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Jean Primrose Whyte



A Word from Callimachus

By Jean P. Whyte, B.A., A.M.I

Before Friday, 16th November, if you had asked me who Callimachus was, I would have said that he was the librarian of the Alexandrian Library, that he was a Greek poet and scholar, and that he was one of the first librarians whose name we know (and, incidentally, the first “literary gent” to run a library), and all of these things are true, but they are by no means the whole story. For Callimachus is like Merlin, or Peter Pan, or Rip Van Winkle. He is not dead – he has lived as long as the world has had libraries, and he lives today. I saw him last night in the stacks. I regret that he could not come to our meeting tonight; in fact I fear that I shall not see him again, but some of you who are younger than I am may be here to greet him when he returns.

If only I could read and speak Greek! For much of Callimachus’s story can only be told in that language and I could not even listen with understanding. Some of his life as a librarian in Rome I did understand, but my Latin and yours is not good enough to enable me to tell you. So I have skipped the early part of his life until I come to that part of his story which can be told in English – to the days when this poet was a librarian in the English Monastery of York. He was the librarian in the monastery from A.D. 600 (he was absent on a journey to Italy for a few years, when Alcuin took over the library; but as you know, Alcuin left the monastery in A.D. 796 to journey to Tours and set up his school of calligraphy). At first, Callimachus wrote his poems almost entirely in Latin, and indeed he told me that the Anglo-Saxon which the native English were speaking at the time seemed a barbarous language to him – until he met an English monk called Caedmon. Caedmon was a poet, and he admired some hexameters which Callimachus had written, so Callimachus asked to read some of Caedmon’s own verse. This verse was a revelation to Callimachus. He liked the strongly accented Anglo-Saxon lines and towards the end of the eighth century he wrote a number of poems in Anglo-Saxon under the pseudonym of Cynewulf.

The monastic library was not, as I had expected, entirely devoted to religious works and canon law. Perhaps because Callimachus was a poet, he collected poems and stories written not only in Latin but also in French and Anglo-Saxon. Among these manuscripts were those of Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Piers the Plowman. We have not been able to prove the authorship of Piers the Plowman and I have a theory that Callimachus knew more about the author than he cared to admit. Certainly he used the same verse rhythms with ease:

To him who beareth the book: behold we are bounden

For that wight hath wisdome: well favoured is he

Who hereth high mystery: an in his herte keepeth.

And loveth to lerne: and for men illumine

The sayings of the Savior: and Son of the Highest.

But derkely the devil: deleth with the dremer

Privately promising: power over all men.

Grete care must he carry: the Keeper of Knowledge,

That servants of Satan: sit not in scriptorum.

He checketh the cheater: with chains on his volumes.

Lest wicked wights steleth: the wordes of wisdome.

In about 1400, Callimachus set off for China and the East. He returned to Europe in the middle of the fifteenth century to find the monasteries and the universities which were springing up everywhere buzzing with the news of the invention of printing. Callimachus was a scholar, and a poet, and a librarian. He loved books and believed in their value as preservers of the records upon which his world was based. And he loved the beauty of the volumes in the monastic libraries – the old Irish half-uncials and the clear rounded script of the Carolingian Minuscule – with their ornate illuminations. But he had been in the universities, and had seen the poorly written, ugly books, which the students hired from the stationarii, and he had regretted the lack of texts for study. So he greeted the advent of printing with mixed feelings:

Johannes Gutenberg,

Goldsmith of Mainz

John Fust, the Master

And Peter Schoeffer

Have lightened our travail

And given us volumes,

Not written with labour,

By Scribe at his carrel,

But printed in numbers

A hundred together,

So all men here-after,

May buy books and read them.

Ah, woe that the beauty,

Of hand-written volumes,

Has vanished forever!

And those who would question

Their rulers and betters,

Can send through the Kingdom,

Their treasonous pamphlets,

And heretics scatter

Their lies to the four winds.

For books are no longer

The previous possessions,

Of priest and of prelate,

Of statesman and student.

