Toward a Poetics of the Codex
Around the time he was working on The Purple Island, Benlowes began to form an attachment to another Cambridge man, Francis Quarles. In 1633, Quarles had left his post as secretary to Ussher in Ireland and returned to his home in Roxwell, Essex, where he lived about twenty miles south of Benlowes. Though Quarles, like Fletcher, was Benlowes’ senior, it seems natural that the two would become fast friends. Like his younger neighbor, Quarles was a studious, devout man and a lover of music. He was also a poet of some repute. By the time he became Benlowes’ neighbor, Quarles had already published nine books of poetry, including six Old Testament stories “paraphras’d” in verse, a popular adaptation of Sidney’s Arcadia, and two collections of epigrams, meditations, and other short works. No doubt Benlowes was eager to befriend this widely-read author and invited him to visit Brent Hall. There, he would have met Jan Schoren and seen Benlowes’ rolling press. Perhaps he even witnessed Schoren stamping leather covers or printing emblems on sheets of The Purple Island. He also would have perused Benlowes’ collection of art, prints, and books acquired during his travels, including perhaps his full set of Gerard de Jode’s Thesaurus sacrum—a large book of plates illustrating the Bible, and one of the main sources of prints used by another neighbor, the women of Little Gidding, in illustrating their harmonies.
It seems “virtually certain,” as Karl Josef Höltgen puts it, that during one of these visits Benlowes introduced Quarles to two Jesuit emblem books, Typus mundi (1627) and Herman Hugo’s Pia desideria (1624).108 Each contains a series of small, rectangular engravings dramatizing the battle between divine and human love as they struggle for the affections of the soul, depicted, after the Neoplatonic tradition, as a woman. The religious themes immediately appealed to Quarles, then England’s premiere versifier of biblical stories, just as the baroque symbolism of the prints had originally attracted their collector. Together, they hatched a plan: Benlowes would pay to have the plates of the Pia desideria copied, and Quarles would write new English verse and epigrams to go with each of the forty-five images. Later, they decided to include the images from the Typus mundi and some other emblem books as well, having the plates copied with slight modifications to render them more English.109 These additions brought the total number of engravings in the project to seventy-nine. Cutting this many plates cost Benlowes the enormous sum of 120 pounds, and producing such a heavily illustrated book—which sets the engravings in line with the letterpress—must have required careful coordination between the printer George Miller and those who operated the rolling press.110 It seems likely that Benlowes, by then an experienced publisher with intimate knowledge of a book’s form, helped design the highly regular structure of each emblem across exactly two page openings, a layout that made printing the many intaglio plates much quicker in octavo format, since they would all appear on the same side of a single sheet.
Quarles is clear about Benlowes’ cooperative and outsized influence on the project. In his dedication to his “much honoured, and no lesse truely beloved Friend” Edward Benlowes, he likens their collaboration to playing music together, writing,
My deare Friend, You have put the theorbo into my hand and I have played: You gave the musician the first encouragement; The music returns to you for patronage. (sig. A2r)
Thus the Jesuit emblem books and engravings that Benlowes first handed Quarles in his library are imagined as musical instruments: they are things like a theorbo, freighted with sonic, performative potential. The poet teases this out by picking the books up and riffing on them, spinning his own fantasias or “fancies”—a seventeenth-century word for improvisational airs—from their emblematic imagery. In the book’s “Invocation,” Quarles augments this dedication to his patron with a more general emblem of divine inspiration. He opens by instructing his soul to
Skrue up the heightened pegs
Of thy Sublime Theorboe foure notes higher,
And higher yet; that so, the shrill-mouth’d Quire
Of swift-wing’d Seraphims may come and joyne,
And make thy Consort more than half divine. (1)
The visual counterpart to this verbal invocation adapts the frontispiece from Typus Mundi to the specific circumstances of Quarles’ English emblem book.112 Replacing St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, standing astride the world, is a flowing-haired muse and musician leaning languorously back, nuzzling a theorbo. It is the soul but also a portrait of Quarles’ friend and patron Benlowes reimagined as feminine divine love or anima spilling his generous wealth while crushing the cupid of human desire.113 The globe beneath Loyola’s feet marks the Jesuit colleges, the only worldly places worthy of note in his cosmography; by comparison, the English engraver spins the earth on its axis to show not Jesuit seminaries but two English villages: Roxwell, where Quarles lives, and Finchingfield, home to Benlowes and Brent Hall. The engraving’s motto has also been changed. The original print reads:
Quam sordet mihi terra, dum colum adspicio!
