Archive for the 'Curator’s Highlights' Category

Goodbye to Johnson and All That

Goodbye, goodbye, to 2009! But linger first for one last glimpse back o’er the annus Johnsonianus, with its wild lexicographical wonderments. Below, some favorites from Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, which ended today:

Those of you in Johnsonian withdrawal are invited to visit a web exhibition of the Beinecke’s 2009 Samuel Johnson exhibition, to browse the scanned copy of the annotated Sneyd-Gimbel copy of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (from which most excerpts for the Dr Johnson’s Dictionary blog were drawn), or to ramble through the digital archive of the James Boswell papers, held in the Beinecke Library collections.

For the rest of us, there is always the anniversarial literature of 2010. Why not a bracing dip into the quadringentesimal translation of William Camden’s Britannia—or, for those of you seeking inspiration for your new year’s resolutions, perhaps the tersemicentennial Peter Whitehorne translation of Machiavelli’s Arte of Warre. For the royalists among you, there are always the festival books for the 1610 coronation of Louis XIII—let’s hear it for the roi!

In the interim, do but consider this small dust, here running in the glass by atoms mov’d. Beginning on January 1, the Beinecke’s new Early Modern Paleography blog will begin its wander through the manuscripts and annotations of the Beinecke’s early modern collections. It’s not too late to resolve that 2010 will be the year of reading the early modern word, as scratched, copied, blotted by the early modern hand. Below, death, time, and love from the other Jonson, to mark the beginning of 2010.

Commonplace book, mid-17th century. Beinecke call number: Osborn b205.

Really As It Was: Writing the Life of Samuel Johnson

“I hope that News was not true,” wrote Hester Thrale Piozzi in 1799, on having heard of the impending death of Anna Seward, “as Floretta found it in Dr. Johnson’s Tale—to outlive Lovers and Haters, and Friends and Foes; and find one’s self surrounded by those with whom one has no Ideas in common—no Care for Applause nor no Strife of Competition.”(1) Piozzi’s melancholy was to continue, over the next two decades, as she out-lived most of the members of a literary circle in mid-eighteenth century England which had included Piozzi herself, Hannah More, Anna Seward, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell, and Samuel Johnson.


This act of remembering, of canonizing a literary circle through memory and anecdote, forms the subject of one of the Beinecke Library’s current exhibitions, “Really As It Was: Writing the Life of Samuel Johnson.” Curated by Diane Ducharme and Kathryn James, the exhibition explores the many biographies of Samuel Johnson’s life which were produced by his friends and acquaintances for an avid public in the days, years, and decades following his death. A web exhibition offers a gallery of the gossip, scandal, bitterness, delight, and fascination with which these works were greeted, read, and answered by the ever-articulate, ever-opinionated members of the Johnson circle. For those whose curiosity is only piqued by the exhibition, scanned manuscripts from the Boswell papers can also be found online. The exhibition is on view at the Beinecke Library through mid-December, 2009.


For further Johnson festivities, follow the word-a-day dictionary blog through its last months and letters. This blog began on January 1, 2009, by offering daily examples from an annotated proof copy of the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755). When the proof copy finished, as it does abruptly in the letter P, the blog switched in October to examples drawn from a copy of the first edition owned and annotated by Hester Thrale Piozzi. Join us in the last of S, as we follow Johnson through his reading, as he chooses examples from a particular reading of an English literary canon to support a particular idea of the English language and its meanings.


As the end of 2009 draws near and the tercentennial festivities come to a close, Johnson followers can take comfort in one last exhibition, travelling from Harvard’s Hyde collection to open at the Grolier Club in New York City on December 9. The Harvard exhibition, A Monument More Durable than Brass: The Donald & Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, was curated by John Overholt and will be on view at the Grolier through February 6, 2010.

1 Hester Thrale Piozzi to Hester Maria Thrale, Brynbella, 19 March 1799. The Piozzi Letters: Correspondence of Hester Lynch Piozzi, 1784-1821 (formerly Mrs. Thrale), ed. Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993), 3, 75.