And soon like the sea-sand

They’ll grow beyond number:

And though the King’s axes,

And all the Queen’s tortures

Do battle against it,

The press and the printer

Shall never stop working.

The days of the monastic libraries were numbered in England, and the next hundred years were turbulent ones – and not good for such inflammable objects as books. In the British Isles the spirit of nationalism grew ever more violent.

Callimachus was in the Library of the university of Aberdeen when it was founded in 1494. The country was awake to the importance of books – in the towns of Edinburgh and Aberdeen the townspeople were admitted to the University libraries. The principal towns of Scotland had lecture schools in which reading in the vernacular was taught.

In 1496 Scotland’s first compulsory Education Act was passed. This Act bade “all freeholders that are of substance put their eldest sons and heirs to schools from the age of six to nine years”. And “thereafter to spend three years at schools of arts or law”.

Throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Scotland was the home of the greatest poets writing in English, and Callimachus contributed something to that literature. His greatest friend in Scotland was Gavin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld, who first translated Virgil into the Scottish tongue, and truly did Douglas express the growing pride in the vernacular literature when he finished his twelve-year labour with the hope:

Now salt though with every gentil Scot be kend,
And to onletterit folk be red on hycht,
That erst was bot with clerkis comprehend


Sen Virgyll beys wydguar in Latyn sung,
Thus beys my labour red in owr vulgar tung

Around 1600, Callimachus was putting away books in the Guild-Hall Library in London when in walked a gentleman in the doublet and hose of the day. He had a small pointed beard, and his forehead was high and wide, but the librarian remembered his eyes most vividly – brown and very bright and intelligent.

He asked for Holinshed’s “Chronicles”. Callimachus gave him the book and left him seated at a table. As he passed the reader’s chair an hour later he glanced at the paper on which the man was writing and saw:

… Remember

First to possess his books; for without them

He’s but a sot as I am.

The Bodleian Library was opened at Oxford in 1602. We have many letters written by Bodley to his Librarian James, or as we know, Callimachus. The librarian’s life was not always a happy one, and in fact some of Bodley’s advice and conditions of employment seem a little impertinent:

Sir, Concerning your letter of the 8, of this moneth, I haue not nowe the leasure, so to answear it all, as ether I am desirous, or some pointes thereof require. But yet if yow please, to weigh that little that I write, with a ballance of a staied and untroubled judgement, I doe not doubt but I shall giue yow very good satisfaction. And first where yow wonder at my suddaine flatte denial of your continuance in that place, if so be yow should be maried: I did wonder as muche, to see yow come upon the suddaine, when I was ready to depart, and require to be resolved, what yerely stipend yow might trust to: because yow meant, as yow said, to resign your felowship very shortly, and might determine withall, to take a wife: for whiche your state would haue need, of 40li stipend at the lest. This your abrupt and untimely demaund, with unusual termes and wordes, did seeme to me so very strange, as I complained unto yow, of your ouer late proposal, of a mater of that weight, when I was ready to begonne. Howbeit mine answear I am sure, was frindly and considerat. That yow would alwaies be assured of 20li from me, and that in time I made no question of raising it further to 20 or 30 more: whereof notwithstanding, I could not as yet giue any assurance. But for the point of your marriage, I might by no means yelde unto it: holding it absurd in yow or in any, for sundrie great respectes: neither did I, as I signified, see any necessitie of giuing ouer your fellowship … Thus wishing to that humour which bredde the subject of this letter, all the purging that may be, and yourself all the good that you hart can desire, I betake both yow and all your actions, to God’s good direction.

Your unchangeable frind
Tho. Bodley2

Nevertheless, Callimachus believed that his library would one day be the pride not only of Oxford but of the world:

Where the sweet Thames meanders on her way,

The gentle towers of Thomas Bodley rise,

Here shall the eager scholar spend his day,

On volumes that the world shall ever prize.

Here calm and peace dwell with neglected time,

While scholars study dreams and history,

To give the world back some forgotten rime,

Or find some clue to nature’s mystery.

