I really rather enjoy my job, not least because it frequently leads me down an entirely new avenue of discovery. This can be especially intellectually satisfying when a book passing across my desk comes to life as the full story of it’s origin, writing or later provenance is examined.
One item that Antiquates has only just acquired, and that I’ve been furiously researching and carefully cataloguing in order to bring it along to exhibit at our stand (G11) at this week’s London international antiquarian book fair at Olympia revealed a lovely connection between history, literature, romance and music at the turn of the nineteenth-century. A poem that connects a young female poet resident at Naples to England’s greatest naval hero and one of England’s most notorious love affairs to Austrian composer Joseph Haydn at a time of great European tumult: this is its story.
Housed within a handsomely bound collection of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century pamphlets is one of the rarities of the Lord Nelson canon: English poet, artist and socialite Ellis Cornelia Knight’s famous ode celebrating Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile in the summer of 1798. The volume, almost certainly bound together out of utility rather than any coherence, contains several other significant first editions of eighteenth-century works of literature (Pratt’s Humanity on the inequities of slavery and Browne’s famous work on the immortality of the soul), important titles in eighteenth-century history (John Almon’s Letter is an examination of the failure of the British in the American revolutionary wars) and two educational rarities – but it is The Battle of the Nile which occupies the rest of this post.
Ellis Cornelia Knight (1757-1837) had spent much of the final decade of the eighteenth-century on the continent with her mother, Lady Knight. The final year of the latter’s life saw the pair living in Naples and, following Nelson’s evacuation of the Bourbon monarchy in 1798, in Palermo. There and most especially after her mother’s death, Knight, the daughter of Sir Joseph Knight, rear-admiral of the White, proved a ‘daughter of the waves’ who revelled in the company and protections of Nelson, the English ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies Sir William Hamilton, and his wife Emma. It was thus in close proximity to of one of the most notorious love affairs of English history, between Nelson and the diplomat’s young wife, that Knight composed this celebration of the English hero of the Nile. She acquired the epithet of ‘Nelson’s poet laureate’ from his fellow naval officers, but as the dedication of The Battle of the Nile to Sir William Hamilton indicates, was very much the literary organ of the trio. The poem was first printed at Naples in 1799 in what must have been a very limited, and almost certainly a private print run; the work is not recorded in ESTC and institutionally is represented by the British library copy only.
The history of this rare poem, and indeed the company in which it was composed, did not end with the first edition, nor in Naples. After a somewhat contentious involvement in the domestic politics of the Bourbon dynasty, which culminated in Nelson charging and executing a Neapolitan admiral in the Bay of Naples, and quite startling displays of caprice verging on insubordination, Nelson was ordered back to England. This coincided, rather helpfully, with the granting of Sir William Hamilton’s request for relief from his post. As a result, Nelson, the Hamiltons and a group of English fellow travellers voyaged to England by way of central Europe in the September of 1800 – and it is here that the story turns musical. The group visited the Esterhazy family and their court composer Joseph Haydn at Eisenstadt, and were honoured by a performance of the latter’s Missa in Angustiis, a mass composed when all of Europe and especially Vienna was threatened by Napoleon but first performed when Europe was digesting the impact of Nelson’s victory at the Nile. Unsurprisingly given the association, Missa in Angustiis has become known as the ‘Nelson Mass’.
Slightly lesser known is the cantata ‘Lines from the Battle of the Nile’ that Haydn produced, presumably after meeting Knight during the group’s September visit and reputedly for performance by soprano Emma Hamilton, with lines taken from the former’s poem celebrating Nelson’s triumph. The publication of the second edition of the poem in Vienna by the widow of famous associate of Mozart, Ignaz Alberti, must surely have been related to this fabulous combination of the literature, music, romance and heroism that accompanied the English travellers’ visit to Austria in that summer of 1800. It is almost as rare and most likely printed once again in very small numbers; not recorded by ESTC, OCLC locates copies at Harvard, NMM and Strasbourg only, with COPAC adding another at Oxford. No copy of either is recorded in recent auction records.
I had the ‘Nelson Mass’ playing in the background whilst cataloguing this fine volume. After cracking the mystery of why a poem about Egypt first published in Naples should have appeared a year later in Vienna, I simply had to listen to the Haydn Cantata ‘Lines from the Battle of the Nile’. It doesn’t disappoint!
The Travelling Bookman May 20th, 2015