were using his invaluable but not valued knowledge. Here is one of these diurnal entries:—

I lent the tragical lives and deaths of the famous pirates, Ward and Dansiker, 4to, London, 1612, by Robt. Daborn, alias Dabourne, to Mr. T. Lediard, when he was writing his Naval History, and he never returned it. See Howell’s Letters of them.

In another, when his friend T. Hayward was collecting, for his “British Muse,” the most exquisite commonplaces of our old English dramatists, a compilation which must not be confounded with ordinary ones, Oldys not only assisted in the labour, but drew up a curious introduction with a knowledge and love of the subject which none but himself possessed. But so little were these researches then understood, that we find Oldys, in a moment of vexatious recollection, and in a corner of one of the margins of his Langbaine, accidentally preserving an extraordinary circumstance attending this curious dissertation. Oldys having completed this elaborate introduction, “the penurious publisher insisted on leaving out one third part, which happened to be the best matter in it, because he would have it contracted into one sheet!” Poor Oldys never could forget the fate of this elaborate Dissertation on all the collections of English poetry; I am confident that I have seen some volume which was formerly Oldys’s, and afterwards Thomas Warton’s, in the possession of my intelligent friend Mr. Douce, in the fly-leaf of which Oldys has expressed himself in these words:—“In my historical and critical review of all the collections of this kind, it would have made a sheet and a half or two sheets; but they for sordid gain, and to save a little expense in print and paper, got Mr. John Campbell to cross it and cramp it, and play the devil with it, till they squeezed it into less compass than a sheet.” This is a loss which we may never recover. The curious book-knowledge of this singular man of letters, those stores of which he was the fond treasurer, as he says with such tenderness for his pursuits, were always ready to be cast into the forms of a dissertation or an introduction; and when Morgan published his Collection of Rare Tracts, the friendly hand of Oldys furnished “A Dissertation upon Pamphlets, in a Letter to a Nobleman;” probably the Earl of Oxford, a great literary curiosity; and in the Harleian Collection he has given a Catalogue raisonné of six hundred. When Mrs. Cooper attempted “The Muse’s Library,” the first essay which influenced the national taste to return to our deserted poets in our most poetical age, it was Oldys who only could have enabled this lady to perform that task so well.15 When Curll, the publisher, to help out one of his hasty compilations, a “History of the Stage,” repaired, like all the world, to Oldys, whose kindness could not resist the importunity of this busy publisher, he gave him a life of Nell Gwynn; while at the same moment Oldys could not avoid noticing, in one of his usual entries, an intended work on the stage, which we seem never to have had, “Dick Leveridge’s History of the Stage and Actors in his own Time, for these forty or fifty years past, as he told me he had composed, is likely to prove, whenever it shall appear, a more perfect work.” I might proceed with many similar gratuitous contributions with which he assisted his contemporaries. Oldys should have been constituted the reader for the nation. His Comptes Rendus of books and manuscripts are still held precious; but his useful and curious talent had sought the public patronage in vain! From one of his “Diaries,” which has escaped destruction, I transcribe some interesting passages ad verbum.

The reader is here presented with a minute picture of those invisible occupations which pass in the study of a man of letters. There are those who may be surprised, as well as amused, in discovering how all the business, even to the very disappointments and pleasures of active life, can be transferred to the silent chamber of a recluse student; but there are others who will not read without emotion the secret thoughts of him who, loving literature with its purest passion, scarcely repines at being defrauded of his just fame, and leaves his stores for the after-age of his more gifted heirs. Thus we open one of Oldys’s literary days:—

I was informed that day by Mr. Tho. Odell’s daughter, that her father, who was Deputy-Inspector and Licenser of the Plays, died 24 May, 1749, at his house in Chappel-street, Westminster, aged 58 years. He was writing a history of the characters he had observed, and conferences he had had with many eminent persons he knew in his time. He was a great observator of everything curious in the conversations of his acquaintance, and his own conversation was a living chronicle of the remarkable intrigues, adventures, sayings, stories, writings, &c., of many of the quality, poets, and other authors, players, booksellers, &c., who flourished especially in the present century. He had been a popular man at elections, and sometime master of the playhouse in Goodman’s Fields, but latterly was forced to live reserved and retired by reason of his debts. He published two or three dramatic pieces, one was the Patron, on the story of Lord Romney.