Exhibition Opening: Starry Messenger, April 8 – June 30



Starry Messenger: Observing the Heavens in the Age of Galileo
An exhibition at the Beinecke Library, April 18 – June 30, 2009

In the autumn of 1609, the Italian mathematician and astronomer Galileo Galilei turned his telescope to the heavens, deciphering the cratered face of the moon, the four satellites of Jupiter, and other previously opaque features of the heavens. When, in 1610, Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius, or Starry Messenger, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler responded with enthusiasm, praising the significance of Galileo’s observations with his own Dissertatio cum Nuncio Sidereo, or, Conversations with the Starry Messenger (1610).

To whom else did the stars speak in the early modern period? This selection of engravings, charts, diagrams, and texts reveals the furred and cratered faces, the portents and instruments in European observations of the heavens from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century. Drawing in part on a recently acquired collection of early modern comet literature, these items explore the fascination and anxiety with the world, its state, and its possibilities of imperfection that infused the early modern European discussions of the stars.


Galileo’s illustration of the constellation of the Pleiades, in the first edition of Sidereus Nuncius.  At top: Galileo’s illustrations of the surface of the moon, also from the first edition of Sidereus Nuncius.


Above: images of the moon from the first pirated edition of Sidereus Nuncius, issued in Frankfurt in 1610.


Above: portrait of a cheerful Galileo, included as the frontispiece to the posthumous Opere (1666).


Hevelius’s image of the astronomer at work (above) and of the phases of the moon (below) in his exquisite lunar atlas, the Selenographia (Danzig: Hünefeld, 1647).



Novelists, as well as astronomers, began to colonize the landscapes of the heavens, as can be seen in this wonderfully witty satire by de Bergerac.  Selēnarhia, or, The government of the world in the moon : a comical history [Histoire comique des états et empires de la lune]. London: J. Cottrel, 1659.

A collection guide, containing further images and works scanned from this exhibition, can be found in the Beinecke Library’s digital library.     This exhibition is one event in Yale University’s celebration of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, and a calendar of lectures, viewings, concerts, and other events has been posted by the Yale Office of Public Affairs.

An exhibition opening will be held at Beinecke Library on Tuesday, April 28, following a lecture by Dava Sobel, author of Galileo’s Daughter and Longitude.  The lecture, sponsored by the Yale University Department of Astronomy, will be held at 4 pm in the Yale Law School Levinson Auditorium.  Both lecture and exhibition opening are free and open to the public.

Breake of Day

[Commonplace book], [mid. 17th c.], originally uploaded by Beinecke Flickr Laboratory.
Breake of Day
‘Tis true, ’tis day; what though it be?
O wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise? because ’tis light?
Did we lie down, because ’twas night?
Love which in spite of darkness brought us hither
Should in despite of light keep us together.
Light hath no tongue, but is all eye;
If it could speak as well as spy,
This were the worst, that it could say,
That being well, I fain would stay,
And that I lov’d my heart and honor so,
That I would not from him, that had them, go.
Must business thee from hence remove?
Oh, that’s the worst disease of love,
The poor, the foul, the false, love can
Admit, but not the busied man.
He which hath business, and makes love, doth do
Such wrong, as when a married man doth woo.

Alongside dozens of works by other authors, John Donne’s “Breake of Day” and other poems were copied in this commonplace book, or manuscript notebook, by an unidentified reader sometime in the mid-seventeenth century.

Missing several lines and the third stanza, this copy of “The Indifferent,” below, is considerably shorter than the version in the first edition of Donne’s poetry, published in 1633, two years after his death. Like many early modern commonplace books, this example offers a glimpse of the fluidity of early modern manuscript copies of texts, and of the active role of the reader in selecting, editing, abbreviating, mis-copying, and changing texts.


“The Indifferent”
I can love both fair and brown
Her whom abundance melts, and her whom want betrays
Her who loves loneness best, and her who masks and plays
Her whom the country form’d, and whom the town
Her who believes, and her who tries
Her who still weeps with spongy eyes,
And her who is dry cork, and never cries.
I can love her, and her, and you, and you
I can love any, so she be not true.

