Do you want to read The Works of the Earls of Rochester and Roscommon, a volume of eighteenth century poetry? No? Well, other people did. They read it so repeatedly, and recommended it to their friends so assiduously, that it was reprinted over twenty times throughout the eighteenth century. In later years, it was resequenced and expanded, with new verses added to the old. People still picked it up. It was a century-long bestseller.
For a long time, the unusual success of this book of poetry was deemed just a quirk of the time. Perhaps it was just a sentimental favorite of people who handed it down to the next generation. Or perhaps it struck a chord with eighteenth century readers that it couldn't when times changed.
It was only when Oxford historian Claudine van Hensbergen paged through the volume in the early twenty-first century that she discovered the actual secret of its extraordinary appeal. She describes her discovery:
"I had just finished entering details of poems typical of miscellanies of the period- satires, imitations and amatory verse, when at the end of the second volume a new title page announced the start of ‘The Cabinet of Love'. To my surprise, ‘The Cabinet' turned out to be a collection of pornographic verse about dildos. The poems include ‘Dildoides', a poem attributed to Samuel Butler about the public burning of French-imported dildos, ‘The Delights of Venus', a poem in which a married woman gives her younger friend an explicit account of the joys of sex, and ‘The Discovery', a poem about a man watching a woman in bed while hiding under a table."
It appears that readers in the 1700s were not as obsessive about the delicately-turned phrase as we imagine them to be. The pornographic poems were not listed at the front of the book. Hidden as they were, behind all the other poems, it's unlikely that the casual page-turner would have found them while browsing the shelves of a store or a private library. Instead, the volumes would have gained readers as people whispered to each other about what kind of poetry they would actually be buying.
It is supposed that earlier readers had more refined tastes than modern people with their degraded intellects and depraved minds. With this new discovery, people might be inspired to go back to the bookshelves and pick up something good and dusty. Certainly, it's worth combing over past bestseller lists. Who knows what made some books actually climb the charts?
Via University of Oxford.