Of Anagrams And Echo Verses by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

The “true” modern critics on our elder writers are apt to thunder their anathemas on innocent heads: little versed in the eras of our literature, and the fashions of our wit, popular criticism must submit to be guided by the literary historian.

Kippis condemns Sir Symonds D’Ewes for his admiration of two anagrams, expressive of the feelings of the times. It required the valour of Falstaff to attack extinct anagrams; and our pretended English Bayle thought himself secure in pronouncing all anagrammatists to be wanting in judgment and taste: yet, if this mechanical critic did not know something of the state and nature of anagrams in Sir Symonds’ day, he was more deficient in that curiosity of literature which his work required, than plain honest Sir Symonds in the taste and judgment of which he is so contemptuously deprived. The author who thus decides on the tastes of another age by those of his own day, and whose knowledge of the national literature does not extend beyond his own century, is neither historian nor critic. The truth is, that ANAGRAMS were then the fashionable amusements of the wittiest and the most learned.

Kippis says, and others have repeated, “That Sir Symonds D’Ewes’s judgment and taste, with regard to wit, were as contemptible as can well be imagined, will be evident from the following passage taken from his account of Carr Earl of Somerset, and his wife: ‘This discontent gave many satirical wits occasion to vent themselves into stingie [stinging] libels, in which they spared neither the persons nor families of that unfortunate pair. There came also two anagrams to my hands, not unworthy to be owned by the rarest wits of this age.’ These were, one very descriptive of the lady, and the other, of an incident in which this infamous woman was so deeply criminated.

Car finds a Whore. O! O! base Murther."

This sort of wit is not falser at least than the criticism which infers that D’Ewes’ “judgment and taste were as contemptible as can well be;” for he might have admired these anagrams, which, however, are not of the nicest construction, and yet not have been so destitute of those qualities of which he is so authoritatively divested.

Camden has a chapter in his “Remains” on ANAGRAMS, which he defines to be a dissolution of a (person’s) name into its letters, as its elements; and a new connexion into words is formed by their transposition, if possible, without addition, subtraction, or change of the letters: and the words must make a sentence applicable to the person named. The Anagram is complimentary or satirical; it may contain some allusion to an event, or describe some personal characteristic.[1]

Such difficult trifles it may be convenient at all times to discard; but, if ingenious minds can convert an ANAGRAM into a means of exercising their ingenuity, the things themselves will necessarily become ingenious. No ingenuity can make an ACROSTIC ingenious; for this is nothing but a mechanical arrangement of the letters of a name, and yet this literary folly long prevailed in Europe.

See also  A Dialogue On Poetic Morality by Vernon Lee

As for ANAGRAMS, if antiquity can consecrate some follies, they are of very ancient date. They were classed, among the Hebrews, among the cabalistic sciences; they pretended to discover occult qualities in proper names; it was an oriental practice; and was caught by the Greeks. Plato had strange notions of the influence of Anagrams when drawn out of persons’ names; and the later Platonists are full of the mysteries of the anagrammatic virtues of names. The chimerical associations of the character and qualities of a man with his name anagrammatised may often have instigated to the choice of a vocation, or otherwise affected his imagination.

Lycophron has left some on record,–two on Ptolemaeus Philadelphus, King of Egypt, and his Queen Arsinoee. The king’s name was thus anagrammatised:–

Apo melitos, MADE OF HONEY:

and the queen’s,

Heras ion, JUNO’S VIOLET.

Learning, which revived under Francis the First in France, did not disdain to cultivate this small flower of wit. Daurat had such a felicity in making these trifles, that many illustrious persons sent their names to him to be anagrammatised. Le Laboureur, the historian, was extremely pleased with the anagram made on the mistress of Charles the Ninth of France. Her name was

Marie Touchet.

which is historically just.

In the assassin of Henry the Third,

Frere Jacques Clement,

they discovered


I preserve a few specimens of some of our own anagrams. The mildness of the government of Elizabeth, contrasted with her intrepidity against the Iberians, is thus picked out of her title; she is made the English ewe-lamb, and the lioness of Spain:–

Elizabetha Regina Angliae.

The unhappy history of Mary Queen of Scots, the deprivation of her kingdom, and her violent death, were expressed in this Latin anagram:–

Maria Steuarda Scotorum Regina:

and in

Maria Stevarta

Another fanciful one on our James the First, whose rightful claim to the British monarchy, as the descendant of the visionary Arthur, could only have satisfied genealogists of romance reading:–

Charles James Steuart.

Sylvester, the translator of Du Bartas, considered himself fortunate when he found in the name of his sovereign the strongest bond of affection to his service. In the dedication he rings loyal changes on the name of his liege, James Stuart in which he finds a just master!