Q. of his da. to restore me Eustace Budgell’s papers, and to get a sight of her father’s.

Have got the one, and seen the other.

July 31. — Was at Mrs. Odell’s; she returned me Mr. Budgell’s papers. Saw some of her husband’s papers, mostly poems in favour of the ministry, and against Mr. Pope. One of them, printed by the late Sir Robert Walpole’s encouragement, who gave him ten guineas for writing and as much for the expense of printing it; but through his advice it was never published, because it might hurt his interest with Lord Chesterfield, and some other noblemen who favoured Mr. Pope for his fine genius. The tract I liked best of his writings was the history of his playhouse in Goodman’s Fields. (Remember that which was published against that playhouse, which I have entered in my London Catalogue. Letter to Sir Ric. Brocas, Lord Mayor, &c., 8vo, 1730.)

Saw nothing of the history of his conversations with ingenious men; his characters, tales, jests, and intrigues of them, of which no man was better furnished with them. She thinks she has some papers of these, and promises to look them out, and also to inquire after Mr. Griffin, of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, that I may get a search made about Spenser.

So intent was Oldys on these literary researches that we see, by the last words of this entry, how in hunting after one sort of game, his undivided zeal kept his eye on another. One of his favourite subjects was the realising of original discoveries respecting Spenser and Shakspeare; of whom, perhaps, to our shame, as it is to our vexation, it may be said that two of our master-poets are those of whom we know the least! Oldys once flattered himself that he should be able to have given the world a Life of Shakspeare. Mr. John Taylor informs me, that “Oldys had contracted to supply ten years of the life of Shakspeare unknown to the biographers, with one Walker, a bookseller in the Strand; and as Oldys did not live to fulfil the engagement, my father was obliged to return to Walker twenty guineas which he had advanced on the work.” That interesting narrative is now hopeless for us. Yet, by the solemn contract into which Oldys had entered, and from his strict integrity, it might induce one to suspect that he had made positive discoveries which are now irrecoverable.

We may observe the manner of his anxious inquiries about Spenser:—

Ask Sir Peter Thompson if it were improper to try if Lord Effingham Howard would procure the pedigrees in the Herald’s office, to be seen for Edmund Spenser’s parentage or family? or how he was related to Sir John Spenser of Althorpe, in Northamptonshire? to three of whose daughters, who all married nobility, Spenser dedicates three of his poems.

Of Mr. Vertue, to examine Stowe’s memorandum-book. Look more carefully for the year when Spenser’s monument was raised, or between which years the entry stands — 1623 and 1626.

Sir Clement Cottrell’s book about Spenser.

Captain Power, to know if he has heard from Capt. Spenser about my letter of inquiries relating to Edward Spenser.

Of Whiston, to examine if my remarks on Spenser are complete as to the press — Yes.

Remember, when I see Mr. W. Thompson, to inquire whether he has printed in any of his works any other character of our old poets than those of Spenser and Shakspeare;16 and to get the liberty of a visit at Kentish Town, to see his Collection of Robert Greene’s Works, in about four large volumes quarto. He commonly published a pamphlet every term, as his acquaintance Tom Nash informs us.

Two or three other memorials may excite a smile at his peculiar habits of study, and unceasing vigilance to draw from original sources of information.

Dryden’s Dream, at Lord Exeter’s, at Burleigh, while he was translating Virgil, as Signior Verrio, then painting there, related it to the Yorkshire painter, of whom I had it, lies in the parchment book in quarto, designed for his life.

At a subsequent period Oldys inserts, “Now entered therein.” Malone quotes this very memorandum, which he discovered in Oldys’s Langbaine, to show Dryden had some confidence in Oneirocriticism, and supposed that future events were sometimes prognosticated by dreams. Malone adds, “Where either the loose prophetic leaf or the parchment book now is, I know not.”17

Unquestionably we have incurred a great loss in Oldys’s collections for Dryden’s Life, which are very extensive; such a mass of literary history cannot have perished unless by accident; and I suspect that many of Oldys’s manuscripts are in the possession of individuals who are not acquainted with his hand-writing, which may be easily verified.

