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The Metamorphosis of Ajax
A new look at a stale subject

Sir John Harington


Long before Thomas Crapper, there was John Harington. Born in 1560 and dying in 1612, he was a courtier (and godson) to Queen Elizabeth I of England. Though he held various minor offices, he was principally a literary man, poet, translator and inventor of the flush toilet. His works included the first English translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, which he produced as a punishment, ordered by Queen Elizabeth, for having shown a translation of some naughty parts of it to her ladies-in-waiting. He was intermittently in and out of favour with the queen, in, because of his wit, learning and poetical talents; out, because of his cheekiness and scurrility. On his return from a failed expedition to quell rebels in Ireland, he faced the full force of her anger: "'Go home,' she said. I did not stay to bidden twice; if all the Irish rebels had been at my heels, I should not have had better speed, for I did now flee from one whom I both loved and feared too." He was soon back in favour again, and survived the downfall and execution of his patron, the Earl of Essex, to become a sardonic observer of the drunkenness and ribaldry of the court of Elizabeth's successor, James I & VI. His account of the intrigues and roistering was published in 1769 as Nugae Antiquae ("Ancient trifles") and is well worth reading.

A New Look at a Stale Subject, or The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) is a book impossible to classify. It starts with a long prologue justifying its subject, with many examples from Biblical and classical sources relating to excretion and the disposal of sewage, before describing his invention -- the first flush toilet. He had installed one in his own house, and persuaded some of his friends to do the same. There then follows his "Apology", a mock description of his trial for having written on so unworthy a subject, which ends, of course, with his triumphant acquittal.

The book was widely circulated in manuscript before being finally printed. Some critics have interpreted it allegorically as an attack on the faults of the times, which should be flushed away. Certainly it is full of direct and coded references to the politics and great men of the day, and this contributed to its great popularity at the time, but also to its subsequent obscurity when these were no longer topical. It is also full, however, of jokes and scatological puns (there are two in the title) as well as obscure learning, the whole presented in a droll and deadpan manner, still entertaining today to those with a taste for Rabelaisian humour.


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Sir John Harington and the Book as Gift by Jason Scott-Warren, Oxford ISBN 0 19 924445 6. Critical biography of John Harington
Scholarly Edition of the Metamorphosis  by Elizabeth Donno. In original spelling with copious notes but the Latin is untranslated. Readable online but cannot be downloaded.


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