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Coming with me to Olympia Nelson, Emma Hamilton, Cornelia Knight and Joseph Haydn

I really rather enjoy my job, not least because it frequently leads me down an entirely new avenue of discovery. This can be especially intellectually satisfying when a book passing across my desk comes to life as the full story of it’s origin, writing or later provenance is examined.

One item that Antiquates has only just acquired, and that I’ve been furiously researching and carefully cataloguing in order to bring it along to exhibit at our stand (G11) at this week’s London international antiquarian book fair at Olympia revealed a lovely connection between history, literature, romance and music at the turn of the nineteenth-century. A poem that connects a young female poet resident at Naples to England’s greatest naval hero and one of England’s most notorious love affairs to Austrian composer Joseph Haydn at a time of great European tumult: this is its story.

Poetry on the Battle of the Nile

Housed within a handsomely bound collection of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century pamphlets is one of the rarities of the Lord Nelson canon: English poet, artist and socialite Ellis Cornelia Knight’s famous ode celebrating Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile in the summer of 1798. The volume, almost certainly bound together out of utility rather than any coherence, contains several other significant first editions of eighteenth-century works of literature (Pratt’s Humanity on the inequities of slavery and Browne’s famous work on the immortality of the soul), important titles in eighteenth-century history (John Almon’s Letter is an examination of the failure of the British in the American revolutionary wars) and two educational rarities – but it is The Battle of the Nile which occupies the rest of this post.

The poet, Naples and Nelson

Ellis Cornelia Knight (1757-1837) had spent much of the final decade of the eighteenth-century on the continent with her mother, Lady Knight. The final year of the latter’s life saw the pair living in Naples and, following Nelson’s evacuation of the Bourbon monarchy in 1798, in Palermo. There and most especially after her mother’s death, Knight, the daughter of Sir Joseph Knight, rear-admiral of the White, proved a ‘daughter of the waves’ who revelled in the company and protections of Nelson, the English ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies Sir William Hamilton, and his wife Emma. It was thus in close proximity to of one of the most notorious love affairs of English history, between Nelson and the diplomat’s young wife, that Knight composed this celebration of the English hero of the Nile. She acquired the epithet of ‘Nelson’s poet laureate’ from his fellow naval officers, but as the dedication of The Battle of the Nile to Sir William Hamilton indicates, was very much the literary organ of the trio. The poem was first printed at Naples in 1799 in what must have been a very limited, and almost certainly a private print run; the work is not recorded in ESTC and institutionally is represented by the British library copy only.

Travelling towards composition

The history of this rare poem, and indeed the company in which it was composed, did not end with the first edition, nor in Naples. After a somewhat contentious involvement in the domestic politics of the Bourbon dynasty, which culminated in Nelson charging and executing a Neapolitan admiral in the Bay of Naples, and quite startling displays of caprice verging on insubordination, Nelson was ordered back to England. This coincided, rather helpfully, with the granting of Sir William Hamilton’s request for relief from his post. As a result, Nelson, the Hamiltons and a group of English fellow travellers voyaged to England by way of central Europe in the September of 1800 – and it is here that the story turns musical. The group visited the Esterhazy family and their court composer Joseph Haydn at Eisenstadt, and were honoured by a performance of the latter’s Missa in Angustiis, a mass composed when all of Europe and especially Vienna was threatened by Napoleon but first performed when Europe was digesting the impact of Nelson’s victory at the Nile. Unsurprisingly given the association, Missa in Angustiis has become known as the ‘Nelson Mass’.

The Vienna printing

Slightly lesser known is the cantata ‘Lines from the Battle of the Nile’ that Haydn produced, presumably after meeting Knight during the group’s September visit and reputedly for performance by soprano Emma Hamilton, with lines taken from the former’s poem celebrating Nelson’s triumph. The publication of the second edition of the poem in Vienna by the widow of famous associate of Mozart, Ignaz Alberti, must surely have been related to this fabulous combination of the literature, music, romance and heroism that accompanied the English travellers’ visit to Austria in that summer of 1800. It is almost as rare and most likely printed once again in very small numbers; not recorded by ESTC, OCLC locates copies at Harvard, NMM and Strasbourg only, with COPAC adding another at Oxford. No copy of either is recorded in recent auction records.

I had the ‘Nelson Mass’ playing in the background whilst cataloguing this fine volume. After cracking the mystery of why a poem about Egypt first published in Naples should have appeared a year later in Vienna, I simply had to listen to the Haydn Cantata ‘Lines from the Battle of the Nile’. It doesn’t disappoint!

