Saturday, 27 September 2008

Donne's Signature

I have acquired an absolutely perfect holiday job - cataloguing the Fellows' Library at Jesus College. The last book list dates from 1850, so my jobs is to run through around 12,000 volumes, checking the titles and publication dates, and adding details where the catalogues are incomplete or sketchy.

How dry! Well, you might well say that. In fact, I get to work at a pleasant, civilised pace in a stunning airy white-washed 17th century library, with a distinctly Puritan feel to it. It smells wonderful, with an indescribably sweet aroma of ancient paper, dust and crumbling leather. Every day I get to handle hundreds of books, some of them five hundred years old, each of which is a miniature revelation about the past. There are huge numbers of religious pamplets and tracts from the Reformation, which have marvellous titles like:


Or, a Replie to the Catholickes
upon the Topic of Ovre Lorde and Saviours
Earthlie Ministrie

In Covnterance to certain damnable
& egregiovs Lies that hath lately
been spreade abroade,

By Dr. Joh. Evans, D.D.,
Collegio Jesv Oxoniense

And so on. There are wonderful printed volumes with exquisite woodcuts, huge leatherbound tomes (including the complete works of Pico della Mirandola, bound in faded green velvet), pamphlets vituperating long-dead Archbishops, or the practice of Infant Baptism, or the 'Lamentamble and Damned Vice of Cvrsing', tiny books bound in crackling white vellum, books in Welsh, Greek, Irish, Latin, and French, a Latin Alcoran, avt Psevdoevangelium Mahomet, a version of 'Paradise Lost' translated into Latin hexameters, and best of all, a little book signed by John Donne himself. He always scribbled a little Latin tag involving the word 'Rachel' into his books.

There was also a whole shelf full of books belonging to a figure of some personal fascination to me - Thomas Vaughan (1621-1666), the Welsh Alchemist, Rosicrucian, Mystic and Natural Philosopher (and brother to Henry Vaughan, the poet of the wonderful 'Silex Scintillans'.) Thomas Vaughan advised people 'to walke in Groves, which, beinge fulle of Mysterie, do much advance the Soule', and I agree with him. What was so marvellous was that the College had a complete set of his alchemical and magical works: tiny little volumes with thrillingly evocative titles like 'Anthroposophia Theomagia, a Discourse of the Nature of Man and his State after Death' (1650), or 'Anima Magia Abscondita, a Discourse of the Universal Spirit of Nature' (1650, or indeed 'Magia Adamica, the Antiquity of Magic' (1650). I got to look at all these, and several of them were marked in careful brown ink in the margins with alchemical and astrological symbols, presumably either by Vaughan himself or by some adept who had been patiently following his Latin instructions for encountering the Anima Mundi or creating the Universal Solvent, or finally discovering the Lapis Philosophorum.

Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. I really could have cried with sheer intellectual fascination and excitement. And I get paid for this!

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