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by Joseph Spence

Joseph Spence, a Professor of Poetry and Modern History at Oxford, traveled extensively with the Earl of Middlesex and Henry, 9th Earl of Lincoln. They traveled mostly in Italy, and Spence wrote Polymetis after his studies there.

Spence wrote occasionally for his friend Robert Dodsley's periodical, The Museum (1746); he contributed advice (and one poem) to Dodsley's Collection of Poems (1748–58). His long gestated Polymetis was published as a lavishly illustrated folio in February 1747 and earned him at least £1450 by subscription and sale of copyright. Conceived during Spence's first visit to Italy and with much of its material collected there, Polymetis was intended to show how the works of ancient artists and of Roman poets illustrate and explain one another. It was attacked in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Laokoon (1766) and, though new editions appeared in 1755 and 1774, and abridged versions for the use of schools were current until the 1820s, it sank fairly quickly from serious notice. However, it proved an invaluable guide to mythological images for Keats. [1]

Bibliographic Information

Author: Joseph Spence, (1699-1768)

Title: 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: London: R. Dodsley, 1747.

Edition: First edition.

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.[2] The Brown Bibliography[3] also lists the first edition, while George Wythe's Library[4] on LibraryThing indicates that the precise edition unknown.[5]

Historians believe Wythe used Polymetis to design the seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia.[6] 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.[7]

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. E. Millicent Sowerby, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 2nd ed. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 4:389 [no.4230].
  3. 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
  4. LibraryThing, s. v. "Member: George Wythe," accessed on April 21, 2013, http://www.librarything.com/profile/GeorgeWythe
  5. Folio editions were published in 1747, 1755, and 1774.
  7. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 1:468.VERIFY