Today is the 310th birthday of the English scholar and landscape gardener Joseph Spence (1699-1768). Spence served both as Professor of Poetry (1728-37) and Regius Professor of Modern History (1742-68) at Oxford, and was a friend of the poet Alexander Pope. Perhaps his most influential work was Polymetis (1741), a treatise in dialogue form on the connections between ancient Roman poetry and art. The work draws extensively on examples from Latin poetry, and from “antiques” such as sculptures, medals, and cameos. The special collections department of the Carleton College library holds a 1755 edition of the Polymetis, from which the frontispiece and title page above are taken.

Spence takes aim in the Polymetis at the classical scholarship of his day, which he finds obscure and pedantic, and generally unhelpful in explicating the texts themselves. He also questions the need for a classical education grounded in a thorough study of Latin and Greek, which he considers an unnecessary preparation for most professions. He considers it more important for English students to learn to express themselves well in their own language.


The reputation of the Polymetis suffered from the dismissive remarks of Lessing in his more famous Laocoön. “Spence,” Lessing writes, “has the strangest notions of the resemblance between painting and poetry.” But Polymetis was popular enough in the eighteenth century that Nicolas Tindal produced an abridged version of it, titled A Guide to Classical Learning; or, Polymetis Abridged, as a kind of general classical handbook. (A complete scan of the book is available on Google Books.)


The copy of Polymetis Abridged (1777) in Carleton’s special collections bears the bookplate of Robert Livingston of Clermont. This is probably the Chancellor Robert Livingston (1746-1813) who sat on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, administered the oath of office to George Washington in 1789, and as Minister to France negotiated the Louisiana Purchase.

An engraving of the arms of Achilles from Carleton’s copy of Polymetis (1755)
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