Desire, Demons, and Diplomats: Poetry in the Special Collections

By Special Collections and HIST 368 Intern, Daniel Conner

Rare poetry books in ODU Libraries Special Collections

The Story of C.3.3.

Upon beginning my research for National Poetry Month, I stumbled upon a rather interesting author in the Special Collection; someone by the name of C.3.3. I assumed such a tag could be nothing more than a stage name, but after finishing the ballad and conducting some light research, I came across quite the little discovery. C.3.3. was a cell number, and the work that was born from that cell, the Ballad of Reading Gaol (pronounced ‘redding jail’), was explicit, enthralling, and excruciatingly visual. 

C.3.3. a.k.a Oscar Wilde was one of, if not the most well known and respected, Irish writers of the late 19th century. However, he was eventually arrested for homosexual conduct and placed in cell C.3.3. of Reading Gaol. Wilde composed plays, novels, and poems that are still considered to be masterpieces today, such as The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Salome. Nevertheless, none of these pieces compare to the dreading reality of Reading Gaol. Within 109 stanzas, Wilde managed to fluidly compact the maddening conditions of a 19th century prison, a description of a murder’s emotions during the act of taking their lover’s life, and the eeriness of near daily capital punishment. Wilde himself experienced the execution of C.T.W., a man who murdered his own wife in a fit of rage before being sentenced to capital punishment. Through the color red, and the feelings of overwhelming love and fear, Wilde managed to portray his understanding of C.T.W. and paint his psyche in a way any reader could comprehend. Furthermore, Wilde wrote on the awful conditions of prison and how any prisoner would certainly become maddened by the end of their sentence if fortunate enough, or perhaps unfortunate enough to live. To list some of the harsh conditions: in the 19th century, anyone from the age of 10 onward could be found in Reading Gaol and the prisoners were forced to wear hoods that covered their eyes when outside of their cells. Meaning, the prisoners were not provided an environment where they could have any true social interaction. The ballad is horrifically real, which is exactly why it’s a terrific read. If you want to read C.3.3.’s short ballad for yourself, ODU’s Perry Library has a later copy on the fourth floor (1971) in addition to the copy in the Special Collections on the third floor (1896). 

“He did not wear his scarlet coat,
     For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
     When they found him with the dead
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
     And murdered in her bed…

The man had killed the thing he loved,
     And so he had to die….

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
      By each let this be heard
Some do it with a bitter look,
     Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
     The brave man with a sword!”

  -C.3.3. The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Milton and Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost, John Milton’s iconic poem in 12 books, has sustained its relevance through centuries of controversiality based on a diverse set of historical, political, and religious interpretations. Scholars have analyzed Milton’s intentions and motivations over the past 340 years, but in recent times the appreciation for the religious epic has been in a downward trend. While I could write thousands of words as to why we should value Milton’s work; plenty of volumes of that have already been written and can be found on Perry’s fourth floor. Instead, we can appreciate the beautiful illustrations of SCUA’s 1691 version of Paradise Lost. Two volumes of the epic have been preserved by SCUA, but the 19th century edition, though it features a regal and brightly-colored cover, lacks the imagery of its older counterpart. While not officially credited in this publication, Helen Gardener’s study of the 1688 and 1691 versions of Paradise Lost have attributed the stunning artworks to John Baptist de Medina.The Flemish-Spanish painter’s fluidity, but subtle contrasts between man, demon, and angel perfectly encapsulate the complexity of Milton’s characters. Many readers find themselves sympathizing with Satan and consider him to be the protagonist or hero of the epic. Meanwhile, some may view Satan as pathetic and consider Adam and Eve to be the moral heroes of the story. At the same time, another reader may not consider any of those characters as heroic, and instead rely on the archangel Michael to serve as the loyal, moral being of Paradise Lost. If you’d like to get your hands on Milton’s works and see where you stand within Milton’s battle for heaven, then look no further than the 3rd floor of Perry Library or SCUA’s rare book collection.


Matthew Prior’s Spellbook of Poems

The gleaming golden engravings on the spine of Matthew Prior’s Poems on Several Occasions immediately drew my attention. Upon feeling the rough leather and studying the beautiful, oversized font, I knew this was a rare book I had to research. Prior, a British diplomat to Louis XIV’s court and the plenipotentiary of  Britain’s peace treaty with France during the Spanish War of Succession. Prior had proven proficiencies in foreign language and diplomacy through his experience as a British diplomat to Louis XIV’s court from 1711 until in France. Most notably, he was plenipotentiary of Britain’s peace treaty with France during the Spanish War of Succession, dubbed the Peace of Utrecht. However, what made Prior stand out most from his peers was his special way of composing wit into his writing. Though poetry was more of a hobby than an occupation for Prior, he still excelled as one of the top earning poets of his time. 

