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.


Spooky Rare Book Spotlight: “The Witch of Pungo” by Louisa Venable Kyle

by Jessica Ritchie, Head of Special Collections and University Archives

Illustration of Grace Sherwood’s “ducking” from The Witch of Pungo and Other Historical Stories of the Early Colonies by Louisa Venable Kyle

If you have lived, visited, or grown up in Virginia Beach like I did, then you are probably familiar with the infamous Witchduck Road. The road was named after the site of the last “witch ducking” that took place in Virginia in 1706. According to historians, local townspeople were searching for answers as to why their crops were dying and, as was fashionable at the time, they blamed women. They were particularly suspicious of the farmer’s wife Grace Sherwood, who dared to wear trousers, worked as a midwife, and knew a little too much about the healing power or herbs. Neighbors accused Grace of bewitching their pigs and cotton crops, and even flying through a keyhole in the black of night! A judge agreed with Grace’s accusers and ordered her to be tried by ducking. On July 10th, 1706 Grace was bound by her toes and thumbs, and dropped into the Lynnhaven River. The judge decreed that if she drowned she would die an innocent woman, but if she survived, it was because she was a witch. Luckily, Grace managed to escape her bonds and swam to shore, but shortly thereafter was imprisoned for witchcraft. After approximately 7 long years in jail she was released and returned to her three sons, and eventually died at the age of 80 on her farm in Pungo (now a part of Virginia Beach) in 1740. Go Grace!

A statue depicting her was erected near Sentara Independence on Independence Boulevard in Virginia Beach, close to the site of the colonial courthouse where she was tried. The statue depicts Grace standing near a raccoon and holding herbs, which represent her love of animals and her nursing skills.

As a child, I struggled to understand that there was a time in history where innocent women were blamed for society’s ills and drowned just to prove their innocence. I still struggle with that thought, but I am pleased to see that Grace Sherwood’s legacy has been preserved in the Sherwood Trail, including Witchduck Road and other landmarks in Virginia Beach. Her legacy has also been preserved in many stories, books, and news articles, including a children’s book by author Louisa Venable Kyle.

The Witch of Pungo and Other Historical Stories of the Early Colonies by Louisa Venable Kyle, ODU Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives Rare Book Collection

Born in Norfolk, Louisa Venable Kyle studied at Mary Baldwin Seminary and graduated from Lasell Seminary. She wrote for the Virginian-Pilot and The Portsmouth Star and was one of the founding members of the Princess Anne County Historical Society. Her children’s book The Witch of Pungo and Other Historical Stories of the Early Colonies is based on seven folktales from Princess Anne County, including the tale of Grace Sherwood. The book was published in 1973 by Printcraft Press, Portsmouth, Virginia, and was reissued in 1978 and 1988 by Four O’Clock Farms Publishing Company.

The Witch of Pungo author’s signature

ODU’s Special Collections and University Archives is fortunate to have a rare, autographed hardcopy of The Witch of Pungo. The books is in great condition with a vibrant orange color, and features a wonderful collection of illustrations and short historical essays related to each folktale. I am so pleased that we can keep the legacies of both Grace Sherwood and Louisa Venable Kyle alive and well by sharing this book with our students, faculty, and community members. It’s incredible to think that we have so much important history here in Hampton Roads, and I am glad authors like Kyle have kept those stories alive for future generations.


“Louisa Venable Kyle”The Virginian-Pilot. October 25, 1999. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
“Grace Sherwood (ca. 1660–1740)”. The Associated Press. 9 July 2013. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
Grace Sherwood (ca. 1660–1740)”. Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved 17 October 2013. Virginia Beach, Virginia: Witch of Pungo Statue

Further reading:
“The Virginia Case of Grace Sherwood, 1706.” In Narratives of the New England Witchcraft Cases, ed. George Lincoln Burr, 433–442. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002.Davis, Richard Beale.
“The Devil in Virginia in the Seventeenth Century.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 65 (April 1957): 131–149.Gibson, Marion. 
Witchcraft Myths in American Culture. New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2007.Kyle, Louisa Venable. The Witch of Pungo and Other Historical Stories of the Early Colonies. Portsmouth, Virginia: Printcraft Press, 1973.

Spring Cleaning? Donate to Special Collections!

By Lara Canner, Allan Blank Curator of Music Special Collections

My house is both simultaneously the cleanest and dirtiest it has ever been. The quarantine has led to me polishing the floors till they reflect like mirrors, my windows gleam like fresh cut diamonds and no dust motes can be found sparkling in an afternoon sunbeam. I leave a trail of lemony freshness behind me wherever I go. Yet, my zest for cleanliness has also had an unfortunate side effect: I decided to spring clean my closets.

Piles of clothes have created small mountain ranges to climb over, totes tower in the corners of an otherwise spotless rooms and bags of baby clothes beg to be taken to Goodwill for donation. I leave a trail of destruction wherever I go. Almost nothing in my spring cleaning has sparked joy (thank you very much Marie Kondo), except one item.

Hill’s Manual of Social Business
Hill’s Manual of Social Business Inscription

A book called Hill’s Manual of Social Business Forms, it is an etiquette guide for the proper use of language and writing in diverse situations. Within the pages are step-by-step instructions on how to craft letter of recommendation, writing invitations, petitions, to name a few. I was gifted this from my grandmother-in-law earlier this year, as she was moving and thought I would appreciate it. Spring cleaning remained me that I needed to find proper housing for the antique text and that the book should not reside on a shelf for any duration.

Since, this particular book has family sentimental value, I’m going to continue to hold onto it for a bit longer. However, in the future, I will consider donating this item to the Chicago History Museum (link: archives. The inscription indicates the book had a special meaning to families in Chicago, so I know it will be a place where the text will be kept safe, yet still available for research. Perhaps now is the perfect time to go through desk drawers, filing cabinets and boxes with the intent to donate your works to an archive?

If you live in Hampton Roads, or graduated/work(ed) at Old Dominion University, our archive is a great option!

 Right now, your work gathers dust (not in this house!) or lies inactive at the bottom of a drawer. A donation to an archive will give these materials new life, providing access to potentially thousands of researchers, who’s own papers could value from the expertise of your hard work. Moreover, you can rest assured that an archive will not simply take proper care of your items (in a lovely climate-controlled facility) but be excited for the chance to preserve a bit of history.

I only anticipate my cleaning whirlwind to escalate, the longer the stay-at-home order persists. My hope is when I do finally return to work that my in-box will be filled with donation requests from patrons in the grip of their own spring-cleaning frenzy! (and leaving the lemony freshness at home…)

If you are considering donating your papers and ephemera to the Old Dominion University Special Collections and University Archives, please contact: We can discuss your collection while we are closed, and if it’s a good fit, work on transferring it when we reopen!