To search the old papers in one of my large deal boxes for Dryden’s letter of thanks to my father, for some communication relating to Plutarch, while they and others were publishing a translation of Plutarch’s Lives, in five volumes 8vo. 1683. It is copied in the yellow book for Dryden’s Life, in which there are about 150 transcriptions, in prose and verse, relating to the life, character, and writings of Dryden. — Is England’s Remembrancer extracted out of my obit. (obituary) into my remarks on him in the poetical bag?

My extracts in the parchment budget about Denham’s seat and family in Surrey.

My white vellum pocket-book, bordered with gold, for the extract from “Groans of Great Britain” about Butler.

See my account of the great yews in Tankersley’s park, while Sir R. Fanshaw was prisoner in the lodge there; especially Talbot’s yew, which a man on horseback might turn about in, in my botanical budget.

This Donald Lupton I have mentioned in my catalogue of all the books and pamphlets relative to London in folio, begun anno 1740, and in which I have now, 1740, entered between 300 and 400 articles, besides remarks, &c. Now, in June, 1748, between 400 and 500 articles. Now, in October, 1750, six hundred and thirty-six.18

There remains to be told an anecdote which shows that Pope greatly regarded our literary antiquary. “Oldys,” says my friend, “was one of the librarians of the Earl of Oxford, and he used to tell a story of the credit which he obtained as a scholar, by setting Pope right in a Latin quotation which he made at the earl’s table. He did not, however, as I remember, boast of having been admitted as a guest at the table, but as happening to be in the room.” Why might not Oldys, however, have been seated, at least below the salt? It would do no honour to either party to suppose that Oldys stood among the menials. The truth is, there appears to have existed a confidential intercourse between Pope and Oldys; of this I shall give a remarkable proof. In those fragments of Oldys, preserved as “additional anecdotes of Shakspeare,” in Steevens’s and Malone’s editions, Oldys mentions a story of Davenant, which, he adds, “Mr. Pope told me at the Earl of Oxford’s table!” And further relates a conversation which passed between them. Nor is this all; for in Oldys’s Langbaine he put down this memorandum in the article of Shakspeare —“Remember what I observed to my Lord Oxford for Mr. Pope’s use out of Cowley’s preface.” Malone appears to have discovered this observation of Cowley’s, which is curious enough, and very ungrateful to that commentator’s ideas: it is “to prune and lop away the old withered branches” in the new editions of Shakspeare and other ancient poets! “Pope adopted,” says Malone, “this very unwarrantable idea; Oldys was the person who suggested to Pope the singular course he pursued in his edition of Shakspeare.” Without touching on the felicity or the danger of this new system of republishing Shakspeare, one may say that if many passages were struck out, Shakspeare would not be injured, for many of them were never composed by that great bard! There not only existed a literary intimacy between Oldys and Pope, but our poet adopting his suggestions on so important an occasion, evinces how highly he esteemed his judgment; and unquestionably Pope had often been delighted by Oldys with the history of his predecessors, and the curiosities of English poetry.

I have now introduced the reader to Oldys sitting amidst his “poetical bags,” his “parchment biographical budgets,” his “catalogues,” and his “diaries,” often venting a solitary groan, or active in some fresh inquiry. Such is the Silhouette of this prodigy of literary curiosity!

The very existence of Oldys’s manuscripts continues to be of an ambiguous nature; referred to, quoted, and transcribed, we can but seldom turn to the originals. These masses of curious knowledge, dispersed or lost, have enriched an after-race, who have often picked up the spoil and claimed the victory, but it was Oldys who had fought the battle!

Oldys affords one more example how life is often closed amidst discoveries and acquisitions. The literary antiquary, when he has attempted to embody his multiplied inquiries, and to finish his scattered designs, has found that the labor absque labore, “the labour void of labour,” as the inscription on the library of Florence finely describes the researches of literature, has dissolved his days in the voluptuousness of his curiosity; and that too often, like the hunter in the heat of the chase, while he disdained the prey which lay before him, he was still stretching onwards to catch the fugitive!

Transvolat in medio posita, et fugientia captat.

At the close of every century, in this growing world of books, may an Oldys be the reader for the nation! Should he be endowed with a philosophical spirit, and combine the genius of his own times with that of the preceding, he will hold in his hand the chain of human thoughts, and, like another Bayle, become the historian of the human mind!