Before his success abroad, he had 3 volumes of poetry published, two of which were essentially the same. Funnily enough, Prior’s second publication was a pirated version of Poems on Several Occasions. When Prior became aware of the pirated materials though, he expressed his annoyance with the inaccuracies of the volumes, as other authors’ works mistakenly made it into the published volume as well. To adjust the volumes to a standard Prior could appreciate, he re-released his own volume of Poems on Several Occasions two years later in 1709

After Prior returned from his diplomatic endeavors, he was sentenced to a year in prison based on conspiracies concerning his political party, the Tory party. Due to his imprisonment, his political renown and funds had essentially gone to the wayside. Thus, his friends, including the famous poet Alexander Pope, compiled volumes of Prior’s writings to sell to his fan-base on a consistent basis. The subscribers of his works would be credited at the end of  each subscription volume as a show of thanks, similarly to how modern content creators list out their subscribers in the credits of a content piece. Due to Prior’s arrest, his political career was over. Regardless, the ex-diplomat managed to continue to express his views through rhetoric. Thanks to his prowess in sarcasm and massive following, Prior was able to become the first poet to achieve mainstream success through a subscription based publication. If you’re interested in Prior, multiple volumes of his poems are available both on the 4th floor of the Perry Library and in SCUA on the Third Floor.


Tracing History: Using Innovative Research Methods and Chemical Testing to Track the Origins of Colonial Pottery

by Special Collections and HIST 368 Intern Amber Kates

Amber Kates being interviewed in the ODU Chemistry Lab where the testing occurred

My favorite thing about working in archives is getting lost in the stories. The shelves are a treasure trove filled with others’ memories. Sifting through the pages reawakens moments long since passed. Some interconnect to form entire lives. Others are just snapshots of a single moment, bringing with them an air of mystery. They whisper out questions, begging you to discover their long hidden secrets. But these allurements do not belong solely to the two dimensional world. Artifacts contain their own stories; you just have to know how to read them.

In 2022, the ODU Special Collections was gifted a few pieces of pottery. They were just a small fraction of the 20,000 pieces found during the expansion of I64, headed by the Virginia Department of Transportation. After they were pieced back together by the team at William and Mary, they were placed in the possession of the Coastal Virginia Church – the owners of the property where the pieces were found. The Coastal Virginia Church graciously gave the pieces to the Special Collections. As the intern for the Fall 2022 semester, I was given the opportunity to research a large jug and tankard.

Not much was known about the pottery when it arrived at our Special Collections. They were accompanied by a report prepared by the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research. Based on this report, it appeared that these pieces were created around the 1730s by the William Rogers Pottery in Yorktown, VA. If everyone was correct, that meant the pieces were almost 300 years old, and a truly extraordinary find!

ODU Professor Rick Nickel explains the firing process that resulted in jug’s decorative surface to his Introduction to Ceramics Class.

Assuming that the experts were correct, I dove headfirst into my investigation. When looking at the pieces, they appeared to be common stoneware, consistent of the colonial period. The missing pieces in both the tankard and jug made their fragility obvious. Cracks slither across the jug, indicating places of reconstruction; both handles had been destroyed. The potter utilized a two-tone glaze technique on each piece. Artfully detailed ridges denote the deft hand of the maker. As I studied the jug, my eye was drawn to these drips of green glaze. Not only does the color not match any glaze used on either piece, but the finish is distinct. In contrast to the more matte, gritty-looking finishes, the green glaze is glossy and smooth. These markings are obviously unintentional.

After my initial observations, I began my research. I gathered as many sources as possible on William Rogers and colonial pottery. I read through the report that was sent with the pieces, but it was just a snippet of information. According to the report, the area in which the excavation was conducted was within the site of the old Newtown Colony. Like many colonies in the area, Newtown was an English settlement, and acted as a port for trade. However, by the early nineteenth century, the residents of the area moved on. They discarded whatever wares they couldn’t carry into a giant pit – a pit that wouldn’t be discovered for hundreds of years.

NPS Photo of the Poor Potter Site

After immigrating from England, William Rogers was a resident of Yorktown colony until the mid-eighteenth century. Often referred to as the “poor potter”, Rogers was anything but. A natural businessman, Rogers had made quite the name for himself with several different ventures. Before building the factory, he was a brewer and merchant. The success from his various enterprises made him a prominent figure in the community, and a wealthy man.

