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Thy most coruscant vest

Edward Benlowes (1602-76) studied at St John’s in the early 1620s, and went on to devote his considerable wealth to the patronage of poetry and other arts. A devotee, to quote his DNB entry, of ‘emblem books, rich engravings, fine bindings, metaphysical conceits, and witty expressions of all kinds, including obscure puzzles and anagrams’, and having installed a rolling press at his mansion Brent Hall, Benlowes combined his enthusiasms and resources to produce several unique presentation copies of his poem Theophila, or, Loves Sacrifice (1652).

Theophila treading on a serpent.
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.In the words of Harold Jenkins, author of a 1952 critical biography of Benlowes, the poem ‘moves from ecstasy to ecstasy without coherence of incident’. If there might be an occasion on which to force coherence upon the poem, this spotlight is not it: it may suffice to say that in describing the relationship between Theophila (a personification of love for God) and Christ, and aiming to express religious wonder while calling for denominational unity, Benlowes is not necessarily ill-advised in his tendency towards excesses of compression and inflation, of enthusiastic incoherence. That is not to imply that such stanzas as

Nature, put on thy most coruscant vest;

Thy gaieties show, brought to this test,

As a crude jelly dropt from dusky clouds at best

are nonsensical or beyond paraphrase; indeed, that’s quite an easy one. But as the sublime and transcendent are necessarily beyond the reach of language, there is a notable extent to which tonal and semantic inconsistency or inaccuracy are to be embraced as working in the poem’s favour. Even the stanza structure—triplets of approximately iambic pentameter, tetrameter and hexameter—is indicative, in its consistent inconsistency, of restlessness, of a desire line by line to attempt a different angle of approach.

Benlowes's dedication to St John's College, Cambridge.It is believed that no two copies of Theophila are alike in terms of the configuration of their illustrations, some of which were specially commissioned (and most likely the work of Francis Barlow) while others were taken from books already in circulation. Benlowes’s copy of the poem, one of his many donations to St John’s and given as ‘Monumentum Amoris’ (a token of love), contains seventeen of twenty-five possible illustrative prints, including a particular rarity, Theophila treading on a serpent.

 

Canto XI, stanza 18 with handwritten corrections.
An immodest woman, with patches added by hand.Also of note is the addition of handwritten corrections to the text: for all his overlapping symbols and puns, Benlowes sought clarity and perfection of a sort, and after the books were printed he was not beyond correcting errors, changing words, or adjusting punctuation for the sake of a particular rhythmic effect. One edited triplet is pictured here, as is an image representing an immodest woman: in ink, Benlowes has added patches to enhance the impression of immodesty.

Benlowes’s home was destroyed by fire the year after Theophila’s publication: this significantly reduced his financial capacity without, of course, cancelling his debts, and he lived the rest of his life rather like a poet in need of a patron, library-bound (in Oxford’s Bodleian) and poor. On his death, several scholars who remembered and respected his work contributed money towards his funeral.

 

This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 13 October 2014 by Adam Crothers, Library Assistant. Library-bound and poor, he also writes about the literary vestiges of St John’s for PN Review.