The anagram on Monk, afterwards Duke of Albemarle, on the restoration of Charles the Second, included an important date in our history:–

See also  The Man Who Hunts And Doesn’t Like It by Anthony Trollope

Georgius Monke, Dux de Aumarle.
Ego regem reduxi An deg.Sa. MDCLVV.

A slight reversing of the letters in a name produced a happy compliment; as in Vernon was found Renoun; and the celebrated Sir Thomas Wiat bore his own designation in his name, a Wit.[2] Of the poet Waller the anagrammatist said,

His brows need not with Lawrel to be bound,
Since in his name with Lawrel he is crown’d.

Randle Holmes, who has written a very extraordinary volume on heraldry, was complimented by an expressive anagram:–

Lo, Men’s Herald!

These anagrams were often devoted to the personal attachments of love or friendship. A friend delighted to twine his name with the name of his friend. Crashawe, the poet, had a literary intimate of the name of Car, who was his posthumous editor; and, in prefixing some elegiac lines, discovers that his late friend Crashawe was Car; for so the anagram of Crashawe runs: He was Car. On this quaint discovery, he has indulged all the tenderness of his recollections:–

Was Car then Crashawe, or was Crashawe Car?
Since both within one name combined are.
Yes, Car’s Crashawe, he Car; ’tis Love alone
Which melts two hearts, of both composing one,
So Crashawe’s still the same, etc.

A happy anagram on a person’s name might have a moral effect on the feelings: as there is reason to believe, that certain celebrated names have had some influence on the personal character. When one Martha Nicholson was found out to be Soon calm in Heart, the anagram, in becoming familiar to her, might afford an opportune admonition. But, perhaps, the happiest of anagrams was produced on a singular person and occasion. Lady Eleanor Davies, the wife of the celebrated Sir John Davies, the poet, was a very extraordinary character. She was the Cassandra of her age; and several of her predictions warranted her to conceive she was a prophetess. As her prophecies in the troubled times of Charles I. were usually against the government, she was at length brought by them into the court of High Commission. The prophetess was not a little mad, and fancied the spirit of Daniel was in her, from an anagram she had formed of her name–


The anagram had too much by an L, and too little by an s; yet Daniel and reveal were in it, and that was sufficient to satisfy her inspirations. The court attempted to dispossess the spirit from the lady, while the bishops were in vain reasoning the point with her out of the scriptures, to no purpose, she poising text against text:–one of the deans of the Arches, says Heylin, “shot her thorough and thorough with an arrow borrowed from her own quiver:” he took a pen, and at last hit upon this elegant anagram:

See also  Wives by Richard King


The happy fancy put the solemn court into laughter, and Cassandra into the utmost dejection of spirit. Foiled by her own weapons, her spirit suddenly forsook her; and either she never afterwards ventured on prophesying, or the anagram perpetually reminded her hearers of her state–and we hear no more of this prophetess!

Thus much have I written in favour of Sir Symonds D’Ewes’s keen relish of a “stingie anagram;” and on the error of those literary historians, who do not enter into the spirit of the age they are writing on.

We find in the Scribleriad, the ANAGRAMS appearing in the land of false wit.

But with still more disorder’d march advance,
(Nor march it seem’d, but wild fantastic dance,)
The uncouth ANAGRAMS, distorted train,
Shifting, in double mazes, o’er the plain.
C. ii. 161.

The fine humour of Addison was never more playful than in his account of that anagrammatist, who, after shutting himself up for half a year, and having taken certain liberties with the name of his mistress, discovered, on presenting his anagram, that he had misspelt her surname; by which he was so thunderstruck with his misfortune, that in a little time after he lost his senses, which, indeed, had been very much impaired by that continual application he had given to his anagram.

One Frenzelius, a German, prided himself on perpetuating the name of every person of eminence who died by an anagram; but by the description of the bodily pain he suffered on these occasions, when he shut himself up for those rash attempts, he seems to have shared in the dying pangs of the mortals whom he so painfully celebrated. Others appear to have practised this art with more facility. A French poet, deeply in love, in one day sent his mistress, whose name was Magdelaine, three dozen of anagrams on her single name!

Even old Camden, who lived in the golden age of anagrams, notices the difficilia quae pulchra, the charming difficulty, “as a whetstone of patience to them that shall practise it. For some have been seen to bite their pen, scratch their heads, bend their brows, bite their lips, beat the board, tear their paper, when their names were fair for somewhat, and caught nothing therein.” Such was the troubled happiness of an anagrammatist: yet, adds our venerable author, notwithstanding “the sour sort of critics, good anagrams yield a delightful comfort and pleasant motion in honest minds.”[3]

When the mania of making ANAGRAMS prevailed, the little persons at court flattered the great ones at inventing anagrams for them; and when the wit of the maker proved to be as barren as the letters of the name, they dropped or changed them, raving with the alphabet, and racking their wits. Among the manuscripts of the grave Sir Julius Caesar, one cannot but smile at a bundle emphatically endorsed “Trash.” It is a collection of these court-anagrams; a remarkable evidence of that ineptitude to which mere fashionable wit can carry the frivolous.

