THE tracts which constitute the following volume, are perhaps the first specimens of the Rabelaisian satire our language has to boast. They are replete with that kind of humour which distinguishes the writings of the French Lucian, and partake of their grossness.
The extreme rarity of these once popular trifles, renders it doubtful whether Swift or Sterne were acquainted with them; yet there are passages in the writings of both these eccentric writers, so strongly resemblant to some parts of the present volume, as almost to induce a suspicion that they had seen them: this resemblance, however, may have arisen from the circumstance of their being, like our author, imitators of Rabelais and the other early French writers of facetiae.
Of the Metamorphosis of Ajax, the avowed purport is the description of a species of watercloset which Sir John Harington had invented and erected at Kelston, his seat near Bath; but he has contrived to make it the vehicle of much diverting matter, evincing his extensive reading: he has also interspersed numerous satiric touches and allusions to cotemporary persons and events; many of which are now necessarily obscure, and which were no doubt one of the causes of its great popularity at the time of publication.
Elizabeth, however she might be diverted with the humour of this whimsical performance, affected to be much displeased, and forbade its author the court in consequence: like most satiric writings it procured the writer many enemies; and it is supposed that he owed his good fortune in escaping a Starchamber suit to the favour of the queen<1>, who is said to have conceived much disquiet on being told he had aimed a shaft at Leicester.
The Metamorphosis of Ajax, for which a license was refused, appears to have been twice reprinted within a few months; the first edition bears in the title the name of Richard Field, who also printed the first and second editions of the author's translation of Ariosto. This first edition appears to have been published previous to the third of August 1596. The book was in a subsequent impression put forth without the name of the printer; and this edition, according to a copy collated on the present occasion, must have appeared in or before the month of September in the same year, having at the bottom of the title, Printed 1596. A third edition, evidently an attempt at an exact facsimile of the latter, but differing in several minute particulars, sufficient to demonstrate that the press had been entirely reset, is in possession of the editor.
The Anatomy appears to have been published at the same time, or very shortly after; in October 1596, a former possessor of the copy above referred to, appears to have acquired this part of the work by gift: it should be remarked, however, that the signatures are continued through this part, which appears to have been reprinted with the Metamorphosis. The two editions have been compared, but the variations are chiefly typographical; indeed, they amount to very little more, except the occasional occurrence of a marginal note in one copy, which is not to be found in the other.
The Apology it is probable soon followed; and here a new signature, A a, commences: of' this part two editions have also been collated; one of which has some marginal references which are wanting in the other.
A curious presentation copy of the book from Sir J. Harington, to his friend Thomas Markham, was formerly in the collection of Mr. Reed, and is now enshrined in the noble library at Hodnet. Some marginal notes in the handwriting of Sir John, and a MS. dedication which enrich this copy, are now given from an accurate transcript furnished by a friend. The MS. notes occur in the Metamorphosis, and are here marked by being in Italics.
Neither of the editions have followed the orthography of the author, as appears by comparison with the MS. papers remaining, written by him; and they differ so materially in this respect, that it should seem the printers of that period used the licence of adopting their own mode, without reference to the author's MS. The incongruity of the same word spelt several ways within a short passage, marks the then unsettled state of orthography; the difficulty of reducing it to what might be presumed to have been that of the writer, amid the discordance of the printed copies, induced the editor to modernize it, except in such instances where the preservation of the old spelling seemed to afford an elucidation of the text, as in the case of a few double-entendres depending upon similarity of sound; but in, no instance has a genuine old word been supplied by its modern substitute.
The extraordinary rarity of copies of the following tracts, may in some degree be accounted for by their popular nature. The admirers of this species of composition will not be displeased to be brought acquainted with a book, of which very few complete copies are now known to exist, and which certainly has something more than mere rarity to boast; for although its author everywhere manifests his propensity to punning, yet it should be considered that it was the most popular species of wit in his time, and it will be acknowledged that there is a fund of genuine humour in the following volume, perhaps not exceeded in any production of the more recent imitators of Rabelais.
In renewing these facetious trifles, it was at first the intention of the editor to have annexed a few illustrations which had occurred to him in the perusal, and a brief biographical sketch of the author; this part of his plan is at present suspended; for the bulk of the volume, and the small number of copies printed, will render it sufficiently expensive without these additions, which might be held supererogatory by many purchasers of the book. If however a sufficient number to defray the expenses of the impression, should intimate a wish for the completion of his plan, he will still be proud to lay before them the materials he has collected, in a small supplement.
The following Copy of a Letter from Sir J. Harington to Lady Dowager Russell, concerning his "Metamorphosis of
Right honourable & my special good Lady, having written not long since this fantastical treatise, & putting it to the print under a covert name. The first two leaves of it, (wherein is almost nothing but all scurrile & toying matter) was showed my Lord Treasurer, by my ill hap as I count it, if his goodness & honourable disposition do not the better interpret it; which makes me now thus bold to entreat your honour to send his Lordship the rest of it which I have before now for the most part of it, read unto you, humbly praying you, to deliver your favourable censure of it, at least so far that it is pleasant and harmless.
And for the devise itself, I know my Lord would not leave it, if it were at Tiballs for 1000l. and to do his Lordship service, I will ride thither, and instruct his workmen to do it for less than a thousand pence.
And that I may confess truly & frankly to you (my best Lady, that have even from my childhood ever so specially favoured me) I was the willinger to write such a toy as this, because I had lain me thought almost buried in the country these three or four years, and I thought this would give some occasion to have me thought of and talked of. Not as he that burned the
Your honour's most bound