Will no other vice content you?
Will it not serve your turn to do as did your mothers?
Or have you all old vices spent, and now would find others?
Or doth a fear that men are true torment you?
O we are not; be not you so
Let me—and do you—twenty know
Rob me, but bind me not, and let me go.
Must I, who came to travel through you
Grow your fix’d subject, because you are true?

Venus heard me sigh this song
And by love’s sweetest part, variety, she swore,
She heard not till this now; and that it should be so no more.
She went, examined, and return’d ere long,
And said, “Alas! some two or three
Poor heretics in love there be,
Which think to stablish dangerous constancy.
But I have told them, ‘Since you will be true,
You shall be true to them who’re false to you’.”

Below, the reader at work with jottings and pen trials, and the binding of the volume itself.pen-tests1



This and other early modern commonplace books have been scanned in their entirety and can be read in the Beinecke’s Digital Images collection or on the Flickr Commons. Beinecke call number: Osborn b205

A most Notable Example of an Ungracious Son


“A most Notable Example of an Ungracious Son,
who in pride of his heart denyed his own Father, and how for his offence,
turned his Meat to loathsome Toads.
To the Tune of, Lord Derby.”


“To a new playhouse tune
Can Life be a Blessing
That’s worth our possessing?” (and other ditties)


One from several dozen late seventeenth-century ballads with woodcut illustrations which have been scanned and included in the Beinecke’s Digital Images. To find these and others, use the search term Ballads.


“Beauty’s Cruelty, or, the Passionate Lover, An Excellent new Play-Song, much in Request.”


“Love in a Maze, or, The Young-Man put to his Dumps.
Here in this Song you may behold and see
A gallant Girl obtain’d by Wit and Honesty;
All you that hear my Song, and mark it but aright,
Will say true love’s worth gold, and breeds delight.
To a pleasant new Tune, called, The true Lovers delight; Or, The Cambridge Horn.”

Scans of these and other ballads can be found in the Beinecke’s Digital Images collection; they are in the public domain.

Book of Secrets: Alchemy and the European Imagination, 1500-2000

From the exhibition and exhibition brochure for “Book of Secrets” an exhibit on alchemy in European popular culture, 1500 – 2000, currently on view at Yale’s Beinecke Library.   A collection guide to some images from the exhibition and the Library’s alchemical collections has been posted on the Beinecke’s Digital Images and Collections.

I have no Knowledge of it at all,” wrote Ezra Stiles of alchemy. “I never saw Transmutation, the aurific Powder, nor the Philosophers Stone,” the early President of Yale College continued, “nor did I ever converse with an Adept knowing him to be such. … I never had, or made an Experiment with, a Furnace or Alembic in all my Life. I am not versed in the Books of the Adepts; I have seen but few of those Authors, & read less—perhaps all the little I have read collectively would not equal an Octavo Volume.”

Germany, 1562

In his ability to discuss at length how little he knew about alchemy, Stiles was a characteristic reader of early modern European alchemical literature. By 1777, when Stiles was writing, alchemy was a commonplace of British and European popular culture. From the sixteenth century, books of alchemical secrets were published in almost every European language, and were bought, read, annotated, mocked, discussed, and collected by an audience of skeptics and believers alike. Terms such as the philosopher’s stone entered into the popular understanding, as did the names of alchemical authorities such as Raymond Lull.

Book of Secrets explores the curious centrality of alchemy in the European imagination from the late middle ages through the present. The Yale Library collections of alchemical literature reflect the continuing presence of alchemical works in any well-furnished library, from the first donations of the alchemically inclined Bishop George Berkeley to a fledgling Connecticut college, to the gift to Yale in 1965 of Mary Conover Mellon’s collection, inspired by her treatment by Jung, of alchemical books and manuscripts.

This cursed craft whoso wole exercise,
He shl no good han that hym may suffise;
For al the good he spendeth theraboute
He lese shal; therof have I no doute.
[This wicked craft, whoso will exercise,
He shall gain never wealth that may suffice;
For all the coin he spends therein goes out
And is but lost, of which I have no doubt.]

