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Of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, Sophocles was the most prolific: with Oedipus one of 123 plays to his name, he beat both Aeschylus and Euripides—neither of whom produced more than 100. And yet, only seven of his works have survived. Among those lost were The Trackers, a tragicomedy; Polyxena, which Longinus favorably compared to Oedipus in his essay “On the Sublime”; and Sophocles’ own essay On the Chorus, revolutionary in its suggestion that the number of choir members in tragedy be upped from 12 to 15.
Imprisoned for his radical ideas, Socrates used jail time to write verses based on his memory of Aesop’s Fables. (Aesop was a slave and storyteller who lived over 100 years before Socrates was born.) While these tales helped occupy his mind, they couldn’t change his fate: the philosopher was executed, and whatever writing he did in his cell was likely destroyed.
Aristotle’s works have done enough for Western thought, so it’s hard to imagine what three times as many might have accomplished. They were all well kept in Athens’ Lyceum until the mid-third century BC, when Aristotelian scholar Neleus took them to Mysia. Upon Neleus’ death, some of them were sold to the library in Alexandria; the rest were returned to Athens and later shipped off to Rome during the siege of 87 BC. Athens, Mysia, Alexandria, Rome—with the first postal service still decades away, it is hardly surprising that two-thirds of the books got lost somewhere along the way. Among them, it is said, was the second part of Aristotle’s Poetics.
China circa 3 B.C. was rife with book burnings. Emperor Shih-huang-ti made it a crime to harbor or even discuss books, and burnt two hundred-and-sixty Confucian scholars alive to prevent them from reconstructing the philosopher’s classics from memory. While some copies of his works did survive, the Book of Music was lost forever.
Best known for his Ars Amatoria—that infamous manual of seduction that earned him exile—Ovid lost some of his best work. Among it was his tragedy Medea, praised by Roman rhetorician Quintillian as the ultimate proof of his genius. In letters from exile, Ovid also mentioned a eulogy of Caesar in Getic that was so good it had locals hailing him as their latest bard. Like the language in which it was written, it too disappeared.
Father of English Literature Geoffrey Chaucer may have lost a child or two. In his famous “Retraction” at the end of The Canterbury Tales, he begs God and readers alike to forgive his “editings of worldly vanities”—among them, a mysterious “Book of the Lion.” In the prologue to “The Legend of Good Women,” he also claims he has translated writings by Pope Innocent and Origen, but none of these works has been found.
“But stay, my thoughts,” begins Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Ocean to Cynthia.” Sadly, no amount of pleading could make most of them stay: only four of the original poem’s 22 parts remain. The epic piece is believed to have been dedicated to Queen Elizabeth at a time in which Raleigh fell out of her favor for marrying one of her ladies-in-waiting behind her back—though it is unknown if the poem was ever presented to her.
Woe, woe are we… to have lost a Shakespeare comedy. Since Francis Meres’s 1598 list of Shakespearian plays featured Love’s Labour’s Won and omitted The Taming of the Shrew, the two were thought for centuries to be alternative titles for the same work. But in 1953, London book dealer Solomon Pottesman stumbled upon a 1603 sold-book list that showed them separately. Scholars now believe that Love’s Labour’s Won was in fact a sequel to the Bard’s earlier comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, at the end of which the nuptials of the King of Navarre and his three noble companions are postponed for a year and a day—an unusual plot twist for Elizabethan comedy that screams follow-up.
Towards the end of his career, Shakespeare collaborated with up-and-coming playwright John Fletcher on Henry VII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and—according to 1653 publishing record book The Stationer’s Register—Cardenio. This third play was supposedly based on the adventures of the eponymous character in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but it is impossible to know for sure: although Elizabethan theater company The King’s Men staged it in mid-1613, no one ever published it. In 1727, editor Lewis Theobald claimed to own the original but did not make it public, and the Museum of Covent Garden Playhouse to which he later donated it burnt down in 1808.
Before penning Paradise Lost as an epic poem, John Milton may have conceived it as a play. His famous Trinity manuscript features four drafts for a tragedy on the fall of man: the first two list only characters, the third includes a prologue and a brief outline of speakers and speeches in five acts, and the fourth—titled Adam Unparadised—provides a fairly complete sketch of the action. Milton’s daughter, Susannah Clarke, told Voltaire in 1727 that her father had written nearly two acts of this work and later lost them, and his nephew, Edward Phillips, claimed that “parcels” of it were shown to him. It is quite possible that some of these bits were picked up without much change from the play and transplanted into the poem.
While some walked in beauty, Lord Byron walked in scandal. Many of the Romantic leader’s works were deemed too sensual, and his numerous love affairs made him a social pariah. Upon his death, however, public opinion began to change and his work was viewed in a new light. Believing that the publication of his memoirs could permanently damage Byron’s reputation, his friends Thomas Moore and John Murray burned them.
