Watch and Listen: Dr. Abigail Williams on Poetic Miscellanies

Title page of a 1713 poetic miscellany, sourced from wikicommons

In the podcast Only Collect: An Introduction to the World of the Poetic Miscellany (video/audio), Dr. Abigail Williams talks about 18th century poetic miscellanies and what they can reveal about literary and historical trends in readership.

As the director of the Digital Miscellanies Index, Dr. Williams has worked to create an exciting merger of literature and technology, allowing interested parties to sift through vast numbers of poems in miscellanies by publication, theme, genre, poem, or author.

The poetic miscellany is a compilation of recently published texts that reveal what and how people were reading at that time. Unlike anthologies, which formally displayed trends in literary history, miscellanies were built around a given theme. Examples include:

  • Elegant Extracts: Pieces Selected for the Improvement of Youth in Speaking, Reading, Thinking, and Composing, and in the Conduct of Life, a miscellany designed to educate young persons
  • Live and Be Fat or the Merry Jester, a humorous miscellany full of clever quips and witty poems
  • The Flowers of Parnassus, or a Lady’s Miscellany, a collection of poems geared specifically toward women.

Other common miscellany themes include the political, the dramatic, the gender-specific, or miscellanies dedicated solely to collections of poetry. Miscellany titles often referenced flowers, to suggest the miscellany picked only the best flowers of the period’s poetic fields,  or museums, referencing the Greek term specific to a building dedicated to the muses and their arts.

The miscellany is a more structured descendant of the early modern commonplace book. Commonplace books were manuscripts in which readers wrote down whatever took their fancy, be it poems, prose, musings, bible quotes, or recipes. You can see an example of a commonplace book kept by John Milton here. While commonplace books were sometimes indexed, more often all these elements would be grouped at random.

A miscellany is more formal than a commonplace book, as it is united by an expressed theme. However, what is included in the miscellany is still defined by what the author finds intriguing, rather than the anthology’s proscribed curriculum. And it is this arbitrary nature of a miscellany’s contents that makes it such a valuable resource. Rather than revealing sweeping trends of a decade or century, a miscellany provides a snapshot of a literary or historical moment on a month by month basis. Miscellanies allow us a glimpse into the mindset of a reader of an incredibly specific historical period.

Listen to or watch Dr. Williams’ podcast to learn more, or visit the Digital Miscellanies Index.

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About Kate O'Connor

Kate O'Connor works as Publicity & Outreach Director for Post5 Theatre, Literary Assistant and Office Manager for the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, and Dramaturgy Intern for the Profile Theatre. She earned her M.St. in English Literature 1550-1700 at Lincoln College, University of Oxford and a BA in English from Stanford University. As an undergraduate she worked as the research assistant to Prof. David Riggs and as Literary Intern for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
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