As the earth is foul to me, I behold heaven!
This line has been changed to:
Dum Coelum aspicio, Solum despicio.
As I aspire to the heavens, I despise myself.
The new phrase retains the basic semantics; however, instead of rejecting terra (“the earth”) as filthy, the speaker now despises Solum, a word meaning earth or ground but also the singular self, working alone. To aspire to heaven in this new emblem, the muse must not only reject what is worldly but also the poet’s individualist ego in order to sing collective harmonies. Emphasizing this point, Quarles has hung the poet’s wreath and his own coat of arms on a withered branch next to the phrase “Vix ea nostra”, “scarcely these things [are] ours,” suggesting the futility of seeking earthly fame and title. Meanwhile, the muse exclaims, “Majora Canamus”: “let us”—in the plural—“sing of great things.”114 Thus Brent Hall and its library become a locus of divine collaboration and collective song, a domestic campus for reading books and playing them, for making books and making music.
In Quarles’ composite soul as muse and musician, we can begin to see the origins of Benlowes’ Theophila, the titular heroine of his most important literary creation, printed in 1652 and sold at the shops of Humphrey Moseley and Henry Seile. Benlowes began focusing his creative energies on Theophila around 1646, picking up threads from his publishing ventures in the 1630s and early 1640s and weaving them into his own divine epic. Its narrative kernel dramatizes the heroine’s “love’s sacrifice,” as the subtitle puts it, as she finds communion with her bridegroom Christ and ascends from the material and worldly realms to heaven and the eternal. Like Quarles’ muse, the heroine at the center of this epic is a Neoplatonic figure for anima and “Divine Love” (sig. E2r) as she struggles against the temptations of the world. She is also, like the muse, a musician who sings her way to heaven. The Emblemes were clearly an inspiration here, and the etchings that Benlowes commissioned for Theophila show her looking much like the feminized soul from Hugo’s Pia desideria as copied by Quarles and Benlowes. For instance, in emblem six in Book 5, a woman in simple dress sits atop the world. As in the frontispiece, the place names on the globe have been altered to London, Finchingfield, Quarles’ home of Roxwell, and Phineas Fletcher’s home in Hilgay, a nod toward their collaborations and friendships. She points down toward these locations with one hand while grasping up toward heaven with another, mediating the writers’ mortal relations to the divine. In this posture and gesture, she not only echoes the Benlowes-like muse of the frontispiece but also the many depictions of Theophila that illustrate the head of each of the first eight cantos. She is also, like Quarles’ muse, a double for Benlowes himself, serving as his female co-author and divine collaborator in the “sacrifice” narrated by the poem. It is her voice that breaks through the text when the narrator fails, her eyes that see the “heav’nly Sphere,” a realm that he can only strive to reproduce imperfectly in language. By projecting onto Theophila his own authorship, Benlowes the poet creates for Benevolus the patron a female double whose journey to absolution mirrors his own “PNEUMATO-SARCO-MACHIA”—the title of a preliminary text, meaning literally “Spirit-Flesh-War.”