“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend,” wrote William Blake. He would have had a tough time forgiving Frederick Tatham, then. Tatham was Blake’s protégé and, when the poet died, he took care of his widow, Catherine. But upon the latter’s death in 1831, Tatham claimed that she had left him all her husband’s works. This caused conflict with some of Blake’s other disciples, who insisted that his sister should inherit them. If only she had: soon after taking possession of them, Tatham joined an ultra-conservative religious sect and destroyed a significant number of Blake’s poems for being “heretical.” Meanwhile another religious sect, the Gnostic Catholic Church, proclaimed Blake a saint.
In 1835, after completing the first volume of The French Revolution: A History, Scottish author Thomas Carlyle sent the book to his friend John Stuart Mill for edits. One night soon after, Mill came frantically knocking to Carlyle’s door: his maid had seen the manuscript and, not being able to read, had thrown it into the fire. Carlyle, who was in the habit of destroying his notes, was left without a starting point. Disheartened but not ready to give up, he wrote in his journal the next day, “I can still write a book on the French Revolution, and will do it... I will not quit the game.” He finished the project two years later, and it is considered to be the authoritative account of the early course of the Revolution. Charles Dickens later used the book as a reference when writing A Tale of Two Cities.
“I shall starve to death if I must, but I shall not produce [an] incomplete work,” Nikolai Gogol once wrote. Ironically, he did both. Part I of his intended Dead Souls trilogy was published in 1842 to rave reviews, and success appears to have gone straight to the author’s head: he became a self-aggrandizing religious fanatic who in letters to friends described his project as a “sacred journey” that would resolve “the enigma of my life” and launch religious transformation in Russia, which had been “awaiting me as though I were some sort of Messiah.” After spending five years trying to make Part II worthy of these lofty goals, he fed what he considered to be a lacking work-in-progress to the flames. Gogol immediately began work on a second draft of Part II, but his religious zeal only grew. He eventually met Father Matthew Konstantinovsky, who encouraged him to become a monk and renounce literature altogether. Gogol complied by once again burning his latest manuscript, after which he stopped eating; nine days of self-imposed starvation later, he died. Only Part I of his “sacred journey” survives.
In April 1853, two years after the publication of Moby-Dick, Hermann Melville’s mother wrote about a manuscript “now nearly ready for the press.” That June, the Boston Daily Evening Transcript announced he’d “gone to New York to superintend the issue of a new work.” And yet, in a letter to publisher Harper in November, Melville claimed he’d been “prevented from printing [it] at that time”—a bit of a euphemism, considering the work got rejected point-blank. The author, disheartened, appears to have destroyed it.
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ innovative approach to rhyme and imagery was almost silenced forever by his religious beliefs. Hopkins began writing poetry as young as age ten, and his talents took off while he was studying at Oxford. But as homoerotic impulses began to find their way into his words, he began to write less. In 1866, he decided to give up poetry for Lent, and two years later he burned his poems in a massive bonfire. He then became a Jesuit priest, and his commitment to humility kept him from publishing his works. Robert Bridges, close friend and Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, is responsible for compiling whatever remained of them, and bringing Hopkins to posthumous fame.
After more than a decade working as an architect, 30-year-old Thomas Hardy swapped his drafting table for a writing desk. He got off to a rough start: his 1867 debut novel The Poor Man and the Lady was rejected by at least four publishers. Friend and mentor George Meredith claimed the work lacked an “intricate plot” and was too openly hostile to the upper classes. Hardy destroyed it, but managed to rework some of its sections into other writings.
Arthur Rimbaud was careless with his manuscripts. The editors of the Pléiade edition of his collected writings claimed he penned them “with a kind of disdain, and without having bothered to publish almost any of [them].” To be fair, others were guilty of the same neglect: school friend Paul Laberrière lost a notebook with over 50 of Rimbaud’s poems while Ugo Ferrandi—a colleague in Africa—wrote that the poet had provided him with “observations about Tadjourah which I once intended to publish […] [but] did not.” And then, of course, there is La Chasse Spirituelle (The Spiritual Hunt): ex-lover Paul Verlaine called it Rimbaud’s best work, and claimed the original was mixed in with letters exchanged during early 1872. Verlaine’s wife Mathilde, however, later got hold of this correspondence and found no trace of the alleged poem.
When the author of Madame Bovary found his country invaded by the Prussian Army, he devised a way of keeping his writing safe from destruction—and, unfortunately, from future admirers as well. Gustave Flaubert buried a box of mysterious papers in his garden in Normandy and never went back to dig it up. The house was demolished after his death, turning what could’ve been letters or perhaps even the first drafts of La Spirale—a novel he dreamed of but reportedly never wrote—into compost.
Acclaimed for his children’s stories, L. Frank Baum also wrote four unpublished and long-vanished adult novels: Our Marred Life and Johnson (1912), The Mystery of Bonita (1914) and Molly Oodle (1915). Baum’s son accused the author’s wife of burning these, but it is speculated that he lied after being cut from her will. However, Other Baum works did succumb to fire. In 1880, when he was 24, his father built him a theatre in Richburg, New York; Baum set about writing scripts and gathering an acting company. While he toured the country with his Maid of Arran, the theatre caught fire and many of his scripts burned with it.
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