Playing with Man’s Salvation

 

Front and back cover

Front and back covers, all that is visible with the book folded up.

Away from our collections for three months now, we have been thinking, even more than we usually do, about the importance of immediate, personal, contact with old books, art objects, original manuscripts and records, centuries-old artifacts. Photography and digitization are wonderful tools for research and education. At the same time, the study of material culture, which draws on objects to help make sense of human activity and thought, is deeply enhanced by firsthand experience with those objects. If you can turn the pages of a book, you have access to information about its size, structure, and materials at a level even the best imaging and software do not deliver. Through your own manipulation of the volume, you gain insight into the experiences of the original audience and makers.

Metamorphosis, or a Transformation of Pictures is an especially difficult object to describe or understand without handling, its physical and intellectual arrangement best revealed by experiment. This is perhaps the key to its historical success – it is foremost a puzzle, and even if the content is familiar to the reader, it is an engaging pastime to follow the instructions and trace the path of the verses.

The "back" of the opened out sheet.

The “back” of the opened out sheet, a view that the reader is unlikely to see.

Even experienced remotely, it is a fascinating example of Americana and of early books aimed at children. Since we cannot look at it together, I will offer up the parts in various combinations. But we must accept that it is a poor substitute for handling the pages and trying out different arrangements of flaps, reading the texts as they appear near one another (out of “order”), and simply playing around.

The book is based on an anonymous mid-17th-century British religious work, The Beginning, Progress, and End of Man. Near the end of the 18th century an altered and expanded set of verses, attributed to Benjamin Sands, began to be published in America in both English and German versions, with a hundred editions appearing in the following 75 years. Physically it is made up of a single sheet, printed on both sides, with a central four panel strip. Separate flaps above and below flank each of the panels; the entire object is then accordion folded to resemble a chapbook.

Verse 1: Adam comes first upon the stage, And Eve from out his side, Who was given him in marriage; Turn up and see his bride. Verse2: Here Eve in shape you may behold, One body showeth two; Once more do but the leaf downfold, And it’s as strange to view. Verse 3: Eyes look not on the mermaid’s face, And ears hear not her song: Her features have an alluring grace, More charming than her tongue

Opened, but will all the flaps still folded in.

When the folded object is first opened out, four scenes are revealed, each with a verse that introduces the topic – and tells the reader what to do next. The first scene shows Adam and Verse 1:

Adam comes first upon the stage,
And Eve from out his side,
Who was given him in marriage;
Turn up and see his bride.

All four panels, with the first flap opened up.When you follow the instructions and turn up the top flap, both Eve and the serpent – tempting her – appear. The verse nearer the image is labeled “2” and it names Eve, comments on the transformation, and promises further entertainment:
Here Eve in shape you may behold,
One body showeth two;
Once more do but the leaf downfold,
And it’s as strange to view.

All four panels, withthe second flap openedEve turns into a mermaid, described by Verse 3:
Eyes look not on the mermaid’s face,
And ears hear not her song:
Her features have an alluring grace,
More charming than her tongue.

We will come back to the additional verses, those printed further out the leaves.

Verse 4: A Lion rousing from his den On purpose for to range, Is soon turn’d into another shape; Lift up and see how strange. Verse 5: A Griffin here you may behold, As fabled said to be; Once more do but the leaf downfold, A stranger sight you’ll see. . Verse 6: Behold within the Eagle’s claws, An infant there doth lie! Which he has taken as a prey And is prepar’d to fly.

Second section in its successive versions.

Each segment of the book is read and opened in this way.  To make the transformations easier to see, the image above and the next two show the successive versions of the remaining panels. In panel 2, a lion turns into a griffin, which then becomes an eagle menacing an infant. Again the first and second verse tell the reader which flap to open next, and describe both the metamorphoses as “strange.”

Verse 7: Now I’ve escap’d the eagle’s claws And am from danger free, I’ll set my heart to gather gold; Turn down the leaf and see. . Verse 8: A Heart here is oppress’d with care, What salve can cure the same? Under the leaf you’ll find a cure: Lift up and see how plain. Verse 9: A purse with gold and silver store Has cur’d my heart, I’m sick no more; And am from cares and dangers free; What is there now can trouble me?

Third section in its successive versions.

In the third panel, a young man is revealed as the victim of the eagle, happily saved. Turning the lower flap down first, according to the instructions reveals that he has unfortunately, grown up obsessed with accumulating wealth. Having become rich, he believes he is invincible:
A purse with gold and silver store
Has cur’d my heart, I’m sick no more;
And am from cares and dangers free;
What is there now can trouble me?

Verse 10: Now I’ve got gold and silver store, Bribes from the rich, pawns from the poor, What earthly cares can trouble me? Turn down the leaf and then you’ll see. . Verse 11: Sickness is come and Death draws nigh, Help gold and silver, ere I die; It will not do, for it’s but dross, Turn up and see man’s end at last.. Verse 12: O Man! Now see thou art but dust; They gold and silver is but rust; Thy time is come, thy glass is spent; What is there that can Death prevent.

