Horace on His Head: An Error in the St. Ignatius College Library

Many bibliophiles would agree that there is nothing quite like cracking open a new book and marveling over its perfectly printed pages. Printing, however, is a process overseen by humans. It is bound to encounter error every now and again. In some instances, printing errors can be quite profitable. An 1885 edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the word “saw” swapped with “was” could earn a collector up to $18,600! Sometimes, though, the value of a printing error cannot simply be measured monetarily. Take the obvious one recently discovered in our 1767 copy of The Works of Horace in English Verse:

The Works of Horace - Loyola University Chicago Copy

This copy is currently held in the Special Collections of the Elizabeth M. Cudahy Memorial Library.

Classicists are most assuredly familiar with Quintus Horatius Flaccus, the Roman lyric poet known to anglophones as Horace. His ancient works were frequently translated into English throughout the eighteenth century, and several poetical and prose interpretations found new homes in the nineteenth-century library at St. Ignatius College. Samuel Johnson celebrated the transliterating prowess of Rev. Philip Francis in particular as the finest of his generation. He said succinctly, “The lyrical part of Horace never can be perfectly translated;…Francis has done it the best.” Chicago’s Jesuit educators must have concurred to some degree. In the coming week, we will be featuring not one, but two editions of Francis’s work noted in Loyola University Chicago’s first library catalogue. The subject of the present posting, though, is a blank verse version of Horace by William Duncombe.

William Duncombe

Portrait of William Duncombe by Joseph Highmore (1721)

Courtesy of the British Library

Courtesy of the British Library

Duncombe’s first recorded translation of Horace dates back to 1715, but it was not until 1757 that he began releasing his most comprehensive English collection. The 1767 publication in our possession is a second edition of this vernacular compilation. The publishing information reveals that Duncombe did not undertake this update alone. He called upon the assistance of his only son, John Duncombe, a notable British author in his own right.

While the new four-volume set advertised having “Many Imitations, now first published,” its most distinct aesthetic additions were illustrations for each title page. We have amassed samples of the second volume from several other institutions such as the British Library (left) and the University of Michigan (below). Notice anything? Their opening images are right-side up! This demonstrates that our copy’s printing error – the upside down image – was not ubiquitous to the run of the publication. It is likely that Fleet Street printers caught their initial mistake early enough to properly reposition the image’s engraving for subsequent reproductions. However, this did not seem to prevent already erroneous editions from escaping into the market, giving Loyola University Chicago a true literary treasure.

The Works of Horace - University of Michigan Copy

Courtesy of the University of Michigan

It is also compelling to consider that English-speaking consumers had a second new translation of Horace to choose from in 1767. Christopher Smart completed his own four-volume series that year which he specifically targeted to students. Like Duncombe, Smart was well experienced in translating Horace. He penned a prose compilation in 1756 that classicist Allen R. Benham claimed was the most widely used translation of Horace in that era. Still, Benham harshly criticized this work as “frankly a ‘pony’ or ‘trot,’ a help to school boys struggling with their Horace.” Was Smart’s 1767 revision just as juvenile? Dr. Leah Orr argues not. She attests that Smart was similarly dissatisfied with his earlier interpretation and attempted to both improve upon his original work and Christianize Horace’s Latin text in his later publication. Nevertheless, St. Ignatius College’s librarians opted to order Duncombe’s translation rather than Smart’s. Perhaps the former offered a greater quality and aesthetic appeal that Jesuit educators were seeking at the time.

– Michael J. Albani, Provenance Project Coordinator


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s