So, why the nickname “poor potter?” Well, it stems from the lieutenant governor of the time, William Gooch. In a 1732 letter to the Board of Trade in London, Gooch mentioned Rogers’ pottery endeavor and stated that it was “of so little consequence.”  Then, in 1739 he wrote “The Poor Potter’s operation is unworthy of your Lordship’s notice…” In reality, pottery from Rogers’ factory was transported up and down the east coast and to the West Indies. Gooch’s motivation for the way he handled the situation remains a mystery. After all, what Rogers was doing was illegal. At the time, English law made it clear that goods were to be manufactured in England and then transported to the colonies. Many have stated that Gooch must have been “on the take”.  While there was probably some monetary incentive, I believe that the situation was far more complicated. Gooch’s position as lieutenant governor was a balancing act between keeping both Virginia and England happy. He was in charge overseeing the colony and its people while being a soldier for the English Crown. The success of Virginia was good for everyone involved, and Rogers’ pottery was a component of this success. Gooch also knew that he couldn’t turn a blind eye to it. Eventually the truth would be discovered, and there would be consequences.

During this portion of my research, I came across a book that proved to be surprisingly helpful. In, Yorktown, Virginia: A Brief History, author Wilford Kale has an entire chapter on William Rogers and the unearthing of his factory. Included in this chapter was the story of the initial discovery around 1970. According to Kale, the story goes that W.A. Childrey, a Yorktown resident, was sweeping the dirt floor of his garage when he noticed shiny green spots. Curious, Childrey dug a little further and revealed bricks covered in a green glaze. He contacted the College of William and Mary, and the real hunt began (Kale, pp. 30).

Inside an 18th Century Pottery Workshop.

My “spidey senses” were tingling. Was this, a brief mention of green glaze, my first clue? Steve Bookman, Head Archivist at the Special Collections, was kind enough to reach out to William and Mary for a copy of the original excavation report. This report described the kiln as being “coated by a thick (1-2 inches) accumulation of a lustrous light to dark green smooth and glass-like glaze” (Barka, 1973, pp. 14). I was like Nancy Drew gathering little fragments of information to solve a mystery.

I knew I needed to go on a field trip and see the site for myself. I reached out to the National Park Service and explained about the pottery and research. I was put into contact with Dr. Dwayne Scheid, Cultural Resources Program Manager and Archaeologist for the National Park Service. He was kind enough to invite me out to the site to discuss this project. I was excited, but nervous. Before I arrived, I emailed pictures of the pottery. Once there, he agreed that they looked like pieces of pottery found during the excavation of the property. However, the only way to really confirm was to get the pieces tested. Dwayne also pointed me to Lindsay Bloch’s work with testing historical ceramics.

I toured the space, which really is the size of someone’s garage. Looking down into the large kiln, it is easy to see the green glaze that was described by Barka. Just as I had hoped, visually it was a match to the drops on the large jug. Dwayne reiterated the need for testing. He explained that the best and easiest thing to do was to first get the pieces tested with an XRF machine. As an undergraduate intern who was clearly in over her head, I just nodded. There was no way that I was going to explain to this very knowledgeable man that I had not even the slightest clue what I was doing, though I’m pretty sure he caught on. I left feeling a little deflated. Was this the end of the road for my project? Nevertheless, I still had a few avenues of investigation to pursue.

Inside the Poor Pottery Kiln. Photo by Amber Kates, 2022

Overwhelmed but undeterred, once again, I began my research. Assuming the budget for student-led testing was practically nonexistent, I wanted to find out if the William and Mary’s Center for Archaeological Research had conducted testing during the preservation process. When the pottery was donated to the Special Collections, it was accompanied by a report prepared by William and Mary for VDOT. Reading the report, a second time, I realized that pages were missing. However, several names were listed, including Deborah Davenport. The report stated that she was in charge of “laboratory processing and artifact analysis.” I figured it would be best to go straight to the source and reached out to her with my questions. She informed me that due to their own budgetary constraints they had not performed any testing of the pieces but confirmed their belief that they were created by the William Rogers pottery in Yorktown. She was also kind enough to send me the full report – all 608 pages!

Realizing we were on our own in reference to the chemical analysis, I did a little digging to the basics of XRF testing. This was unknown territory. The Special Collections is not used to diving into the archaeological side of historical preservation. I was able to find a few different institutions who had the ability to help us out but wasn’t sure how many would be willing to assist us pro bono. I once again feared a dead end. On a whim, I contacted the department chair of the ODU Chemistry Department, Dr. Craig Bayse. I explained the situation and asked if we had the testing capabilities. To my surprise, not only did he have access to the equipment, but he was willing to conduct the tests himself.

