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by Joseph Spence


Title page from Polymetis, George Wythe Collection, Wolf Law Library, College of William & Mary.

Author Joseph Spence
Editor {{{editor}}}
Translator {{{trans}}}
Published London: R. Dodsley
Date 1747
Edition First
Language English
Volumes {{{set}}} volume set
Pages xii, 361
Desc. Folio (42 cm.)
Location [[Shelf {{{shelf}}}]]
  [[Shelf {{{shelf2}}}]]

Joseph Spence (1699-1748) was an English scholar of both literature and anecdote, who spent the majority of his life traveling throughout Europe. During these travels he wrote many of his most distinguished works and received inspiration for other literary works and lectures which he went on to give at Oxford. Of note is Spence’s close relationship with Alexander Pope, a fellow literary figure who became a life-long friend to Spence and heavily influenced his work. Due in part to this friendship, Spence was elected as the Oxford chair of poetry in 1728 and he went on to become a professor of modern history at Oxford in 1742. After publishing Polymetis, Spence used his profits to fulfill his love of gardening and continued to produce literary works (both published and unpublished) until his death in 1748.[1]

Polymetis: or, An Enquiry Concerning the Agreement between the Works of the Roman Poets, and the Remains of the Antient Artists, Being an Attempt to Illustrate Them Mutually from One Another, published in 1747, reflected Spence’s first visit to Italy and draws upon the works he observed while there. Written in dialogue form, this work provides a history and criticism on subjects such as Roman sculpture, mythological art, and Latin poetry, complete with illustrations.[2] With a special focus on how these works of art and literature interplay and provide explanations for each other, Spence, as the title suggests, “attempt[s] to illustrate them mutually from one another.” Polymetis was significant both in the education system for decades following its publication and for Keats, who used Polymetis as a guide to ancient mythological imagery.[3]

Evidence for Inclusion in Wythe's Library

Listed in the Jefferson Inventory of Wythe's Library as "Spence's Polymetis. fol." and kept by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson sold a copy to the Library of Congress in 1815 which Millicent Sowerby lists as the 1747 (first) edtion.[4] The Brown Bibliography[5] also lists the first edition, while George Wythe's Library[6] on LibraryThing indicates that the precise edition unknown.[7]

Historians believe Wythe used Polymetis to design the seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia.[8] John Page wrote Jefferson,

We are very much at a loss here for an Engraver to make our Seal. Mr. Wythe and myself have therefore thought it proper to apply to you to assist us in this Business. Can you get the work done in Philadelphia? The inclosure [sic] will be all the Directions you will require. He may be at a loss for a virtue and libertas, but you may refer him to Spence's Polymetis which must be in some Library in Philadelphia.[9]

Description of the Wolf Law Library's copy

Bound in contemporary calf with gilt spine and red spine label.

View this book in William & Mary's online catalog.


  1. James Sambrook, ‘Spence, Joseph (1699–1768)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2010, accessed 11 June 2013.
  2. Joseph Spence, Polymetis, (London: R. Dodsley , 1747).
  3. James Sambrook, “Spence, Joseph."
  4. E. Millicent Sowerby, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 2nd ed. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 4:389 [no.4230].
  5. Bennie Brown, "The Library of George Wythe of Williamsburg and Richmond," (unpublished manuscript, May, 2012) Microsoft Word file. Earlier edition available at: https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/13433
  6. LibraryThing, s. v. "Member: George Wythe", accessed on April 21, 2013.
  7. Folio editions were published in 1747, 1755, and 1774.
  9. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 1:468.VERIFY