Thomas Bonney of Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1728, performed a Latin poem at Reading School. The poem, like several others from similar occasions, is reported in the addenda et corrigenda of Charles Coates’s marvellous 1802 The History and Antiquities of Reading, and it has been long forgotten ever since. Yet, Bonney’s poem is of outstanding historical and intellectual interest, and it thus deserves re-examination.
The text of Bonney’s poem, consisting of twenty elegiac couplets, reads as follows:
Hic, quacunque Arbor supereminet atra corymbis,
Fractaque murorum culmina, serpit, amans;
Dives agris, dives nummis tellure repostis,
Dicitur hos, Abbas, incoluisse Lares.
Foemineae, fertur simul hic Dux foemina, turbae, 5
Non procul hinc aedes tum tenuisse suas.
Praefuit Hic monachis tonsa et pingui cute visis,
Solaque virgineo praefuit Illa choro.
Una at utrique fuit fallentis semita vitae,
Nunc iterando preces, nunc iterando cibos. 10
Barbarus has, Miles, simul illas diruit aedes;
Sive auri, aut suasit Relligionis amor.
Sed locus antiqui servat vestigia Moris,
Idem nos rerum priscus et ordo manet.
Hic nunc inclusam Danaen habet aenea multam 15
Turris, at aurato non adeunda Jovi.
Cerberides, ingens monstrum, stat janitor aulae;
Januaque haud facili cardine vertit iners.
Vivitur hic etiam nunc, ut Vestalibus olim,
Virginis imperiis obsequiturque cohors. 20
Quas quondam Ingenuae coluere fideliter, artes
Jam tali studio turba perita colit.
Hinc varios discit mentiri lana colores,
Telaque purpureas dissimulare rosas.
Hinc Orphei similis, Forfex quoque gnara secandi 25
Post se nunc sylvas, nunc trahit arte feras.
Mola Farina luto fitque hic imitabilis udo,
Hinc rerum species induit atque novas.
Nunc urbis referat munitae maenia; nunc fit
Vel leo, vel delphin, capra, vel ursa, lyra. 30
Quid loquar innumeras artes, cum vivit ut olim
Jam simili Monachi more modoque Puer.
Sic cerebrum tundens insulsaque carmina fundens,
Aut unguem rodit, vel caput ungue fodit.
Utimur et poenis, intorti ictuque flagelli; 35
Vapulat ut Monachus, vapulat usque Puer.
Haeccine sic fieri? num impune exerceat artes
Quisquam hic Papales? – dicere posse pudet!
Haec repsisse mala Henricus si noverit in nos,
Nonne Reformandam diceret esse Fidem? 40
Here, where a dark tree, with ivy flowers, winds itself around the the wall’s highest remains, lovingly, an abbot is said to have had his homestead, rich in land, rich in money, invested into the soil. Of a bevy of girls, it is said, the female leader once upon a time has had her home not far from here. The former was in charge of the monks, shorn to their fat skin, behold! The latter alone was in charge of the girls’ choir. But one narrow path of deceitful life they shared, repeating their prayers, repeating their repasts. The barbarian destroyed the latter, the soldier the former, too, persuaded by zeal for gold or for their religion.
Yet the place preserves the traces of the manner of old, and the same old order of things awaits us, too. A brazen tower now holds many a Danaë locked away, inaccessible even to golden Jove. An A Cerberide, a towering monster, stands guard as janitor of the hall; an artless gate hinges from its heavy goal post.
Here lives even now, and is obedient, a bevy, by the orders of the Virgin (as the Vestals used to do). Arts, once faithfully practiced by noble maids, are now taken up by a skilled crowd, with great studiousness. Whence the wool learns to affect colourful shades, and the loom to hide the purple roses. Whence, like Orpheus, the sawblade, too, skillful in cutting, draws past itself now lumbers, now, skillfully, beasts. The grain mill becomes imitative here from the liquid mire, and whence it adopts its new appearances. Now it resembles the walls of an enclosed city, now it turns into a lion, a dolphin, a goat, a bear, a lyre.
Why mention those countless crafts, while a boy lives already in similar manner and mode as the monk, once upon a time. Thus, banging his head and spilling witless songs, he bites his nail, or scratches his head with the same. We use punishments, too, as well as the lash of the curved whip: as the monk was beaten, the boy is beaten to the present day. Is this really happening? May someone practise papal arts in this place, without punishment? It is shameful to be able to say that! Had Henry known that such evils were to befall us, would he not have ordered to reform our belief?
The poem opens with a reference two of Reading’s most ancient religious structure, the Reading Nunnery and Reading Abbey – the latter of which appears to be alluded to, at least at first glance, in the poem’s title, and whose impressive ruins are referenced throughout. The nunnery was destroyed by Danish invaders, the Abbey in 1538 under Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries – parallel life cycles, nicely united in Bonney’s phrase ‘The barbarian destroyed the latter, the soldier the former, too, persuaded by zeal for gold or for their religion‘.
Neither the abbey nor the nunnery are truly at the heart of this allegorical poem, however. This becomes apparent in the next move, suggesting that an ancient spirit and an overcome habit still remain – unbroken by the upheavals of previous times: they remain preserved in a new tower, resembling that of mythical Danaë, heavily protected and sealed off from the outside world. Once noble arts were conducted in this place, by a bevy of skillful girls, preparing and dying wool.
This, beyond reasonable doubt, is a reference to the Oracle workhouse, funded from the estate of the late John Kendrick in the 1620s, partly as a means to become more competitive in the wool trade business (which in the 17th and 18th centuries was one of Reading’s major economic strongholds). The heavy wooden gates of the Oracle workhouse, originally situated in Minster Street, alluded to in the poem, survive to the present day and are incorporated in the fine local history collection of Reading Museum.
The poem’s true power, however, unfolds in its final movement. The Oracle workhouse is stylised to have become Reading’s new monastery – the poem is called monasterium Readingense after all! Yet, this place, according to the author, despite its grand appearance (a brazen tower, to keep a Danaë) was no less dismal, no less exploitative, and no less a place of false worship than any of the previous manifestations of worship in Reading: girls and boys, kept under unworthy conditions, had to endure the same deeply inhumane, sordid lifestyle and treatment (including physical punishment) as the monks or nuns – an early 18th century criticism of the infamous British workhouses, at Reading and elsewhere, more than one-hundred years before Charles Dickens was to publish his novel Oliver Twist.
Calling the Oracle workhouse a monastery and referring to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries is a bold statement – not only in favour of the Anglican faith. It suggests the author’s strong feeling that the Oracle workhouse was not doing what it was supposed to do (to provide an opportunity for the poor), and it also suggests that its prime objective was to add to the wealth and power of its ‘abbot’ – as invoked at the poem’s very beginning.
It one of history’s many ironies that this monastery was subsequently replaced by a structure, still called The Oracle, which has driven the (secular) worship of the proverbially filthy lucre to new extremes, and that this structure now is at the very heart of the town of Reading.