Here shall the men of nations yet to be,

Pore over volumes by their world un-read,

And in the peace of Bodley’s Library,

Shall keep the scholar’s bargain with the dead.

And though his eyes see not those later days,

All men who enter shall speak Bodley’s praise.

For Callimachus the seventeenth century was on the whole not very exciting. Of course, as a man of letters he found the company of Pepys and Milton exhilarating, and that of Congreve and Wycherley and the other dramatists of the Restoration disturbing. In fact, to a man who remembered the glories of the Elizabethan stage, the light-hearted frippery of the Restoration seemed very insignificant.

He seems to have spent most of his time in the Bodleian Library, with a few journeys, such as his trip to Scotland to the opening of the Advocates Library, and his voyage to France to see his friend Gustave Naude, Librarian of Mazarin’s Library. Naude’s influence on Callimachus was considerable. He insisted that a library should contain not only the accepted classics, but also the works of contemporary authors: not only works written in support of the true religion, but also the works of the principal “heretics or adherents of religions that are new and that differ from the one more commonly revered among ourselves as being more sound and true”. And he also expressed in no uncertain terms his belief that the library should be open to all who wished to use it:

Nothing now lacks to complete these instructions except to grasp their object and chief application: for to suppose that after all this trouble and expense these lights should be hidden under a bushel and so many great minds condemned to everlasting silence and solitude is to understand ill the purpose of a library, which, no more or less than Nature herself, is doomed to lose all profit of itself, should it exhibit to solitude things so great, so noteworthy, so subtly formed, so resplendent, so beautiful (and beautiful not in one regard alone); it would, as you know, prefer to be examined, not merely looked at. Therefore I shall tell you, Monseigneur, with as much freedom as I have affection for your service, that in vain does he go to any great expense for books who does not intend to devote them to the public use and never to withhold them from the humblest of those who may reap any benefit thereby.

Callimachus made his first visit to the American continent in 1699, when he went with Dr. Thomas Bray, who was busily founding parochial libraries in Maryland.

Callimachus told me that he considered that the most important happening for libraries in the seventeenth century was the founding of the Royal Society in 1660 and the beginning of the publication of newspapers and periodicals. And, of course, the most important publication of the century from the librarian’s viewpoint was Milton’s “Areopagitica”.

When Callimachus told me that he considered Allan Ramsay’s Edinburgh Circulating Library, founded in 1725, to be great step forward in the provision of libraries I was amazed. But he laughed at me.

“Remember”, he said, “I speak of the eighteenth century, not the twentieth! Before the world could produce the free public library it had to learn the value of books, and these libraries helped.”

But the great event of the eighteenth century was the founding of the British Museum. You remember the story of its foundation: Sir Hans Sloane left his collection for purchase by the nation and the British Museum Trustees decided to hold a lottery and to raise the money with which to buy a building, and to house not only Sloane’s collection, but also the collection of Robert Cotton and the Harleian Manuscripts.

Here are Callimachus’s verses on its opening in 1759:

This day we have opened the British Museum

All men of good will now should sing the Te Deum.

And rejoice that our London and not the Bodleian

Holds not and forever manuscripts Harliean,

May the labours of Sloane and collections of Cotton,

Be used by the student and never forgotten.

Because the Archbishop frowned not upon chance

Our Britain no longer will lag behind France.

For here will historians gather to read

The works which the present and future should heed.

And here will the students of politics write

The books that will alter our world overnight.

And we shall preserve while the paper shall last,

The hopes of the present, the dreams of the past.

I detected in these verses a growing interest in the unrestricted use of libraries, so I was not in the least surprised when Callimachus told me that his term as librarian of the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute convinced him that all citizens should have free access to books. It seems that he helped Edward Edwards and William Ewart in the fight for free rate-supported libraries throughout the United Kingdom and he certainly rejoiced when the Act was passed in 1850:

No bells ring out in church or street,

No village echoes with men’s cheers

But in my ever listening ears –

I hear a million hurrying feet

And in my dreams I see them tread,

The steps of buildings yet to be,

And entering their library,

They prove the wisdom of the dead.

