In many articles we have mentioned lost works of antiquity, only known today by the fragments cited by later authors. This is the case of the works of Onesycritus, Megasthenes or Euhemerus of Messina, but also some works of Aristotle, Diodorus of Sicily, Archimedes, Julius Caesar, Eratosthenes, Titus Livius, Pliny the Elder or Suetonius, among many others. Some Roman emperors like Augustus, Claudius or Septimius Severus, also wrote works that have not been preserved. The case of Claudius is especially sad because he wrote a dictionary of the Etruscan language which, if it had reached us, would have allowed us to understand it much better. In fact it is considered that Claudius was the last person able to read Etruscan.
But, as we have said, some of these lost works have survived to a greater or lesser extent through quotations and fragments copied by other authors. Worse has happened to the lost works in the most recent centuries. It may seem contradictory, but of most of the lost works since the 16th century there is no trace left. The gradual disappearance of the scribes who copied texts due to the development of the printing press, and the incipient appearance of the concept of copyright from the 15th century onwards, condemned manual copying of texts to oblivion.
This, together with the deliberate or accidental destruction, either by the author or by third parties, or the disinterest of publishers and heirs to preserve something that at the time seemed to have no value, has deprived the world of some works that (we are not going to say that they were masterful, because we have not read them and it seems difficult for anyone to do so in the future) would have been at least interesting…
Let’s look at five of those modern and contemporary literary works that humanity has lost forever (unless, of course, there is a discovery in the future).
1. Ur-Hamlet, attributed to William Shakespeare
Ur-Hamlet, which in German means primordial Hamlet, is the name given to a play, of unknown title, that was performed in London in 1587 in The Burbages Shoreditch Playhouse. The Elizabethan writer Thomas Lodge, by whom we know of its existence, wrote that the main character was called Hamlet and that a ghost also appeared in it.
Experts attribute the play, of which not a single line has survived, to William Shakespeare or Thomas Kyd. If it was Shakespeare’s, it could have been a first version of his Hamlet.
Until a few years ago, another Shakespeare play written with John Fletcher was also considered lost. It is the Story of Cardenio, based on a character from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The play was reconstructed in 2007 from fragments found in the book Double Falsehood by Lewis Theobald, written in 1727.
2. Memories, by Lord Byron
When they read my memoirs they will understand the evils, both moral and physical, of true dissipation. I can assure you that my life is very entertaining and very instructive, said Lord Byron to Thomas Medwin, poet and uncle of Percy B. Shelley.
Unfortunately, we will never be able to check whether he was right, although I would bet that he was, because after his death his friends Thomas Moore, John Murray, John Cam Hobhouse and others, concerned about his reputation, burned the original manuscript and the only known copy in 1824. The English claim that this was the greatest literary crime in history.
3. La Chasse spirituelle, by Rimbaud
This is a strange case because no one, except Verlaine, ever saw Rimbaud’s poem La Chasse spirituelle (The Spiritual Hunt). Verlaine said it was a masterpiece, and that he had forgotten the manuscript at his home in Paris in July 1873, where his wife discovered it along with some letters from Rimbaud.
It is known that she used the letters to win her suit for separation in 1874, but the poem was never heard from again. She was probably able to destroy it later along with the letters.
The strangest thing of all is that Verlaine did not remember a single verse of the poem, not even its title. One version was published by Pascal Pia in 1949, which was immediately considered a forgery by André Breton and other experts.
4. Isle of the Cross, by Herman Melville
After the commercial failures of Moby Dick and Pierre, Melville would devote himself mainly to short stories and poetry. Or at least that’s what most of his biographers say.
But one of them, Hershel Parker, claims that Melville wrote Isle of the Cross in 1853, a novel starring a Nantucket woman named Agatha who had taken care of a shipwrecked sailor.
Melville would have heard the story on a visit to Nantucket and worked on the manuscript during the second half of 1852. When he took it to his New York publishers, Harper & Brothers, in June 1853, they rejected it, fearing legal action by Agatha Hatch’s family.
In 1922 the writer Meade Minnigerode found several letters from the Melville family in the New York Public Library, including references dated 1853 to an important unpublished work by the author. Parker identified this work as The Island of the Cross. What happened to the manuscript is not known.
5. Nicholas and the Higs, by Philip K. Dick
Before becoming the famous science fiction writer we know today, Philip K. Dick tried his hand at more realistic works such as A Time for George Stravos and The Pilgrim on the Hill, written between 1955 and 1956.
Nicholas and the Higs, also from the same period, is the first of his novels in which he tried to mix literary fiction with science fiction. All of them were rejected by publishers, and the original manuscripts have never been heard from again.
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 26, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en 5 obras literarias, perdidas en los últimos 5 siglos, que pudieron haber sido excepcionales
Lost Plays Database / Books and writers / The Burning of Byron’s Memoirs: New and Unpublished Essays and Papers (Peter Cochran) / A propos de «La chasse spirituelle» attribuée à Arthur Rimbaud / Herman Melville’s The Isle of the Cross: A Survey and a Chronology