Chaucer, “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale,” The Canterbury Tales (1387 – 1400)

By the late fourteenth century, when Chaucer’s yeoman spoke of “this cursed craft,” alchemy had entered into European popular culture by way of translations from Greek and Arabic texts into Latin and European vernaculars. Alchemy entered into European popular culture in the late middle ages, with the translation of Greek and Arabic texts into Latin and the European vernaculars. Based on the tenets of the Corpus Hermeticum, a body of texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and meant to date to the age of Abraham, alchemy, or al-kimya in Arabic, can be summarized as the attempt to decipher a divine presence in the material world. Hermetic philosophy taught its practitioners to look to the natural world to discover the meaning of the macrocosm. The alchemist sought to remove the impurities from matter, in order to reveal its original state and purpose. One of the central processes was the attempt to transform a material from its base to its pure state, such as the transformation of lead into gold, a process known as chrysopoeia. Alchemists also sought to discover the elixir of life, a substance which would cure all diseases and provide longevity or immortality. The philosopher’s stone, the alchemist’s tool in these two endeavours, supposedly granted its discoverer a perfect understanding of the mysteries in which alchemy was shrouded.

Alchemy was also chemistry. Early modern alchemists were intensely concerned with understanding and manipulating matter. Following the example of the influential sixteenth-century Swiss physician Paracelsus, they engaged with the practical complexities of purification and the separation of chemical substances. Alchemical literature deals with the chemical changes brought about through processes of heat, distillation, and evaporation, while instructing its readers in the substances they would require: salt, sulphur, mercury, lead, and others. It describes the chemical effects its practitioners could create or expect: residues, shifts in color, transformations in character or substance. It was a laboratory science, requiring its adepts to build, buy, and manage furnaces and the related equipment, such as crucibles and alembics, necessary to heat materials to great temperatures.

These are not fables. You will touch with your hands, you will see with your own eyes, the Azoth, the Mercury of Philosophers, which alone will suffice to obtain for you our Stone.

Heinrich Khunrath, Amphitheatrvm sapientiae aeternae solis verae (1609)

Alchemy was also mystical, a body of occult knowledge which could be viewed as challenging the teachings of the Church. It is no coincidence that the original Faust, source of the later dramas by Goethe and others, was said to have been an alchemist. Alchemy was frequently prohibited, even while monarchs might hire alchemists to study and practice at their courts. Above all, secrecy was the quintessence of European alchemy. Like Chaucer’s alchemist, the yeoman’s Canon, alchemists were meant to be fiercely protective of their secrets, requiring initiates in the alchemical arts never to practice their science for ill-gotten gain and never to reveal their secrets to the public.

No figure captures the fascination and ambiguity of alchemical literature like that of the alchemical adept. In satires such as Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1612), the alchemist is portrayed as a charlatan. In other works, he reigns as the magus, the adept. Illustrations show the alchemist at work alone in the library; in others, he prays for divine guidance; in still others, he can be seen active and vigorous, at work in a laboratory in the company of assistants and peers. In his pursuit of alchemical knowledge, it is the alchemist who moves from the private sphere of secrets to the potentially shared or public space of the laboratory, the library, or the printed word. This tension between the private and the public, secret and shared knowledge, characterizes alchemical literature.

Because the alchemist’s goal was both spiritual and material, alchemical literature offers an uncanny combination of the practical with the highly symbolic. Core materials, such as mercury and sulphur, were endowed with highly figurative personae and narratives, even while authors described the specific appearances of their chemical metamorphoses in the laboratory. Chemical processes were described with elaborate pageantries of metaphor. One central allegory was that of the chemical wedding, in which male and female elements of sulphur and mercury were joined in a figurative marriage and its consummation. Sulphur was represented by the gold King; mercury, by the silver Moon. This conjunction, or unification, of the two substances through chemical procedures, was the subject of much alchemical illustration and commentary.

I have a daughter Light Saturn that is my darling
The which is mother of all working
And in which four things been hid
A golden seed, a silver seed, a mercury seed & a sulphur seed.