Yet if Quarles could imagine his own muse and patron reigning confidently over the workshop at Brent Hall in the 1630s, whiling away the hours with him at the rolling press or playing his theorbo, by the 1640s, Theophila could claim no such kingdom. Early in the decade, Schoren left Brent Hall after a dispute about money.115 He returned in 1645 with a wife, Sarah, a contentious personality who sowed further discord in an already fraught relationship.116 Between these momentous personal events, political upheaval tossed everything around Benlowes, as Parliamentarians—staunchly supported in Essex and Cambridgeshire—began sequestering goods of Royalist sympathizers like Benlowes and seizing control of Cambridge University. At the end of 1642, the printer Roger Daniel was brought before the House of Commons to account for having used the Cambridge press to reprint royal declarations.117 A little over a year later, a parliamentary ordinance handed regulation of the university over to the Earl of Manchester, who began ejecting heads and fellows suspected of supporting the king, among them many of Benlowes’ friends and favorite poets.118 Abraham Cowley and John Cleveland fled to Oxford, where the king was camped, while Richard Crashaw went into exile on the continent with Mary Collett of Little Gidding, installing her young cousin Ferrar Collett in his fellowship before he left.119 In the midst of these events, the older men whom Benlowes had patronized in earlier decades began passing away, first Quarles in 1644, followed by Fletcher in 1650, and he found himself in the role of the father-figure patron to a new generation of younger poets, among them Quarles’ son John and his flattering Finchingfield neighbor Clement Paman.120 Benlowes also struck up an epistolary friendship with James Howell, a Royalist poet and historian then in prison by order of Parliament, where Benlowes sent him a copy of The Purple Island and his new anti-Papist broadside, Papa Perstrictus, an ornate echo poem printed in red and black and pasted onto boards for easy hanging.121 The gifts delighted Howell, who wrote in a effusive letter—included in his popular Epistolae Ho-elianae, published by Humphrey Moseley—that Benlowes’ work deserves not to be printed on a slender frame but “engraven in such durable dainty stuff that it may be fit to hang up in the Temple of Apollo.”122 Through these new relationships, Benlowes’ reputation as a patron, poet, and publisher of bespoke objects continued to grow; but there was no way to escape the personal, political, and religious strife that rent everything around him. By the end of the decade, as he began the process of assembling Theophila, the harmoniously homosocial world imagined in Fletcher’s emblems or Quarles’s frontispiece—one safely centered at Brent Hall—must have seemed almost a distant memory.
And so he had to make shift. Before, Benlowes tended to adapt his favorite sources to the specific context of a book that he wished to patronize. With Theophila, he also began interleaving found plates and woodcuts directly into and onto the folded sheets. He became, in short, a bibliographic hoarder, saving up and inserting into his hand-assembled books anything that struck his fancy. As we will see, he reused woodblocks found in his printers’ warehouse, recycled popular plates from Hollar or The Extravagant Shepherd, and interleaved frontispieces designed for books he never published. By the later 1640s and early 1650s, as a flood of newly unregulated printing washed over the marketplace, these older blocks and plates must have seemed like the fractured shards of a lost culture, and we might see in Benlowes’ care for them his desire to make material sense of his world’s dissolution.123 In addition to shoring up these fragments, he also commissioned new etchings from Francis Barlow to illustrate the original eight cantos of his poem, as well as an authorial portrait and other images. He wrote copious preliminary poems and invited friends to add commendatory verse or translate portions of his poems into Latin, which Alexander Ross and Jeremy Collier did. And he asked John Jenkins, a popular domestic composer, to set several parts of the poem “to fit Aires,” as the title page puts it.124 As he pulls this assorted media into Theophila’s orbit—all these material bits and bobs gleaned from printers and poets, musicians and engravers—Benlowes begins to rotate toward a more radical poetics of the codex: a method of literary composition where the physical structure of the book as a library-like gathering of loose sheets becomes spiritually and culturally reparative. He works this method not only within each minute, metaphysical juxtaposition but also at the larger scale of the book as a miscellaneous assemblage. In the harmonious folds of a Theophila’s quires—a bibliographic pun that Benlowes returns to often—these orphaned prints and half-completed projects can literally find their place.
