Princeton University's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections possesses an outstanding assembly of printed material from the second half of the seventeenth century, and in particular, material relating the libertine poet John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-80). Of the 222 copies of his printed work catalogued in public or academic collections in the United States, Princeton University holds 13% (29) of them, more than any other institution in the country, and the collection includes two copies of the exceptionally rare unauthorized first edition of Rochester's Poems on Several Occasions (c. 1680). I was therefore exceedingly grateful to the Friends of the Princeton University Library for generously providing me with the opportunity during July and August 2009 to devote four weeks making a detailed examination of the Library's copies of Rochester's surviving ouvre in furtherance of a detailed bibliography scheduled to be published in due course by The British Library / Oak Knoll Press. In fact, my time at Princeton proved considerably richer than I had anticipated.
The main focus of my stay was the examination of those 29 printed texts of work by the Earl of Rochester. The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections has a very fine range of the poet's output: apart from the two first editions of his poetry, it also contains copies of most of the contemporary broadsides of his poems, of which relatively few examples, by their very nature, remain; a broad spread of editions of the collected works from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries; most of the editions of his letters; and copies of his play Valentinian. I scoured these copies for evidence that they provide of ownership and the engagement of readers or owners with the text. Of particular interest were manuscript notes in the two 1680 editions, which reveal continental fascination with the poet: the one bears the signature 'J. F. Previtz' in a late-seventeenth-century hand, as noted by Vivian de Sola Pinto in The Library, XX (1939) and a later manuscript note 'Ex Bibliotheca Caroli Fr. Muhrbeck ... 1780', and the second copy the signature 'Theophili Pauli Christii, Coburgensis'. The late seventeenth-century 'Gyldenstolpe' MS, now in the Royal Library at Stockholm, which is thought to have been obtained by or for Count Nils Gyldenstolpe (1642-1709), the Swedish Ambassador at The Hague, has long been recognised as forming an important early collection of Rochester's poems, and these two copies of the 1680 editions at Princeton valuably add to the picture of the attraction of the poet's work for readers outside England during the century after his death.
One further volume deserves mention. Bearing the call number 3994353, the scruffily printed, duodecimo volume The Singular Life, Amatory Adventures, and Intrigues of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester... With an interesting Account of his various Mistresses, &c. &c. to which is added, his Amorous Poems (New-York, 1831) is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it provides a rare early example of New York printing, but secondly, it reveals how Rochester was being 'packaged' in the early nineteenth century: primarily as a witty Casanova, and with little concern for the accuracy of the texts of his 'Amorous Poems'. The poems have the appearance of being included virtually as an afterthought, occupying only the last 51 of 288 printed pages; of the 52 poems that comprise the collection, only 5 are recognised by scholars today as genuine, and 21 appear to be unique attributions and printings. I anticipate being able to submit by the end of April for consideration by the editors of Princeton University Library Chronicle a more detailed piece I have been preparing about this remarkable item.
A secondary focus while working in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections was to try to discover the anonymous printer (or printers) of its two 1680 editions. There are at least 12 further '1680' editions, some certainly published before the Princeton copies, and some probably publishedwell after them; publication of the editions was quite possibly spread across most of the 1680s (see Harold Love, ed., The Works of John Wilmot Earl of Rochester (OUP, 1999), p. xxxv). Time only allowed me to compare the Princeton 1680 Rochester copies with the other 183 items in the Collections bearing a 1680 imprint, and although I was able to conclude that it was unlikely that the Princeton copies had been published before 31 March 1681 (new style) I was unable to be more precise. Definitely a work in progress, with much ground still to be covered.
I took advantage during my stay of checking six verse manuscripts, and one legal document, in the Taylor collection relating to the poet. Since Love's scholarly edition of Rochester, these manuscripts have been re-catalogued (they were formerly MSS CO199 Gen and Taylor 1 - 5), and it was good to be able both to track them down and to include the updated references in my recently published revision for Wiley-Blackwell of Keith Walker's 1994 edition of Rochester's poems. The other manuscript I examined was a deed signed by Rochester and his wife; documents bearing the signature of the Countess are rare, and it was valuable to be able to confirm that a pair of initials that I had encountered in a manuscript in the British Library, London, were indeed in her handwriting.
In summary, I enjoyed a most successful time at Princeton, and I am most grateful to the Friends of the Princeton University Library for their financial support for my research. The staff were uniformly helpful, especially Linda Oliveira, and I had particular reason, also, to be grateful to AnnaLee Pauls, Don Skemer and the consistently accommodating supervisory staff in the reading room. Together they formed a formidably effective team!
Dr Nicholas Fisher London, March 2010