William Oldys

Isaac D'Israeli, "Oldys and his Manuscripts" in Curiosities of Literature (1836; 1881) 3:499-502.

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.) 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 polities, 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.

It was an advantage in this primaeval 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. 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. 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 43. 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."

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. 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.