1 His intention was to publish a general classified biography of all the Italian authors.

2 He says in his advertisement, “It will be difficult to ascertain whether he meant to give them to the public, or only to reserve them for his own amusement and the entertainment of his friends.” Many of these anecdotes are evidently mere loose scandal.

3 Grose narrates his early history thus:—“His parents dying when he was very young, he soon squandered away his small patrimony, when he became, at first an attendant in Lord Oxford’s library, and afterwards librarian; at whose death he was obliged to write for the booksellers for a subsistence.”

4 Mr. John Taylor, the son of Oldys’s intimate friend, has furnished me with this interesting anecdote. “Oldys, as my father informed me, was many years in quiet obscurity in the Fleet prison, but at last was spirited up to make his situation known to the Duke of Norfolk of that time, who received Oldys’s letter while he was at dinner with some friends. The duke immediately communicated the contents to the company, observing that he had long been anxious to know what had become of an old, though an humble friend, and was happy by that letter to find that he was alive. He then called for his gentleman (a kind of humble friend whom noblemen used to retain under that name in those days), and desired him to go immediately to the Fleet, to take money for the immediate need of Oldys, to procure an account of his debts, and discharge them. Oldys was soon after, either by the duke’s gift or interest, appointed Norroy King of Arms; and I remember that his official regalia came into my father’s hands at his death.”

In the “Life of Oldys,” by Mr. A. Chalmers, the date of this promotion is not found. My accomplished friend, the Rev. J. Dallaway, has obligingly examined the records of the college, by which it appears that Oldys had been Norfolk herald extraordinary, but not belonging to the college, was appointed per saltum Norroy King of Arms by patent, May 5th, 1755.

Grose says —“The patronage of the duke occasioned a suspicion of his being a papist, though I think really without reason; this for a while retarded his appointment: it was underhand propagated by the heralds, who were vexed at having a stranger put in upon them.”

5 The beautiful simplicity of this Anacreontic has met the unusual fate of entirely losing its character, by an additional and incongruous stanza in the modern editions, by a gentleman who has put into practice the unallowable liberty of altering the poetical and dramatic compositions of acknowledged genius to his own notion of what he deems “morality;” but in works of genius whatever is dull ceases to be moral. “The Fly” of Oldys may stand by “The Fly” of Gray for melancholy tenderness of thought; it consisted only of these two stanzas:

Busy, curious, thirsty fly!

Drink with me, and drink as I!

Freely welcome to my cup,

Couldst thou sip and sip it up:

Make the most of life you may;

Life is short and wears away!

Both alike are mine and thine,

Hastening quick to their decline!

Thine’s a summer, mine no more,

Though repeated to threescore!

Threescore summers when they’re gone,

Will appear as short as one!

6 This anecdote should be given in justice to both parties, and in Grose’s words, who says:—“He was a man of great good-nature, honour, and integrity, particularly in his character of an historian. Nothing, I firmly believe, would ever have biassed him to insert any fact in his writings he did not believe, or to suppress any he did. Of this delicacy he gave an instance at a time when he was in great distress. After his publication of the ‘Life of Sir Walter Raleigh,’ some booksellers thinking his name would sell a piece they were publishing, offered him a considerable sum to father it, which he rejected with the greatest indignation.”

7 We have been taught to enjoy the two ages of Genius and of Taste. The literary public are deeply indebted to the editorial care, the taste, and the enthusiasm of Mr. Singer, for exquisite reprints of some valuable writers.

8 Gibbon once meditated a life of Rawleigh, and for that purpose began some researches in that “memorable era of our English annals.” After reading Oldys’s, he relinquished his design, from a conviction that “he could add nothing new to the subject, except the uncertain merit of style and sentiment.”

9 The British Museum is extremely deficient in our National Literature. The gift of George the Third’s library has, however, probably supplied many deficiencies. [The recent bequest of the Grenville collection, and the constant search made of late years for these relics of early literature by the officers of our great national library, has greatly altered the state of the collection since the above was written s — Ed.]

10 Grose says —“His mode of composing was somewhat singular: he had a number of small parchment bags, inscribed with the names of the persons whose lives he intended to write; into these bags he put every circumstance and anecdote he could collect, and from thence drew up his history.”