For long has knowledge kept her tower

From days when priests and Kings ruled all,

Until today the ramparts fall

And to the common man comes power.

No longer tied by class or fee,

The poorest student now may read,

For Britain here hath done a deed,

Which sets men’s brains and spirits free.

May wisdom walk with knowledge still,

May those who read find truth and light,

Librarians defend the right

Of man to read what ‘ere he will.

After the passing of this Act, Callimachus felt that he would like a holiday, so he set out for the United States, arriving in 1870 (and I wondered whether his arrival had anything to do with the excitement of the American librarians at that time). The first man that he met was a young student at Amherst College. This dark-eyed young man was full of what seemed to Callimachus rather crazy ideas (and remember that Callimachus had lived long enough to know the value of crazy ideas), so he listened to the young man, and, incidentally, the Decimal Classification owes a great deal of its acceptance to the fact that Callimachus managed to dissuade its author from putting Metaphysics next to Witchcraft under the general heading of Humbugs and Quackery, and that he insisted that Literature should not be made a subdivision of the Social Sciences.

Callimachus was present at the meeting in 1876 at which the American Library Association was formed. Here is his description of the proceedings:

Up rose Melvil Kossuth Dewey,

He was young and he was eager.

At his side Charles Ami Cutter

Not so young, but just as eager,

And they spoke unto the meeting

Spoke as prophets of the future,

And the others heard the message

Of these leaders in their wisdom:

“We will talk of cataloging

Till the last moon wanes forever,

Many rules will prove no stronger

Than the reed beside the river.

Above all we shall make whoopee

At our annual bigtime pow-wow.”

From the United States Callimachus paid his first visit to the southern hemisphere. He arrived in Adelaide in 1884 – just in time to see the opening of the Public Library of South Australia. One of the impressive things about Callimachus is the way in which he picks up the current verse techniques of the day. And he did confess that he had been reading the Bulletin before writing this verse:

In a distant Southern country
Far from London’s smoke and steam
The South Australian Company
Tried Edward Wakefield’s dream.

They were gentlemen of substance,
Freely did they come and stay,
And they didn’t look with favour
On the folk of Botany Bay.

When the ships sailed out from Plymouth,
“Tam-o-shanter”, “Buffalo”,
With the Governor and surveyor,
There were books stored up below.

Through the years of drought and heat-wave,
Never beaten, oft dismayed –
Still the gentlemen of England,
And the German peasants stayed.

And their newspapers, waxed fatter
Till in 1884
The men of south Australia
Recalled 1834.

They remembered Robert Gouger,
And the hundred books that he
Had gathered in Old England,
For their public library.

Most were lost but in their places,
They had 13,000 more.
So they thought they’d get some culture
In 1884.

Samuel Way and Richard Benham,
(May their glory never fade)
And a dozen other gentlemen,
Of prosperous Adelaide.

Founded, and then wisely governed,
A State Public Library.
So the men of South Australia
Could get light and culture free!

I do not really know very much about Callimachus’s wanderings in Australia, but he did leave this comment on the Mitchell Library. As you remember, David Scott Mitchell, who owned a property in the Hunter River district, NSW, and who spent his early life collecting books on English literature, turned to the collection of Australiana, and left to the Public Library of New South Wales the greatest collection of Australiana that this country possesses.

’Twas the man from Hunter River,

Who struck the Sydney town

And he soon began to quiver

As he wandered up and down.

He wandered here, he wandered there till he was like to drop,

Until at last he came upon a second-hand book shop.

“No more for me the labour great,

Of choosing English manna,

A fallow field for me doth wait

In this Australiana.

I here declare that naught on earth can force me now to cop,

I’ll be the favoured customer of every good book shop.”

And when my book collecting’s done

And I from hope and sin am free,

I shall bequeath them, every one,

To New South Wales State Library.