Full details:


[NELSON, Admiral Lord Horatio]. KNIGHT, Ellis Cornelia. The Battle of the Nile. A pindaric ode. To his excellency the Rt. Honble. Sir William Hamilton, K.B. His Britannick Majesty’s minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary at the court of the Two Sicilities etc. etc. etc. Vienna. Printed by Widow Alberti, 1800. Second edition. Quarto. 13pp, [1]. Not in ESTC. [Bound eighth, amongst a sammelband of 14 rare literary, historical and educational works, all in quarto format]I. [MELBOURNE, William Lamb, viscount]. Essay on the progressive improvement of mankind… London. W. Bulmer, 1799. First edition. 20pp. With half-title. Rare; ESTC records only six copies in the UK, two elsewhere. ESTC T33406. II. [SCONE]. Sconiana. Memoranda of the antiquities….and present state of Scone… Edinburgh. Printed by John Moir…for James Morison…, 1807. First edition. 22pp, [2]. With engraved frontispiece and terminal blank leaf. III. [LITERARY PROPERTY]. The question concerning Literary Property, determined by the court of King’s bench On 20th April 1769, in the cause between Andrew Millar and Robert Taylor…. London. Printed by W. Strahan and M. Woodfall…for R. Tovey, 1773. First edition. iv, 127pp, [1]. ESTC T88999. IV. [DOUGLAS, Basil William]. The right of the eldest sons of the peers of Scotland to represent the Commons of that part of Great Britain in Parliament, considered. [Edinburgh?]. [s.n.], 1790. First edition. 44pp. Rare, with ESTC locating only six copies (BL, Hornel, Glasgow, House of Lords, LSE and NLS). ESTC T82930. V. GREG, Thomas. A letter to Sir John Sinclair…President of the Board of Agriculture; containing a statement of the system, under which a considerable farm is profitably managed in Hertfordshire… London. Printed by W Bulmer and Co., 1809. First edition. 22ppp. With two engraved plates. VI. SMITH, Rev Sydney. A sermon preached before his grace the Archbishop of York, and the clergy at Malton at the visitation, August, 1809. London. Printed for James Carpenter…by Thomas Wilson and Son, 1809. First edition. [3]-22pp. Without half-title, but with errata slip. Rare, with OCLC locating only three copies, at Cambridge, Newberry and Oxford. VII. SINCLAIR, John Gordon. Letter to his royal highness monsieur, brother to Louis XVIII, King of France…from Colonel John Gordon Sinclair, relative to his trial in the court of King’s Bench, the various concealed methods used to effect his ruin… London. [s.n.], 1798. [2], iii, [2], 15-17, [1], 17-31, [1]. Lacking pp.1-15. ESTC T205495. IX. [PRATT, Samuel Jackson]. Humanity, or the rights of nature, a poem; in two books. By the author of Sympathy. London. Printed for T. Cadell, 1788. First edition. [4], 114pp, [4]. With terminal errata leaf duplicated. Several manuscript alterations to text, which differ from thosee identified by the errata. Uncommon in British institutional holdings, with ESTC locating copies at Birmingham, BL, Cambridge, William Saly and Wisbech/Fenland Museum. ESTC T36737. X. [ALMON, John]. A letter to the Right Honourable Charles Jenkinson. London. Printed for J. Debrett…, 1782. Fifth edition. [3]-51pp, [1]. Without-half title. ESTC T118043. XI. SHEPHERD, R. An essay on education, in A Letter to William Jones, Esq. [London]. Printed by W. Flexney, 1782. [2], 17pp, [1]. First edition. Rare, with ESTC locating only two copies in the UK (BL, Dr. William’s) and four elsewhere (Chicago, Columbia x 2 and Huntington). XII. BROWNE, Isaac Hawkins. De animi immortalitate. Poema. London. Impensis J. & R. Tonson & S. Draper, 1754. First edition. [4], 40pp. ESTC T32111. XIII. SMITH, Hugh. An enlarged syllabus of philosophical lectures delivered by Hugh Smith, M.D., Of Hatton-Street. With the Principles on which his Conjectures are founded concerning Animal Life, and the Laws of the Animal Oeconomy… London. Printed for L. Davis…, 1778. First edition. 40pp. With half-title. Rare, with ESTC locating only three copies: at BL, Cambridge and Harvard. ESTC N3443. XIV. [Paul preaching at Athens, being a fragment and the final quarter only of The Cartons of Raphael D’Urbino. (London, 1809), without plates]. 8pp.Fourteen volumes in one. Handsomely bound in early nineteenth-century speckled calf, gilt. A trifle rubbed to surfaces and a little creasing to joints, else a fine copy. Kinnaird amorial bookplate, with manuscript shelfmark, to FEP.