Copied by Isaac Newton in his reading notes on alchemy, Mellon MS 79

Secrecy is often publicly performed in alchemical literature. Emblems—the sun, the moon, the King, the Queen, the green dragon—symbolically enact chemical processes, in the elaborate engravings by which alchemical literature was so often illustrated. Authors also consistently admonish the reader never to speak of alchemy in mixed company, where the knowledge might be misunderstood or misused. The books themselves were shared by readers, as can be seen in the annotations, the exclamations in the margins, the passages underlined in successive inks by successive hands. Whether read or written, practiced or displayed, alchemical literature took secrecy as one of its central and very public tenets.

Alchemy could inspire a quite pragmatic interest in the possibility of personal enrichment. Gold, and the transmutation of metals, was a topic of keen interest on the part of many European rulers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is no coincidence that alchemical texts were so closely allied with works on mining and metallurgy, on commerce, on the production of gold, and that the authors so often abjured their readers not to speak of the great wealth which their practices—and their books—could generate. Concern with the commercial and practical implications of alchemy, such as the study of how metals could be produced and changed, did not preclude the study of alchemy as a divine, a spiritual quest. One example of this can be found in the work of the English scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. Alchemy was a central focus of Newton’s career, the intensely spiritual concentration on the purification of matter. Newton’s alchemical notebook, shown here, was only one of many similar private works in which Newton recorded his study of alchemy.

Philosophia hermetica, ca. 1790

Ease him corrupted.

Ben Jonson, The Alchemist (1612)

European readers were familiar with alchemical motifs and literature, even when they did not believe in alchemy or were actively critical of its practitioners. Ben Jonson, so knowledgeably mocking of alchemical practitioners and processes in The Alchemist, was only one of many satirical commentators on alchemy. In Areopagitica, his famous polemic against censorship, the poet John Milton uses alchemical allusions scathingly, arguing that “I am of those who beleeve, it will be a harder alchymy then Lullius ever knew, to sublimat any good use out of such an invention [i.e., book licensing].” This was no passing flirtation with alchemical imagery, but the mining of a metaphor which Milton knew would be familiar to his readers in its many complexities: the science of alchemy, its authorities such as Raymond Lull, and the tenuous state of alchemy’s premise that its practitioners could transform base metal into sublime material. Alchemy, as Milton knew, occupied a place in the cultural economy, circulated by poets and authors in the coinage of verse, satire, literary defense, and attack.

Par toi, je change l’or en fer
Et le paradis en enfer;

Charles Baudelaire, “L’Alchimie de la douleur,” Les Fleurs du Mal (1861)

Detail from Ripley Scroll, ca. 1570

By the end of the eighteenth century, alchemy as a science had been overtaken by the emerging discipline of chemistry. Alchemy retained its prominence in European popular culture, but as an occult art, a body of secret knowledge to which authors and artists of the Romantic movements of the nineteenth century turned as an alternative to industrialization and an increasingly scientized view of nature. The literatures of Hermes Trismegistus and Paracelsus were adopted by Romantic authors as powerful symbols of spiritual and psychic transformation. As the example of Baudelaire’s “L’Alchimie de la douleur” reveals, alchemy remained an important corpus for the discussion of ideas of transformation, baseness, and purity.

In the late nineteenth century occult revival, which saw the founding of organizations such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, alchemy was increasingly defined as a magical art, like astrology or tarot, in which mysticism was placed in opposition to scientific rationality. Viewed less as the study of a secret nature than as the search for a lost pre-scientific understanding of the world, alchemy was increasingly valued for the obscurity of its texts and the power of its symbolic imagery.

I had discovered, early in my researches, that their doctrine was no mere chemical fantasy, but a philosophy they applied to the world, to the elements, and to man himself.

W.B. Yeats, “Rosa alchemica,” The Secret Rose (1897)

Ironically, it was as a symbolic knowledge that alchemy was to be associated with twentieth-century science. In the 1920s, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung turned to alchemical literature as an important corpus of symbolic imagery. In Jung’s reading, the early modern alchemists reveal the consistency and perpetuation of certain symbolic processes and images across time. In reading nature symbolically, the alchemists were depicting the human thought process at work. The alchemist’s secret understanding and representation of the world becomes, for Jung, the very public rendition of categories of the human psyche.

