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"Hesiod" Cooke and the Subscription Game by Arthur Sherbo
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"Hesiod" Cooke and the Subscription Game
Arthur Sherbo

While in Edinburgh on Sunday 15 August 1773 Samuel Johnson, engaging in what Boswell described as "some animated dialogue," touched, upon other matters, on Thomas Cooke, "who translated Hesiod, and lived twenty years on a translation of Plautus, for which he was always taking subscribers" (Life, ed., Hill-Powell, V. 37). The Hesiod was published by subscription in 1728; one volume of the Plautus, containing the translation of the Amphitruo, in 1746, an interval of some eighteen years. During this period Cooke, although all his life impecunious, turned out a sizeable body of hackwork so that Johnson's remark need not be taken literally. Cooke incurred Pope's displeasure and so won a very minor place in the Dunciad (B ii 138), but that is another story. The fullest account of Cooke is by Sir Joseph Mawbey in the Gentleman's Magazine,[1] but Sir Joseph evidently was unaware that two of Cooke's letters had been published in the December 1791 European Magazine (pp. 406-407).[2] There they are preceded by a headnote which states, among other things, that "he is said, in the Biographia Dramatica [1782], to have been singularly skilful in the art of procuring subscriptions to his publications, particularly of a translation of Plautus, of which only one volume was printed in 1746. The following letters from him to Mr. Mackercher and Mr. Annesley, are printed from the originals in his own hand writing, now lying before us." Nothing is said in the Biographia Dramatica biographical sketch of Cooke about his skill in getting subscriptions, but in the account of his translation of the Amphitruo the editor, Isaac Reed (almost surely responsible for the letters in the European Magazine of which he was editor in everything but name), repaired that omission:


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Mr. Cooke is said to have been better versed in the art of collecting money by subscription, than any of his contemporaries. He always procured the earliest intelligence of a young nobleman returned from his travels, an heir lately come of age, or a rich Creole newly landed. On the receipt of such information, he conducted his attack as follows:

He first waited on my Lord, Sir John, or the Esquire, and solicited and received the single subscription of perhaps a guinea. Soon after, he paid a second visit to the same person, pretending to have been but recently informed of his uncommon genius and his zeal to promote the interests of learning, and therefore intreated the honour of dedicating his work to him, which was to be done at the expence of five guineas more. Having obtained this permission, and the cash, his dernier resort was to call on his patron a third time, representing the necessity of prefixing a copper-plate with his arms to the intended dedication. For this piece of service his usual tax was ten additional guineas. By such contrivances he was known to have picked up no inconsiderable sums, especially as he practised the same stratagem on many people, without the least design of inscribing a work to any of them, or even publishing the piece advertised in his proposals. (1782. II. 15)

With this as background, the letters, dated March 24, 1744, take on added interest and relevance. I quote them in their entirety; the first was to Mr. Mackercher.


You have my thanks for your subscription to my Plautus, and particularly for your favour in doing it without any solicitation; and I shall look on myself as the person obliged, if you will be so kind as to accept of my volume of original pieces, and some smaller things of mine, one of which is a play, which was acted this winter at Drury-lane Playhouse[*]. I will soon do myself the honour to wait on you, to encourage you to visit my small but pleasant habitation. I have sent to Mr. Annesley by the same messenger, making a request to him, the compliance with which. I believe, will not be to his dishonour or disinterest; and my extraordinary regard to his peculiar fate makes me desirous of his compliance with my request.

I am Sir, Your obliged, and most obedient Servant, THOMAS COOKE. South Lambeth, March 24, 1744.

P.S. I have inclosed in my letter to Mr. Annesley the preface to my Plautus, which I believe will not be disagreeable to you to look over.

The second letter was to Mr. Annesley.