This is where we are now. The chemical analysis is the final missing piece to confirm if all our work is correct. The wonderful Dr. Bayse conducted XRF testing on both pieces of stoneware. When the results are analyzed, we will be able to determine if the pieces are, in fact, part of the William Rogers collection. I am so lucky to have had the honor to work on this project. It has been an amazing example of different departments and institutions coming together to uncover the truth. Everyone served as an important piece of the puzzle. A special thank you to everyone in the Special Collections. You were all so supportive of me and provided a great learning experience. Jessica Ritchie in particular has been so amazing. She trusted me enough to allow me to run wherever the research led. This has been a truly remarkable hands-on experience.

Director’s Update: After graduating from ODU, Amber has continued to collaborate with the Poor Potter Site and ODU Libraries on a project to trace the pottery back to the site. Amber’s research and ODU’s pioneering chemical analysis methodology could help other repositories and museums officially trace their pieces back to the Poor Potter Site.

A New Insight: An Intern’s First Look Into Archival Work

by Ethan Dykes, HIS 368 Intern in Special Collections and Archives

As an up and coming history major at Old Dominion University, I was excited to receive the opportunity to work as an intern at the Special Collections Department in the Perry Library. I have always been curious about the specifics behind the jobs that entail the collection, study, and preservation of historical materials. This being my final semester at the university I was thankful for the opportunity to learn all I could about archival work before I graduated. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, I would have to do the internship remotely rather than the usual in-person experience. Still, I believed this to be a good opportunity to see what working in an archive facility was like and if I would consider it as a job for myself in the future. Needless to say I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I have learned about archival work and the types of materials I have gotten to work with despite the global pandemic.

October is National Archives Month! It’s a great time learn more about archives and the labor and expertise that goes into them.

Unexpected Lessons

My first few assignments in the internship mostly involved getting to know the staff and reading the training modules for archival work. To my surprise, the training module held a plethora of information on the specifics of archival work, and I learned many unexpected lessons. Not only did the modules define the different types of archives in the world and what they look to collect, but how they may sort and preserve those different types of materials. Many paper materials, for example, need to be kept in properly humidified places with dim light and kept in containers safe from dust and bugs. I knew from common sense that paper materials certainly needed to be kept clean and with minimal exposure, but I did not know the amount of tiny specifics that were important to keep those materials in good condition. Such things included the importance of using iridescent bulbs and not fluorescent ones in rooms with paper or other materials to prevent deterioration from ultraviolet rays. I also learned much about the importance of structure and safety in archival facilities. Archives have to be careful of how their buildings are built and manage to ensure safety from disasters and accidents, such as water leaks from air conditioning units. There is also a surprising amount of importance on security, such as the need to organize materials in a certain way that prevents just anyone from looking something up and being able to take it. Archival work has a surprising amount of complexities and small details that one must learn if they wish to be able to handle historical documents.

Employee in Washington National Records Center Stack Area, ca. 1968. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Employee in Washington National Records Center Stack Area, ca. 1968. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Of Surprising Importance

Other than learning much about archival work and the surprising amount of information required to conduct such labor, I have also found archival work to be of surprising importance to the world of history. As a historian, I always knew that archives played a key role in the study of historical materials but I did not initially see their overall importance. Archives do not simply gather and preserve information, which in of itself is of significance, they also organize, label, and make that information easy to access to the public and to historians. Those wishing to research certain materials for a book or paper may easily find themselves in the depths of an archive facility shifting through shelves of materials. Many archives are also the keepers of documents one would not find anywhere else in the world, and are thus of major importance to the preservation of local and smaller portions of history. Archives are not only more complicated than I initially thought, they are also of greater significance than one such as myself may originally think. They are a key cog in the machine that preserves and teaches the world’s history.

A New Found Respect

Overall, I am thoroughly enjoying my time with this internship so far, and have a new found respect for those who work in archives. The work I’ve done so far has been interesting and insightful, with a plethora of information about archival work. A person outside of the archival world, such as my previous self, may believe it to be simple and easy. But there is actually a science to it, a methodology that is used to best preserve the world’s history. This has been the most useful and world-changing lesson I have learned so far from the internship. In just a few weeks I have had the privilege of learning about the importance of archival work and the amount of effort that goes into it. I strongly recommend anyone interested in archival work, or in other professions of history, to seek out information on the methods behind archive work. It may yet offer a new perspective on your view of the work behind historical preservation and research.