I was recently showing a selection of Robert Boyle’s papers to some visitors, and we chanced across an absolute gem in one of his notebooks:

Image of a page from one of Robert Boyle's notebooks, showing a short poem about filing

Described in our archive catalogue as “verses on the contents of 14 collections of papers”, and dated to approximately 1690, this charming little poem describes an eclectic collection of material in surprisingly modern terms.

As my colleague Felicity has previously described, Boyle was interested in an enormous range of topics, and he was also a prolific writer. We hold around 70 volumes of his collected correspondence, notes and papers, as well as some 60 copies of his books (he published over 40 titles in his lifetime)

One sub-collection of our Boyle manuscripts which I particularly like is composed of around 16 little notebooks. Roughly a quarter of A4 size, they contain a wonderfully diverse collection of notes and jottings on a multitude of subjects. For example, there are 97 catalogue entries for the notebook (MS.186) in which I found the verse above, of which the following list is just a flavour:

  • List of phenomena, mostly chemical.
  • List of supernatural phenomena, evidently for second part of ‘Strange Reports’.
  • Introductory material on history of tin.
  • Text concerning saltiness of sea.
  • Names of South Sea, Scottish, and Indian herbs.
  • List of phenomena to remember.
  • Notes on shortcomings of chemists.
  • Four ways of celebrating God’s attributes.
  • Advertisement to ‘Cogitationes Physicae’
  • Notes on the acreage of Ireland, and the proportions of it owned by Protestants and Catholics before and after the Civil War.

I have this lovely mental image of Boyle carrying his current notebook around with him, ready to whip out and jot down any passing thought or matter of interest, though sadly this may not be strictly accurate. Boyle employed a number of amanuenses, and the handwriting of several of these has been identified within his notebooks. My verse was apparently written out by Robin Bacon,  who appears to have inscribed many of the entries in this particular book, though there are at least four other hands present, including that of Boyle himself.

In case the image above proves difficult to read on screen, the following is a rather hasty transcription of the verse, with modernised spelling:

Experiments solitary lead the way
The second cell does various ones display.
Things miscellaneous in the third contained
By trials are, or observation gained.
In the fourth chemical ones salute our eyes
The fifth does medico-chemical comprise.
The sixth of dubious papers is composed.
Historical things are in the seventh proposed.
The eight has many a philosophic thought
And transferenda to the ninth are brought.
The tenth communicated observations gives.
Excerpta out of prints the eleventh receives
The twelfth a mere chaos does comprise
Where almost every thing misplaced lies.
The thirteenth notes for a C. V. contains
And some for conferences in the last remains.

Despite an amount of digging through our collections and secondary sources I have been unable to find out anything more about this verse. Was it written by Boyle himself, as a rueful acknowledgement of the difficulty of reconciling his various interests, or is it a diversion on the part of one of his assistants, faced with the near impossible task of classifying and organising the output of such a prodigiously wide-ranging employer? I would certainly love to find out.

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