Thursday, June 26th, 2014...4:37 pm

Finding Philosophaster

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It was anatomy that gained Robert Burton fame, but heredity that made him endure.

The clergyman (1577-1640) rose to prominence with the 1621 publication of The Anatomy of Melancholy. His treatment of the subject, broad in scope but humorously wrought, ensured Burton’s admiration by fellow authors. Anatomy’s influence did not ensure, however, that Burton’s other works received such a wide critical reception.

MS Thr 10 title page

MS Thr 10 title page


His comedic play Philosophaster, for instance, premiered at Christ Church, Oxford on February 16, 1617, but did not achieve the immediate acclaim of The Anatomy of Melancholy, which was published four years subsequently. Philosophaster failed to achieve acclaim, in fact, for 245 years after its debut—not until fellow clergyman and Brasenose College alumni William Edward Buckley had, in 1862, “the particular pleasure in having been fortunate enough to rescue from oblivion this book.”

This “oblivion” cited must refer to Philosophaster’s place in the historical record. Any other interpretation belies Buckley’s project with the background of the manuscript. Buckley not only prepared it for publication, but also tried to track the ownership of Burton’s copy. Buckley studied, surmised, and published the heredity of Philosophaster as much as its Latin plot.

MS Thr 10 Prologue and first scene

MS Thr 10 Prologue and first scene

Unlike the fake philosphers that populate Philosophaster, Buckley strove for versimillitude. For Buckley, this involved tracing the ownership of the manuscript from Burton forward. In his own hand, Robt Burton had written his name on the inside front cover of the manuscript. He formed the text of the play as well, but in a style more careful and ornate. This, suggested Buckley, gave the manuscript the appearance that it had been prepared for publication. But few eyes would see the script in Burton’s lifetime.

MS Thr 10 From inside front cover

MS Thr 10 From inside front cover

Burton bequeathed Philosophaster, among other manuscripts, to his executors. The bound Philosophaster likely hung around the Christ Church in which it had premiered decades earlier. A contemporary 17th century hand wrote in the blank pages of the back of the manuscript excerpts from Dr. Sherlock’s “Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity” (1690).

MS Thr 10 Upside down back pages

MS Thr 10 Upside down back pages

Buckley believed that Thomas Milles (1671-1740), Canon of Christ Church and Greek professor at Oxford, penciled in the Christian names of actors on the manuscript.

MS Thr 10, Christian names penciled in alongside earlier text

MS Thr 10, Christian names penciled in alongside earlier text

If Thomas Milles owned it, however, he only wrote in the names of others. He never laid claim to the manuscript himself in the way that Burton had or subsequent owners would.

MS Thr 10, inside front cover

MS Thr 10, inside front cover

Thomas Milles left his property to his nephew Jeremiah Milles (1714-1784), the Dean of Exeter and President of the Antiquarian Society. Jeremiah Milles was less reticent than his uncle to label. Milles pasted an elaborate book plate on the inside front cover of the manuscript, right under Burton’s name. Buckley, in turn, hastily and somewhat nonsensically claimed his ownership underneath Milles:

Jeremiah Milles D.D. Dean of Exeter, and President of Antiquarian Society died in 1784. His library was sold in 1843, on Monday April 10, and 4 following days. When this MS play was purchased by the late Mr. W. Pickering Thorpe the Bookseller, for 5/, from whom I bought it on April 8, 1846 for W.E. Buckley

In the sixteen years between manuscript purchase and publication, Buckley filled out blank areas of the manuscript with notes he later included in the first edition.

MS Thr 10, Buckley’s notes on first pages

MS Thr 10, Buckley’s notes on first pages

The first edition of Philosophaster was finally published in 1862, under the auspices of the bibliophilic Roxburghe Club. The editor hoped that Philosophaster would receive its due. “The present limited impression will, it is hoped, preserve this interesting work from oblivion.”

Br 88.5.83* Title page

Br 88.5.83* Title page

Br 88.5.83* Dedication

Br 88.5.83* Dedication

Buckley proudly shared in his preface the genealogy of the manuscript, as well as his own acquisition. Buckley’s library, like Milles’, sold after his death to the highest bidders, for nine days in February 1893 and eleven days in April 1894. Purchased at auction, the Philosophaster manuscript thus made its way to America among the Brooklyn bookcases of Jacobean playwright collector Wiliam Augustus White, ’63. White was educated at Harvard, as was his son, Harold T. White, ’97, so it was to the Harvard College Library that the Philosophaster manuscript came in 1941.

MS Thr 10, inside back cover

MS Thr 10, inside back cover

Now at Houghton and available for researchers, the Harvard inheritance is one of only two manuscripts extant of Philosophaster. It is the only one written in Burton’s hand.

[Thanks to Nora Garry, Harvard ‘14, for contributing this post.]

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