See also  Friedrich’s Ballad by Juliana Horatia Ewing

In consigning this intellectual exercise to oblivion, we must not confound the miserable and the happy together. A man of genius would not consume an hour in extracting even a fortunate anagram from a name, although on an extraordinary person or occasion its appositeness might be worth an epigram. Much of its merit will arise from the association of ideas; a trifler can only produce what is trifling, but an elegant mind may delight by some elegant allusion, and a satirical one by its causticity. We have some recent ones, which will not easily be forgotten.

A similar contrivance, that of ECHO VERSES, may here be noticed. I have given a specimen of these in a modern French writer, whose sportive pen has thrown out so much wit and humour in his ECHOES.[4] Nothing ought to be contemned which, in the hands of a man of genius, is converted into a medium of his talents. No verses have been considered more contemptible than these, which, with all their kindred, have been anathematised by Butler, in his exquisite character of “a small poet” in his “Remains,” whom he describes as “tumbling through the hoop of an anagram” and “all those gambols of wit.” The philosophical critic will be more tolerant than was the orthodox church wit of that day, who was, indeed, alarmed at the fantastical heresies which were then prevailing. I say not a word in favour of unmeaning ACROSTICS; but ANAGRAMS and ECHO VERSES may be shown capable of reflecting the ingenuity of their makers. I preserve a copy of ECHO VERSES, which exhibit a curious picture of the state of our religious fanatics, the Roundheads of Charles I., as an evidence, that in the hands of a wit even such things can be converted into the instruments of wit.

At the end of a comedy presented at the entertainment of the prince, by the scholars of Trinity College, Cambridge, in March, 1641, printed for James Calvin, 1642, the author, Francis Cole, holds in a print a paper in one hand, and a round hat in the other. At the end of all is this humorous little poem.


Now, Echo, on what’s religion grounded?
Whose its professors most considerable?
How do these prove themselves to be the godly?
But they in life are known to be the holy,
O lie!
Who are these preachers, men or women-common?
Come they from any universitie?
Do they not learning from their doctrine sever?
Yet they pretend that they do edifie:
O fie!
What do you call it then, to fructify?
What church have they, and what pulpits?
But now in chambers the Conventicle;
The godly sisters shrewdly are belied.
The godly number then will soon transcend.
As for the temples, they with zeal embrace them.
Rase them!
What do they make of bishop’s hierarchy?
Archie! [5]
Are crosses, images, ornaments their scandall?
Nor will they leave us many ceremonies.
Must even religion down for satisfaction?
How stand they affected to the government civil?
But to the king they say they are most loyal.
Lye all!
Then God keep King and State from these same men.
Amen !

[Footnote 1:
Southey, in his “Doctor,” has a whimsical chapter on Anagrams, which, he says, “are not likely ever again to hold so high a place among the prevalent pursuits of literature as they did in the seventeenth century, when Louis XIII. appointed the Provencal, Thomas Billen, to be his royal anagrammatist, and granted him a salary of 12,000 livres.” ]

[Footnote 2:
Two of the luckiest hits which anagrammatists have made, were on the Attorney-General William Noy–“I moyl in law;” and Sir Edmundbury Godfrey–“I find murdered by rogues.” But of unfitting anagrams, none were ever more curiously unfit than those which were discovered in Marguerite de Valois, the profligate Queen of Navarre–“Salve, Virgo Mater Dei; ou, de vertu royal image.”–Southey’s Doctor. ]

[Footnote 3:
Drummond of Hawthornden speaks of anagrams as “most idle study; you may of one and the same name make both good and evil. So did my uncle find in Anna Regina, ‘Ingannare,’ as well of Anna Britannorum Regina, ‘Anna regnantium arbor;’ as he who in Charles de Valois found ‘Chasse la dure loy,” and after the massacre found ‘Chasseur desloyal.’ Often they are most false, as Henri de Bourbon‘Bonheur de Biron.’ Of all the anagrammatists, and with least pain, he was the best who out of his own name, being Jaques de la Chamber, found ‘La Chamber de Jaques,’ and rested there: and next to him, here at home, a gentleman whose mistress’s name being Anna Grame, he found it an ‘Anagrame’ already.” ]

See also  John Stuart Mill by Edwin Lawrence Godkin

[Footnote 4:
See ante, LITERARY FOLLIES, what is said on Pannard. ]

[Footnote 5:
An allusion probably to Archibald Armstrong, the fool or privileged jester of Charles I., usually called Archy, who had a quarrel with Archbishop Laud, and of whom many arch things are on record. There is a little jest-book, very high priced, and of little worth, which bears the title of Archie’s Jests. ]

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *