Feb 052011

An Oxford academic says that an otherwise obscure 18th century collection of miscellaneous poems was in print for more than a century because it included a section of erotic verse.

The finding suggests that what we think of as high art and low art was being packaged, sold and read together in the 18th Century – and raises questions about whether the popularity of other bestselling books might have different explanations.

Dr van Hensbergen said: ‘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’.

‘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 watching a woman in bed while hiding under a table.

Samuel Butler, you may recall, is no stranger to the kinky side of things. His mock epic poem Hudibras introduced the maxim “spare the rod and spoil the child” (not the Bible as is commonly believed), which is actually a reference to erotic flagellation.

This shows that in the 18th century pornography, as we would understand it today, was not a completely separate genre or category of media. A miscellaneous collections of poems might include sexual material. Something like this might have spread through word of mouth to the sexually curious.

This also brings up why I am so excited by the digitization of huge amounts of historical documents into searchable databases, which can open up new frontiers for historical research, particularly in the case of researching things other people haven’t already searched for. Overthinking It once did a semi-serious exploration of the history of Mr. T’s catchphrase “I pity the fool”, tracing it back to an obscure early 19th century book via Google Books. While this was in part a joke, it also showed the potential of new kinds of historical research.

Via io9

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