11 At the Bodleian Library, I learnt by a letter with which I am favoured by the Rev. Dr. Bliss, that there is an interleaved “Gildon’s Lives and Characters of the Dramatic Poets,” with corrections, which once belonged to Coxeter, who appears to have intended a new edition. Whether Coxeter transcribed into his Gildon the notes of Oldys’s first “Langbaine,” is worth inquiry. Coxeter’s conduct, though he had purchased Oldys’s first “Langbaine,” was that of an ungenerous miser, who will quarrel with a brother rather than share in any acquisition he can get into his own hands. To Coxeter we also owe much; he suggested Dodsley’s Collection of Old Plays, and the first tolerable edition of Massinger.

Oldys could not have been employed in Lord Oxford’s library, as Mr. Chalmers conjectures, about 1726; for here he mentions that he was in Yorkshire from 1724 to 1730. This period is a remarkable blank in Oldys’s life. My learned friend, the Rev. Joseph Hunter, has supplied me with a note in the copy of Fuller in the Malone collection preserved at the Bodleian. Those years were passed apparently in the household of the first Earl of Malton, who built Wentworth House. There all the collections of the antiquary Gascoigne, with “seven great chests of manuscripts,” some as ancient as the time of the Conquest, were condemned in one solemn sacrifice to Vulcan; the ruthless earl being impenetrable to the prayers and remonstrances of our votary to English History. Oldys left the earl with little satisfaction, as appears by some severe strictures from his gentle pen.

12 This copy was lent by Dr. Birch to the late Bishop of Dromore, who with his own hand carefully transcribed the notes into an interleaved copy of “Langbaine,” divided into four volumes, which, as I am informed, narrowly escaped the flames, and was injured by the water, at a fire at Northumberland House. His lordship, when he went to Ireland, left this copy with Mr. Nichols, for the use of the projected editions of the Tatler, the Spectator, and the Guardian, with notes and illustrations; of which I think the Tatler only has appeared, and to which his lordship contributed some valuable communications.

13 I know that not only this lot of Oldys’s manuscripts, but a great quantity of original contributions of whole lives, intended for the “Biographia Britannica,” must lie together, unless they have been destroyed as waste paper. These biographical and literary curiosities were often supplied by the families or friends of eminent persons. Some may, perhaps, have been reclaimed by their owners. I am informed there was among them an interesting collection of the correspondence of Locke; and I could mention several lives which were prepared.

14 This collection, and probably the other letters, have come down to us, no doubt, with the manuscripts of this collector, purchased for the British Museum. The correspondence of Dr. Davenant, the political writer, with his son, the envoy, turns on one perpetual topic, his son’s and his own advancement in the state.

15 It is a stout octavo volume of 400 pages, containing a good selection of specimens from the earliest era, concluding with Sam. Daniel, in the reign of James I. Mrs. Elizabeth Cooper was the wife of an auctioneer, who had been a chum of Oldys’s in the Fleet Prison, where he died a debtor; and it was to aid his widow that Oldys edited this book.

16 William Thompson, the poet of “Sickness,” and other poems; a warm lover of our elder bards, and no vulgar imitator of Spenser. He was the revivor of Bishop Hall’s Satires, in 1753, by an edition which had been more fortunate if conducted by his friend Oldys, for the text is unfaithful, though the edition followed was one borrowed from Lord Oxford’s library, probably by the aid of Oldys.

17 Malone’s Life of Dryden, p. 420.

18 This is one of Oldys’s Manuscripts; a thick folio of titles, which has been made to do its duty, with small thanks from those who did not care to praise the service which they derived from it. It passed from Dr. Berkenhout to George Steevens, who lent it to Gough. It was sold for five guineas. The useful work of ten years of attention given to it! The antiquary Gough alludes to it with his usual discernment. “Among these titles of books and pamphlets about London are many purely historical, and many of too low a kind to rank under the head of topography and history.” Thus the design of Oldys, in forming this elaborate collection, is condemned by trying it by the limited object of the topographer’s view. This catalogue remains a desideratum, were it printed entire as collected by Oldys, not merely for the topography of the metropolis, but for its relation to its manners, domestic annals, events, and persons connected with its history.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53