It is in this disjointed guise—as mystical art, lost knowledge, symbolic abstraction of the psyche—that alchemical literature has continued to the present. Umberto Eco, in Foucault’s Pendulum, emphasizes the power inherent in the idea of secrecy, the mysteries and conspiracies which can be written and re-written around the adepts, texts, and sub-texts of alchemical literature. In the contemporary Japanese manga and film, Full-Metal Alchemist, two brothers are enmeshed in political and natural conspiracies as they attempt to use alchemy to resurrect their mother. Corruption, secrecy, and loss remain the powerful themes of alchemy, in Full-Metal Alchemist as in The Canterbury Tales.1002678

Above all, European alchemical literature is a canon, a cultural history in which key authorities are resurrected and key texts are read and interpreted by successive generations of readers. Nowhere is the connection of alchemy to its early modern European roots more visible than in the second life of Nicholas Flamel, early modern alchemist and owner of the philosopher’s stone, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997). At last, and unlike most of his precursors in European alchemical literature, Rowlings’s alchemist has been successful in his quest to discover the philosopher’s stone.

See more images of alchemical texts at the Beinecke Library.

The Diverse Nations Habilimented

Above, the title page for the first edition of Pietro Bertelli’s Diversarum nationum habitus (Padua, 1589), a sixteenth-century Italian costume book. The work was published with fold-out procession scenes and over a hundred engravings of paired figures, usually divided by region or social hierarchy.


Some of the engravings were issued with moveable flaps, as in the example below of the Venetian courtesan.






Beinecke call number: 2001 765. Further images from Bertelli can be found in the Beinecke’s Digital Images collection, with a search for Bertelli or by call number.

The Great Art of Consonances and Dissonances

The Musurgia universalis, sive ars magna consoni et dissoni of Athanasius Kircher, 17th-century Jesuit and polymath. Rome, 1650. Beinecke call number: Vi2 013

The Festivities for Ernst August

From Lorologio del piacere, a festival book depicting the visit, in the summer of 1685, of Ernst August, Duke of Braunschweig-Luneburg, to the villa of Marco Contarini in Piazzola, outside Venice. Entertainments included aquatic pageants, Barbary horses, songs and banqueting. Beinecke call number: Italian Festivals 112.
This is one example from the Beinecke’s Italian Festival Books collection, several dozen works printed by individuals or localities in early modern Italy to commemorate the pageantry created for formal occasions such as visitations, funerals, coronations, or weddings.

Above, the Barbary horses; below, the banquet.
Below, snippets from the music for the occasion.
The Italian Festival Books collection has been scanned and can be found in the Beinecke’s Digital Images and Collections, with the keyword Italian Festivals. The Italian Festival Books collection is in the public domain and no permissions are required for the use of these images, although the Beinecke does request that it be acknowledged as the source.

Book of Secrets: Alchemy and the European Imagination, 1500-2000




Excerpts from the Beinecke’s Mellon MS 41, George Ripley and Richard Carpenter.  Emblematic Alchemy in English verse, with an English version of the Visio mystica of Arnold of Villanova. England, unsigned, about 1570.

This nineteen-foot long alchemical scroll is one of twenty-one known “Ripley scrolls,” an elaborately illustrated guide to the alchemical process, associated with the fifteenth-century English alchemist, George Ripley.   This particular copy was given to Yale in 1965 by Paul Mellon, as part of the collection of alchemical books and manuscripts begun by his first wife, Mary Mellon.   Mary Mellon became interested in alchemy through her support of the psychologist Carl Jung, whom she heard speak at a lecture in the Plaza Hotel in 1936, when Jung had just begun to propound his theory of alchemical symbolism as an example of a collective unconscious, his idea of a shared understanding of symbols across time and cultures.

The scroll has been scanned and included (as Mellon MS 41) in the Beinecke’s Digital Images and Collections.  It will be on view in the Beinecke Library’s  forthcoming exhibition, “Book of Secrets: Alchemy and the European Imagination, 1500-2000,” January 20 – April 18, 2009.