Isaac Disraeli.

Curiosities of literature online

. (page 38 of 43)
Online LibraryIsaac DisraeliCuriosities of literature → online text (page 38 of 43)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


ing some ancient tract as precious as a manuscript, or revel-
ling in the volume of a poet, whose passport of fame was yet
delayed in its way; or disinterring the treasure of some

* We have been taught to enjoy the two ages of Genins 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.



Digitized by VjOOQ IC



OLDYS AND HIS MANUSCRIPTS. 431

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 Eng-
land ; 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 ex-
traordinary 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. *

It was an advantage in this primaeval era of literary curi-
osity, that those volumes which are now not even to be found
in our national library, where certainly they are perpetually

* 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."



Digitized by VjOOQIC



432 LIFE AND HABITS OF A LITERARY ANTIQUARY.

wanted, and which are now so excessively appreciated, were
exposed on stalls, through the reigns of Anne and the two
Georges.* Oldjs 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 every thing 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 accu-
mulating masses of notes ; and as Oldys never used his pen
fix)m 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. Every thing was acquisition. This never-ending busi-
ness 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, Imagi-
nation, and Philosophy !

We may be curious to inquire where our literary antiquary
deposited the discoveries and curiosities which he was so in-
cessantly 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 —

* The British Museum is extremely deficient in our National Literature.
The gift of George the Third's library has, however, probably supplied
many deficiencies.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



OLDYS AND HIS MANUSCRIPTS. 433

of Botany — of Obituary "—of " Books relative to London,"
and other titles and bags, which he was every day filling.
Sometimes his collections seem to have been intended for a
series of volumes, for he refers to " My first Volume of Ta-
bles of the eminent Persons celebrated by English Poets " —
to another of "Poetical Characteristics." Among those
manuscripts which I have seen, I find one mentioned, appar-
ently of a wide circuit, under the reference of " My Bio-
gmphical Institutions. Part third; containing a Catalogue
of all the English Lives, with Historical and Critical Obser-
vations 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 Col-
lectors 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 £43 at Steevens's sale ; but where is the origi-
nal 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
fe,te 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 Jirst 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 theso
poets. When I returned to London, 1780, 1 understood my books had been
VOL. IV. 28



Digitized by VjOOQIC



434 LIFi* AND HABITS OF A LITERARY ANTIQUABT.

dispersed ; and afterwards beoomiDg acqaaiuted with Mr. T. Goxeter, 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.*

Tlnsjlrit Langbaine, with additions by Coxeter, was bought,
at the sale of his books, by Theophilus Gibber: on the
strength of these notes he prefixed his name to the first col-
lection 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 re-
cently castigated by Mr. Giflbrd.

These literary jobbers nowhere distinguished Coxeter*s
and Oldys's curious matter from their own. Such was
the fate of the Jirst 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

* 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 Coxe-
ter transcribed into his Gildon the notes of Oldys's Jirst 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 1780. 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 Bod*
leian. 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 solenm
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.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



OLDYS AND fflS MANUSCRIPTS. 435

for three shillings and six-pence.* Such was the value at-
tached 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 Lang-
baine is in Oldys's handwriting, not interleaved, but over-
flowing with notes, written in a very small hand about the
margins, and inserted between the lines ; nor may the tran-
scriber pass negligently even its comers, 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 curi-
ous 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 modem 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 Tirabo-
schi — 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 refer-
ences to O. M., Oldys's Manuscripts. Mr. John Taylor, the

♦ This copy was lent by Dr. Birch to the late Bishop of Dromore, who
with his own hand carefuUy transcribed the notes into an interleaved copy
of Langbaine, divided into four volumes, which, as I am informed, nar-
rowly escaped the flames, and was injured by the water, at a fire at North-
umberland 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
dome valuable communications.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



436 LIFE AND HABITS OF A LITERARY ANTIQUARY.

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 Biogra-
phia Britannica, looked over these manuscripts at Mr. Tay-
lor's house. He had been directed to this discovery by the
late Bishop of Dromore, whose active zeal was very remark-
able 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 remem-
ber 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 re-
search, and a leaf of scattered hints would supply more
original knowledge than some octavos, fashioned out by the
hasty gilders and vamishers of modem literature. These
discoveries occupy small space to the eye ; but large works
are composed out of them. This very lot of Oldys's manu-
scripts 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 manu-
scripts? "The late Mr. Malone," continues Mr. Taylor,
** told me that he had seen all Oldys' s manuscripts ; so I pre-



Digitized by VjOOQIC



OLDYS AND HIS MANUSCRIPTS. 437

sume 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 Doctor 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 re-
turned, 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 depos-
ited. 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.* 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

♦ I know that not only this lot of Oldys' s manuscriptSy but a great quan-
tity 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 in-
teresting coUection of the correspondence of Locke ; and I could mention
several lives which were prepared.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



438 LIFE AND HABITS OF A LITERARY ANTIQUARY.

"Anecdotes of Painting,** of which Vertue had collected the
materials.

Of a life consumed in such literary activity we should hare
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 engage-
ments, 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
Thomes Davies, the literary bookseller, who sold many of
the books and some manuscripts of Oldi/s, 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 would have exhib-
ited the mode of his pursuits, and the results of his discovei>
ies. One of these volumes I have fortunately discovered,
and a singularity in this writer's feelings throws a new inter-
est over such diurnal records. Oldys was apt to give utter-
ance 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 comers 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 reflec-



Digitized by VjOOQIC



OLDYS AND HIS MANUSCRIPTS. 433

tions 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 re-
minds himself of its repose, in Latin, Italian, and English.

^** Non vi, sed saepe 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 prac-
tised 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 1708 to 1708, to Mr. James West,* with one hundred
and fifty more, about Christmas, 1746: but the same fate they found as
grain that is sown in barren ground."

♦ This collection, and probably the other letters, have come down to us
na 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 ad-
trancement in the state.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



440 LIFE AND HABITS OF A LITERARY ANTIQUARY

Such is the plaintive record by which Oldys relieved him-
self 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 forma 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 any thing 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. Dabom, alias Dabourae, 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 common-places of our
old English dramatists, a compilation which must not be con-
founded 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 cu-
rious 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 1 " Poor
Oldys never could forget the fate of this elstborate Disserta-
tion on all the collections of English poetry ; I am confident



Digitized by VjOOQIC



OLDYS AND HIS MANUSCRIPTS. 441

tliat 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, UU 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 Pam-
phlets, 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 raisonne 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. 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



Online LibraryIsaac DisraeliCuriosities of literature → online text (page 38 of 43)