Cabinet of Love shows seedy success of 18th century poetry in Oxford University revelation

By Culture24 Staff | 04 February 2011
A photo of a yellow book called The Cabinet of Love
Opening The Cabinet of Love© Bodleian Libraries
When a compilation of works by some of the finest poets of the day was published in 1714, the presence of names such as Wordsworth, Keats, Byron and their peers should have been enough to ensure a bestseller.

The book they appeared in, The Works of the Earls of Rochester and Roscommon, flew off the shelves, but a new discovery suggests that their success owed more to a sordid insert than a deep public hunger for highbrow art at the dawn of the Georgian era.

“I had just finished entering details of poems typical of miscellanies of the period – satires, imitations and amatory verse – when at the end of the second volume a new title page announced the start of The Cabinet of Love,” confides Dr Claudine van Hensbergen, who was cataloguing compendiums for Oxford University’s Digital Miscellanies Index project when he found the addition to the book.

“To my surprise, The Cabinet turned out to be a collection of pornographic verse about dildos. The poems include Dildoides, a poem attributed to Samuel Butler about the public burning of French-imported dildos, The Delights of Venus, a poem in which a married woman gives her younger friend an explicit account of the joys of sex, and The Discovery, a poem about a man hiding in a woman’s room to watch her masturbate in bed.”

An illustration of a bedroom with a figure looking at a woman in bed
Part of an engraving from the salacious insert© Bodleian Libraries
It’s either a dispiriting or reassuring reflection of human nature to find that The Works was reprinted dozens of times, complete with The Cabinet, which was cannily added to the book by notorious printer Edmund Curll. Researchers at the university have been swift to draw their own conclusions.

“I think the inclusion of The Cabinet is key to understanding why this miscellany proved so popular for so long,” argues Van Hensbergen.

“Although its existence is not made clear on the title page of The Works, word of it must have spread. In the later decades of the century The Cabinet was properly integrated into the volume, and was even bound at least twice at the opening of volume two.

“We know pornographic writing was printed and sold in the period, but it’s difficult to establish a complete record. In many cases all we have to go on are references to the titles of pornographic works rather than the books themselves.”

The sensual companion is in stark contrast to its parent publication, which encapsulated Rochester’s biting satirical style. Rather than bawdiness, the Earl used obscene language and imagery to suggest the darker side of human nature.

“The Cabinet is unusual because it shows us that people read pornographic writing directly alongside the verse of major poets,” observes Van Hensbergen.

“This raises interesting questions about what counts as literature and where the boundaries between high and low culture lie. These ideas were much more fluid in the 18th century than they are today.”

Dr Abigail Williams, who is leading the Index project, said the revelation vindicated the team’s tireless investigations.

“It’s giving us a fuller picture of the poems being read in the 18th century, and the often surprising ways in which they were collected together,” she added.

“Finding The Cabinet of Love is another great example of why the Digital Miscellanies Index project is so important.”

The Works are now being held at the Bodleian Library at the University.

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