I’ll leave no dead collection, to be a certain flop,

But I shall leave them cash to spend in every good book shop.

So Mitchell left the books that he

Collected with such skill

To New South Wales State Library,

And stated in his will

That ever in the library the volumes had to stop,

And gave them cash galore to spend in every good book shop.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, I saw Callimachus in the stacks last night. On seeing him I hoped that I would be able to find out a good deal more about his impressions of Australian librarianship and in fact of librarianship in general. I would like, for instance, to know what he thinks of documentation. Whether he thinks that librarians ought to go to charm schools. What he thinks of Enid Blyton. But, alas, I didn’t have a chance to ask him any of these questions. His first words to me were:

“Well, I must go now, but I hope that I shall be back.”

“Why the hope? Why do you doubt? What could prevent you from coming back?” I asked.

He looked at me quizzically.

“I live only as long as libraries live”, he said.

“And how long do you think that will be?” I asked. “Have you not powers to see into the future?”

Like a flash came his answer.

“There is no predetermined future to see into. It depends on you. But I know a great deal about the past, and I rather think that if libraries disappear from the earth the past and the present will also perish. However”, he said, “I must be going. Here is my message to yourself and your colleagues. I have had considerable trouble with it. The language has deteriorated since 1600 and I am afraid I can’t write in the style of Eliot or Auden.”

I took the piece of paper and read it. And I shall now read it to you:

To you who toil in stacks and fetch and carry

The books the world holds cheap, but loses dear.

I speak to you, librarians, and ask

That you should hearken to my words, for I

Am a librarian – I too have felt

The shaking ladder underneath my feet,

I have stamped dates upon a million cards

And staggered ‘neath the weight of newspapers.

My friends, like yours, have envied me because

They think that all I do is read the books.

(And even as I’m angrily denying

The charge, I’ve known that I do not read

Enough – and wondered how I ever can?)

More than two thousand years have passed since I

First sorted rolls in Alexandria

And I have seen the fires of chance and hate

Burn through more volumes than your world possesses.

And I have heard me twist the written word

To serve their dream of power. Have seen men change

The truth of history for a tyrant’s end.

It is not long, as I can measure time,

Since books were not the right of every man.

And even now I see they are denied

To more than half the men who live on earth.

Ah yes! I know that knowledge walks with power,

And, without Wisdom, is a dangerous gift.

I know that books are bad as well as good.

But hear me – I am no hot headed youth –

I say there is no future for this world

I say that there is but little time,

Unless men learn the lessons that are held

In books and libraries. These lessons are

The truth that all we have and all we are,

We are, because each age, each creed, each nation,

Has given us something that we would not lose.

The joy that comes from literature, and from

The growing of a bigger, better rose.

The faith that comes from history and religion;

The love that comes from knowledge of mankind.

And you, who keep the libraries of the world,

Your task is harder than it’s ever been.

The world is flooded with the written word –

You must preserve, select, and see that men

Can find and use the books, the magazines

The pamphlets, maps and microfilms, on which

The present and the future both depend.

More loud and strident grows the radio,

The newspaper, the T.V. and the film,

More urgent is your task to cater for

The individual – not “the audience”.

So to your task, and know the task you do

Requires more knowledge than you’ll ever have,

Needs more devotion than you’ll ever give,

Gives few rewards – that other men respect.

Only the satisfaction that you serve

The cause of human happiness. That you

Preserve and put into the hands of others

The bricks and mortar that we need to make

The world in which we live: the precious stones

Of Truth and Beauty that do make us men.


I   This Presidential Address was delivered to the South Australian Branch of the Library Association of Australia on 28th November 1956. Reproduced from ‘A word from Callimachus’. Australian Library Journal 6 (3) 1957, 95–100. Courtesy Australian Library and Information Association.

2   Bodley, Thomas: letter 14. To James. From Burnham, Sept. 11, 1601. In Thornton, J., Mirror for Librarians, p. 28 [London, 1948].

Jean Primrose Whyte

   by Coralie Elsenore Janis Jenkin