After returning you and Mr. Mackercher thanks for the favour of your subscriptions to my Plautus, I beg leave to submit a request to you, which nothing but my very sincere wishes for your future success and felicity should induce me to make. Having prepared the ten volumes of my edition and translation of Plautus's Comedies, I am determined to pay a public mark of respect to ten persons, with very disinterested views; by addressing a volume to each of them, and without the usual aims of addresses of that sort, being resolved to admit of no return, in whatever manner offered. All that I intreat is, that those persons will be so good, as promoters of the work, towards embellishing it, to favour me with their contributions for a set of copper-plates for each respective volume, for which I have agreed with an eminent engraver for five guineas a set. What I propose by this method is, to defray the expences of my copper-plates, and at the same time to indulge the pleasure, which will be a great one to me, of paying a peculiar tribute of regard to ten persons who I think deserve those tributes. Eight persons (among whom are the Earls of Chesterfield and Godolphin, and Admiral Vernon) have been so kind, on the first application,


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as to favour me with their contributions for a set of copper-plates each; and I assure you, that it will give me a singular pleasure, to raise a monument of my regard to you, before a volume of an edition and translation of one of the finest ancient authors, and for the reasons which I have given in my address to you, which I have enclosed that you may see what I propose to print; and I make this request to you with the less reserve, as I scorn the expectation of any future advantage from it; and I assure you, that I should with great pleasure do any offices of regard to you in my power. I beg your acceptance of a Prologue and Epilogue of mine on Shakespeare and his writings, which were spoke last winter[†], and of a Play of mine which was acted last December. I have enclosed my preface to my Plautus, that you may see at what vast expence of time, trouble, and charge I have been in this work; and I beg the return of the preface because it is part of a set on ordinary paper. When business will permit, and the days shall be tempting, I should be proud to see you and Mr. Mackercher here. I have enclosed a receipt to you for a set of copper-plates; and the favour of your contribution by my servant, shall meet with such returns as I believe will not be disagreeable to you, from Sir,

Your obliged, and most humble, and most obedient Servant, THOMAS COOKE. South Lambeth, March 24, 1744.

P.S. I shall be glad to print the dedication to the Earl of Anglesea, which I should rejoice to have confirmed time enough for my volume.

I have little doubt that the two editorial notes are Reed's. It will be noted that the copper-plate ploy appears in both accounts, although the price varies. But what is of greater interest is the fact that Cooke is linking Daniel Mackercher and James Annesley with the Earls of Chesterfield and Godolphin and Admiral Vernon in his quest for subscribers to the copper-plates. Cooke claims to have eight of the ten dignitaries subscribing for the copperplates, one for each of the contemplated ten volumes of the Plautus; Mackercher and Annesley would round out the number. Daniel Mackercher was involved in the ultimately unsuccessful attempt of James Annesley to establish his legitimacy as son of Lord Altham and hence the inheritor of his father's title and estates.

One hundred and seventy persons subscribed to the Hesiod; seven hundred and eleven, to the Plautus. The subscription list to the latter reads like a list of the peerage and the eccesiastical hierarchy, with a sprinkling of military men, members of the theatrical and musical world, and foreign celebrities. Among the new subscribers were William Beckford, the Reverend Mr. Thomas Birch, Edward Cave, "Colley Cibber, Esq.", Peter Collinson, Dr. Conybeare, Matthew Concannen, "Mr. Dodsley," Henry Fielding, George and James Fox, David Garrick, George Frederic Handel, John James Heidegger, Dr. Benjamin Hoadley and the Reverend Mr. John Hoadley, Daniel Mac-Kercher (of course), Charles Macklin, Dr. Richard Mead, Edward Moore, Richard Nash (2 sets), Ambrose Philips, William Popple, Samuel Richardson, Jacob Tonson, Jonathan Tyers, Vice Admiral Vernon, Paul and William


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Whitehead, Charles Hanbury Williams, and "Mrs. [Peg] Woffington." Cooke had spread his net far and wide in eighteen years.



1791. ii. 1090-94, 1178-85; 1792. i. 26-30, 215-221, 313-316; 1797. ii. 566-567.


The February 1786 European Magazine had earlier printed an "Original Letter from Thomas Cooke, Translator of Hesiod, &c. to Mr. Baker [of St. John's College, Cambridge] chiefly about the critic John Dennis" (pp. 91-92).


It was called "Love the Cause and Cure of Grief." A Tragedy acted the 19th of December 1743. It was performed only once. EDITOR.


Published in folio; they were spoken by Mr. Garrick and Mrs. Woffington, before and after the Merchant of Venice, acted at Drury-lane 21st January 1743, for Mr. Cooke's benefit. EDITOR.