Canon before Canon, Literature before LiteratureHuntington Library Quarterly


Literature and Literary Theory / History / Visual Arts and Performing Arts


Pp. 177–199. ©2014 by Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery. issn 0018-7895 | e-issn 1544-399x. All rights reserved. For permission to photocopy or reproduce article content, consult the University of California Press Rights and Permissions website, DOI: 10.1525/hlq.2014.77.2.177. huntington library quarterly | vol. 77, no. 2 177  john locke’s library has long been recognized as a site of extensive annotation, commonplacing, and organization.1 In particular, Locke interleaved Thomas

Hyde’s 1674 catalogue of the Bodleian Library and, using his own system of shelf marks, re-created it as an inventory of his own collection.2 Less well known are Locke’s annotations in another product of late seventeenth-century scholarship, Thomas Pope

Blount’s 1690 Censura celebriorum authorum.3 The Censura contains brief biographies 1. John R. Harrison and Peter Laslett, The Library of John Locke, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1971); G. G.

Meynell, “John Locke’s Method of Common-placing, as Seen in His Drafts and His Medical Notebooks,

Bodleian MSS Locke d. 9, f. 21 and f. 23,” The Seventeenth Century 8 (1993): 245–67; Richard Yeo, “John

Locke’s ‘New Method’ of Commonplacing: Managing Memory and Information,” Eighteenth-Century

Thought 2 (2004): 1–38. 2. Harrison and Laslett, Library of John Locke, 30. Locke’s copy of Hyde is now Bodleian Library,

Locke 17.16. 3. Sir Thomas Pope Blount, Censura celebriorum authorum: sive tractatus in quo varia virorum doctorum de clarissimis cujusque seculi scriptoribus judicia traduntur (London, 1690). Locke’s copy is

Canon before Canon, Literature before

Literature: Thomas Pope Blount and the

Scope of Early Modern Learning

Kelsey Jackson Williams abstract Sir Thomas Pope Blount (1649–1697), an English essayist and country gentleman, published two major literary biobibliographies, Censura celebriorum authorum (1690) and De re poetica (1694). In this essay, Kelsey Jackson Williams discusses the texts within the genre of historia literaria and contemporary understandings of literature. In doing so, he engages with current debates surrounding canon formation and the shifts in disciplinary boundaries that followed in the wake of the Battle of the Books. Early modern canons and definitions of “literature” differed radically from their modern equivalents, and a close reading of Blount’s work offers a window onto this forgotten literary landscape. keywords: historia literaria ; biobibliography; Battle of the Books; John Locke; development of literary canon of authors, from Hermes Trismegistus to Tanneguy Le Fèvre, with critical opinions of their work and a guide to the best editions. Its scope is truly catholic, embracing poets, dramatists, philologists, scientists, and philosophers, among others, on equal terms.

Locke’s copy was interleaved throughout with ruled blank pages and re-bound in sturdy vellum. On these blank sheets, he made extensive additions to the existing text and compiled ninety-four new entries on ancient and contemporary writers that contained the latest in critical opinion, culled from scholarly journals, books, and letters.4 He even included extracts from Jean Le Clerc’s favorable review of his Letter Concerning

Toleration, quietly placing himself among the firmament of the pan-European canon.5

Locke’s use of the Censura indicates the value that he placed on it as a key work of reference, but what was the Censura itself?6 This essay, beginning with a survey of

Blount’s life and writings, examines the Censura and its companion work, De re poetica: or, Remarks upon Poetry with Characters and Censures of the Most Considerable

Poets Whether Ancient or Modern (1694). These texts have hitherto been neglected— or, when they have been noted, their relevance to literary history has been misunderstood. When Richard Terry observed that the Censura included “continental literary figures such as Dante, Petrarch, and Rabelais” among its pages but that“only Chaucer and Bacon amongst its entrants could be said in any sense to belong to English literature,” he was participating in a wider misunderstanding of Blount, one that dismisses his works’ relevance to the study of literature because the canon they present is at odds with its modern successor.7 Instead, this essay argues that Blount’s works, and those like them, offer a new way of thinking about the evolution of canons and literature before the eighteenth century. Whereas previous scholarship on canonicity has focused on the point at which the “modern canon” was born, or has examined the economic, ideological, and political frameworks within which it developed, I propose that

Blount’s works are representative of an enduring premodern canon that was neither nationally nor generically limited in the same ways as the present canon of English literature.

The goal of this essay is to offer a more nuanced and informed approach to

Blount and the historically contingent definition of literature his texts embody, contextualizing two of his works within the genre of historia literaria and highlighting their importance for understanding the gap between modern and premodern literary  178 kelsey jackson williams now Bodleian Library, Locke 15.38. All subsequent references to the Censura (hereafter CCA) and to

Blount’s De re poetica: or, Remarks upon Poetry with Characters and Censures of the Most Considerable

Poets (London, 1694; hereafter DRP) will be given parenthetically. 4. See Bodleian Library, Locke 15.38, 746ff., for Locke’s manuscript index to the new biographies. 5. Ibid., 701. This has been noted before; see John Marshall, John Locke, Toleration, and Early

Enlightenment Culture (Cambridge, 2006), 480. 6. Locke was not the only prominent figure to make extensive use of the Censura. An 1854 sale catalogue records the existence of a copy of the 1690 edition “[w]ith numerous manuscript additions by [Thomas] Gray, relative to the different editions of the Authors enumerated by Blount, the prices at which they might be obtained in the Poet’s time, &c.”; Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons, ed. A. N. L. Munby, 12 vols. (London, 1971–75), 2:67. This copy has not been traced. 7. Richard Terry, Poetry and the Making of the English Literary Past, 1660–1781 (Oxford, 2001), 76. canons. These biobibliographical texts are not only important in their own right, as