The Metamorphosis of Ajax

by John Harington

Rating: ★★★★

You might well ask why I have been reading a 16th century book about toilets. The answer is simply that after being introduced to Harington via Reynold's highly entertaining book on the same subject, and becoming aware that there existed an erudite book from 1596 filled with puns about pooping -- a book that incidentally got its author kicked out of court -- then I could hardly help myself. A trip to the Wellcome Collection turned up this nicely complete volume, collecting both the main work and the followup letters, including Ulysses upon Ajax, of disputed authorship but which Reynolds suspected Harington had written himself to stir up (or add to) the controversy.

I was initially worried that English from this distance might be difficult to parse, or Harington's allusions beyond puzzling from four centuries of context, but immediately found these to be unfounded fears [though the editors in 1814 have helped somewhat by standardising old spellings] -- Harington is from the outset a charming writer, and it takes no reference books nor deep prior reading to start smiling.

On being complimented on his invention, the flush toilet:

My good cousin, if you have heard so well of my poor house with the appurtenances, it were to be wished for preservation of your better conceit thereof, that you would not see them at all, they will seem to you so far short of the report; for I do compare my buildings and my writings together; in which, though the common sort think there is some worth and wit, yet the graver censor do find many faults and follies: and no marvel; for he that builds and hath gathered little, and writes and hath read little, must needs be a bad builder and a worse writer.

Accepting the dare to write about it in a publishable manner:

And that you and other my good friends may take the less offence at it, I will clothe it (like an ape in purple) that it may be admitted into the better company; and if all the art I have cannot make it mannerly enough, the worst punishment it can have, is but to employ it in the house it shall treat off;

An epigram Harington wrote to the Queen about his exile from the court:

Dread Sov'reign, take this true, though poor excuse Of all the errors of Misacmos' muse; A hound that of a whelp myself hath bred, And at my hand and table taught and fed, When other curs did fawn and flatter coldly, Did spring and leap, and play with me too boldly; For which, although my pages check and rate him, Yet still myself doth much more love than hate him.

On the problem at the root of prudery:

I wish that the ignorant sort would learn, how it is not the baseness or homeliness, either of words of matters, that make them foul and obscene; but their base minds, filthy conceits, or lewd intents that handle them.

A great Latin rejoinder to try out on someone you don't care to engage with any longer:

Hoc scio pro certo, quod si cum stercore certo Vinco ceu vincor, semper eqo maculor I know if I contend with dirty foes I must be foil'd, whether I win or lose.

The book is after all intended to be fun, and the subject matter is one of the timeless materials for humour. Whatever serious and satirical goals he might also pursue in the text, Harington makes sure to deliver. As he says:

You hoped for some merriments, some toys, some scurrility; or, to speak plain English, some knavery: and if you did so, I hope now your expectation is not altogether frustrate.

The appeal and approachability demonstrated, I should disclose that it is not an entirely transparent text. Harington included a number of contemporary allusions and subtle references in his text which are easily missed -- or worse, signposted enough that you understand you are missing something -- and in places these are so contextual or abstract that even scholars of the time have failed to fully extract them. Most critically, one reason Harington was censured for the work was not for its vulgarity but because of a perceived attack on the late Earl of Leicester -- an attack that later scholars have struggled to find. The only direct reference I saw to him in the text (if indeed this is the right Leicester) seems entirely innocuous:

Besides, in a prince's house, where so many mouths be fed, a close vault will fill quickly; and that objection did my Lord of Leicester make to Sir John Young, at his last being at Bristow; who commended to my Lord that fashion, and shewed him his own of a worse fashion, and told him that at a friends house of his at Peter-hill in London, there was a very sweet privy of that making.

The best guess supplied so far, by Jean Robertson in 1962, appears to be that the attack can be located (though not fully understood) in Harington's conclusion to an extended and fanciful hypothetical in which he imagines setting up a monopoly with another inventor:

and so we may one day be put into the Chronicles, as good members of our country; more worthily than the great bear that carried eight dogs on him, when Monsieur was here.

Dudley had adopted the heraldic device of 'The Bear and the Ragged Staff', so the bear here might be Leicester, but who the dogs might be, and the event alluded to, are difficult to say. Perhaps more significantly, scholars were able to find several points in the book where Harington obliquely broached the topic of Elizabeth's marriage, the unnatural nature of a female ruler, and certain misdeeds of her father's reign -- somewhat bold even if veiled by Harington's wit, and given his past indiscretions he did well to suffer only banishment.

Of the supplements in this volume. The Anatomy goes into considerably more detail than the main text on the practical creation and function of Harington's flush toilet, including diagrams. Modern reconstructions from this design have apparently found it surprisingly practical and effective, which makes it the more a shame that very few bothered to install it. The Apology, a response to his critics in the line of Socrates, is quite hard to follow, with allusions very difficult to unpick in the midst of his extended narration of an imaginary trial, including an overlong jury selection skit in which he variously applauds or lays into numerous characters foreign to the reader. However, it also has its charm:

Some laid to my charge, I was an idle fellow, and shewed by my writings I hath little to do. Alas! said I, it is too true; and therefore if you know any man that hath an office to spare, you may do well to prefer me to it: for this I have taken upon me; and if I had another, I would be content this were divided among you.

The Ulysses upon Ajax, a document of disputed authorship, is witty critique of The Metamorphosis that Harington seemed to mark some approval of in the Apology. The tone is of a mentor inclined to correct and uplift; to take the rather brilliant opening of the preface:

Misacmos, I have spent three days in idle hours, to examine the months of your meditation on a loathsome Ajax; and I find them so unsavoury, as it is impossible for your to be a saver by them: your pen hath dropped excrements, and you cannot wipe them clean with your wit. Alas! that so long filed should so filthily be defiled: you have spent labour without reason, and are seen for a spectacle of folly to those that cannot see without their spectacles. Because the world laughs, you think it applauds: but the most part that outwardly smile, do inwardly pity. A good wit and a gross subject, so much I allow you: but if your ambition must needs climb, it is more comely in a courtiers habit than in a fools antique. That I see your imperfections, I mage yourself judge; that I pity your errors, my sparing reproof may assure you; that I am ambitious as yourself, I protest it with discretion; yet it grieves me that two good wits should wrestle for a dunghill.

The main purpose of the Ulysses is, as with many a book review, to act as a mighty flex on the part of its author. If Misacmos [Harington's pen-name] thinks he can perform learned wit, then this writer will show him the real stuff, complete with his own fart jokes, anecdotes of mooning, and ancient authorities. The possibility that this is in fact still Harington himself writing in no way obstructs this, and, pen blazing away, it comes off pretty well, while also substantively attacking some of the justifications Harington gave for his subject in The Metamorphosis (and also, among other things, giving an argument for locks on privy doors).

The collection is overall pretty amusing. The circumlocutions of the author(s?) can at times be trying but at others well-manneredly amusing, and contrasting well with the occasional bit of coarseness. My guide to this text was Reynolds, and it must be acknowledged that he plundered many of the best bits for his own tome, and embellished them with broader and more recent citations, but there are still sparks of gold in the tailings, for those who'll stoop to sift through them.