Last section in its successive versions.

Cue the spooky music! His wealth is of no use to him when he becomes ill in the fourth panel and a familiar moral is presented:
O Man! Now see thou art but dust;
They gold and silver is but rust;
Thy time is come, thy glass is spent;
What is there that can Death prevent.

The "front" of the fully opened book.

The “front” of the fully opened book.

The story is finally revealed – or is it? When you have finished opening all the flaps you still have not engaged with the additional verses. And, of course the verse initiating the interaction with each panel is hidden on the back of the open flap, and the primary and intermediate images for each are no longer visible.

Verse 13: Adam and Eve in innocence, God was their glory and defence : Had they continued in that state, Their happiness had been complete. Angels, behold the happy pair, Who did your Maker’s image wear, While in obedience they remain’d And their innocence maintained. Verse 14: In happy Eden see them plac’d, Who stood or fell for all our race; In a sweet bower, composed of love, This happy pair might safely rove. There was no curse upon that ground, Nor changing grief there to be found: There nothing could their joys controul [sic], Nor mar the pleasures of the soul. Verse 15: This land they freely might possess, And live in joy and happiness: Adam was lord of all the land, Made by the great all-forming hand. Eat, said the Lord, of all you see, Except one interdicted tree; And on this truth you may rely, You may not eat that lest you die. Verse 16 (not numbered): Had they obey’d their Maker’s voice, And made eternal bliss their choice, Then everlasting life had been The lot of all the sons of men. But Satan came now in disguise, To blind this happy couple’s eyes: Saying, this fruit now eat, and you Like God, shall good and evil know.

Verses along the top of the open panels.

The supplementary verses continue commentary on the narrative. Jumping back up to the top left, the history of the Fall is rehearsed. Adam and Eve had everything they needed, but Satan convinced them to disobey God.

Verse 17: Eve then the fatal fruit did take, And gave her husband who did eat : Thus Adam fell to his disgrace, From his native righteousness. Now every thought that roves abroad, Is known to a sin-hating God : His perfect law he will maintain, Ah! he’ll reward the fall of man. Verse 18: The Tree of Life, now in that land, And knowledge, do well guarded stand, Lest Adam should the same espy, And eat thereof and never die, There Cherubs with a flaming sword, Are set the Tree of Life to guard : Now who among our fallen race, Can hope to see his Maker’s face? Verse 19: Or who before his awful bar In his own righteousness appear? The sons of Adam, since the fall, To death are subject one and all. But to the serpent it is said, The Woman’s seed shall bruise thy head; Though Adam hearken’d to his bride, Who pluck’d the fruit which was deny’d. Verse 20: Now Christ is come to set us free From everlasting misery: All the angelic host above, will shout the greatness of his love. There is a brighter world in view, Than Adam in old Salem knew; Proposed by the eternal God, And purchas’d by our Savior’s blood.

Verses along the bottom of the open panels.

In the verses revealed at the bottom, Eve takes the “fatal fruit” and carries Adam down with her to “disgrace.” Verses 18 and 19 mourn the separation of mankind from God, and Verse 20 proclaims salvation through Christ.

21. Death! why so fast? pray stop thy hand, And let my glass run out its sand: As neither Time nor Death will stay, Let us improve the present day. Short is the space allow’d to man, Its length is fitly measur’d by a span; When life begins, we then begin to die; A few years labour’d, in the grave we lie: Yet on this space how short soe’er depends A long eternity, that never ends. How little of our little time is spent In pleasing God, for which that time was lent. Final note: That we may not mislead our little readers, it is desired they would understand the Mermaid and Griffin to be only creatures of fable, that never did exist. And although Death is represented in the form of a hu- man skeleton, yet this is only an Emblem; for Death is not a being, but a state. Closing the flaps and re-folding the sections lets the reader see the last verse, a meditation on the brevity of human life. On the final available panel the publisher added literal-minded remarks on imaginary animals and the the allegorical nature of the depiction of death, reflecting a tradition of iconoclastic Protestant religious thought strangely at odds at odds with the densely emblematic book itself.

Of course, the original readers of the book also had the option of creating images against the intentions of the designers. They could turn Adam into a merman with the traditional symbols of vanity, the mirror and comb; make the miser count his money on his own head; or see Death strangely dressed in fashionable trousers, making new meanings  – or perhaps new nonsense – from the sincere advice of the makers.

Another way to navigate the book is available in the digitization of our copy on the Internet archive at https://archive.org/details/metamorphosis-or-a-transformation-of-pictures-1834/

Sands, Benjamin. Metamorphosis : or, A Transformation of Pictures, with Poetical  Explanations, for the Amusement of Young Persons. Philadelphia: G. Strong, 1834.

With the continuing closure of the Library, we are blogging regularly about books from the exhibition, The Girl’s Own Book. The exhibition’s run has been extended through the 2020-2021 academic year. Information about when it will open to visitors and related programming will be available when we are able to give it. Please follow us on Facebook or subscribe here for notices of new blog posts.

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