It is the argument of this chapter and this monograph more broadly that the creativity and cultural work of books like Theophila become legible when we read them not as texts but as multidimensional media objects designed with meaning and purpose. Appreciating Benlowes’ poetics, then, requires hewing close to his material text. Only by juxtaposing and comparing extant copies—identifying sites of variance or collision—does the totality of Benlowes’ project become evident. Of course, this kind of collation is unworkable in person: surviving books of Theophila are scattered across dozens of different libraries and several countries. However, digital methods make possible the partial reassembly of Benlowes’ farflung archive and thus facilitate new ways of researching and presenting to others this long-neglected and little-understood book. Taking advantage of these tools—as well as inspiration from the multidimensional King’s Harmony designed by the women of Little Gidding, as described in the previous chapter—the next section of this chapter widens to add, in addition to this prose narrative, two new ways of engaging with my argument. First, the reader may jump to Digital Theophila, an external site where a high-resolution digital facsimile of the University of Pennsylvania’s copy of Benlowes’ book is freely available for browsing. Built with Manicule, an open source platform designed in collaboration with Liza Daly, this site brings into relief the material structure of a book and what Johanna Drucker describes as the phenomenal experience of reading it: “the complex production of meaning and effect that arises from dynamic interaction with the literal work.”125 Annotations at the edges of the page point out bibliographic features; color-coding identifies different elements of Benlowes’ project; and a tour walks through key features of the poem, its typography, and the sources of repurposed images. The site also offers a diagram of the book’s physical structure, especially useful to readers less familiar with early modern formats. Second, alongside this edition of a single Theophila I provide a dataset that describes the physical makeup of 22 of the 45 known extant copies, 20 of which I have examined in person. This data is provided in XML that adheres to the VisColl standard developed by Dot Porter and implemented in the BiblioPhilly database. Readers more advanced in digital methods may wish to download this set of collations and explore Theophila for themselves. While it is not necessary that readers engage with the digital tour or dataset in order to follow the contours of my argument, narrated in prose below, these resources form the foundation that undergirds my claims; it is in the parallax shift between Theophila as a physical object, here remediated digitally, and as abstracted metadata, that the creative architecture Benlowes’ queer project comes into view.
108. Karl Josef Höltgen, “Francis Quarles and the Low Countries,” in Anglo-Dutch Relations in the Field of the Emblem, ed. Bart Westerweel (New York: Brill, 1997), 135.
109. Eleanor James, “The Imagery of Francis Quarles’ ‘Emblemes’,” Studies in English 23 (1943), 30–1.
110. Although Benlowes paid for the engravings, the plates seem to have been transferred to Quarles, as they were later in security when Quarles obtained a loan from the printers Francis Eglesfield and John Williams; see John Horden, “The Publication of the Early Editions of Francis Quarles’s Emblemes (1635) and Hieroglyphikes (1638),” The Library 8.1 (March 2007): 25–32.
111. Emblemes is one of the few books to be continuously in print throughout the seventeenth century, with over a dozen editions before 1700. On Quarles’ contemporary popularity, see Rosemary Freeman, English Emblem Books (New York: Octagon Books, 1970), 114–5.
112. Höltgen, “Francis Quarles and the Low Countries,” pp. 138–40.
113. On the gendering of this image, see Linda Phyllis Austern, “The Siren, the Muse, and the God of Love: Music and Gender in Seventeenth-century English Emblem Books,” Journal of Musicological Research 18.2 (1999), 118–20.
114. “Vix ea nostra” is more commonly rendered “Vix ea nostra voco,” “I scarcely call these things our own.”
115. Schoren thought Benlowes owed him annuity that had gone unpaid for many years; Benlowes assumed he had been embezzling it from the rents he collected on his behalf and refused to pay. The National Archives of the UK, C 10/71/87 (bill and answer).
116. Jenkins, Edward Benlowes, 257.
117. James B. Mullinger, The University of Cambridge, Vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), 261.
118. “The University of Cambridge: The Early Stuarts and Civil War,” in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely, Vol. 3: The City and University of Cambridge, ed. J. P. C. Roach (London: Victoria County History, 1959), 191–210. British History Online, accessed August 14, 2018, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol3/pp191–210.
119. E. Cruwys Sharland, “Richard Crashaw and Mary Collett,” Church Quarterly Review 73 (1911/2): 358–85. On this exile more generally and its effect on seventeenth-century culture, see Geoffrey Smith, The Cavaliers in Exile: 1640–1660 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
120. Jenkins, Edward Benlowes, 158–61.
121. Ibid., 154–5.
122. James Howell, “LXVI. To E. Benlowes Esqr. upon the receipt of a Table of exquisit Latine Poems,” Epistolae Ho-elianae (1650, Wing H3072), 103–4.
123. On this desire in relation to masculinity, see Diane Purkiss, Literature, Gender, and Politics During the English Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 2ff.
124. Thomas Ward describes a similar advertisement on the title page of Waller’s Peoms as stretching the lyrical voice across multiple technologies and sites of replication; “Effacing the Music in Edmund Waller’s Poems,” Renaissance Studies 31.5 (2016): 735–54.
125. Johanna Drucker, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 169.