Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Nonesuch Edition of "The Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester" (and England's first pornographer...)

April is National Poetry Month (which I guess means that the other eleven months are all National Prose Months?) and so I’ve chosen this week’s book to celebrate that fact.

The full title is Collected Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. The collection was edited by John Hayward and published by The Nonesuch Press of 16 Great James Street, London, in 1926, in a print-run of 1,050 copies. It was printed by William Brendon and Son, Ltd., of Plymouth, England. Each copy is hand-numbered, with numbers 1 through 75 issued on “English hand-made paper” and numbers 76 through 1,050 on “antique paper”; my copy is number 376 and is, indeed, printed on thick “antique” paper with rough-cut edges (some of the gatherings and leaves in my copy are still uncut along the top, mostly toward the end of the book in the textual notes and explanatory doesn’t read Rochester, I suppose, for the textual notes...). The book is fairly scarce and is assessed at approximately $150 to $250.

The 232 leaves each measure 19.5cm x 25.5cm and are bound into gatherings of eight leaves apiece (oddly, the other copies I've found listed for sale online describe the book's format as quarto; it seems to me more accurately described as octavo royal); the initial gatherings (leaves 1-27) were evidently printed separately because their signatures ([#], [a1]-[a8], b[1]-c*[5]-[d2]) differ from the rest of the book’s (B-[2D5]). Each page has seven vertical chain-lines spaced at approximately 3cm, with no evident watermark. The binding is dark gray hardboard in three-quarter gray paper with a pasted paper label on the spine (all of which was the customary appearance--or “branding”, to use modern PR jargon--of Nonesuch books). My copy has a bookplate pasted inside the front cover indicating previous ownership by “James McDonald”; above the name is a standing raven, beneath which runs a ribbon containing the family’s motto: “Nec tempore nec fato” (“Neither by time nor fate”). The only previous readership evidence I have been able to identify is a tiny penciled check-mark in the inner margin of the penultimate line of p. xi of the introduction (on the subject of “Mrs. Barry’s” duodecimo editions of Rochester’s letters, published in 1714 and 1732).

At the front of the book there is a blank flyleaf, a half-title, the full-title page (with the numbering information on the verso), a dedication (to F. L. Lucas), and the table of contents. Following these preliminaries are some introductory pages on the book and the Earl of Rochester’s work (signed by Hayward “San Vigilio. Garda, 1925”). First is a “Prefatory Note” from the editor, in which Hayward explains the significance and scope of his work: “The Earl of Rochester’s work has never been edited.... This edition is nothing more than the largest collection of his poems and letters that has yet appeared in print.” Hayward also dismisses those moralists whose offense at Rochester’s highly obscene works kept them from being reprinted for so long. Apparently the 1920s, with its flappers and rum-runners, was better able to appreciate the subtlety of Rochester’s style of humor than the puritanical Victorians had been. Nonetheless, Hayward is not so crass as to allow all of Rochester’s vulgarity to be reproduced for the unsuspecting reader; particularly inexcusable language has been delicately censored out with the judicious use of hyphens (see, for example, the short verse "To All Curious Criticks and Admirers of Metre", shown here).

For those of you unfamiliar with “England’s first pornographer” (as Richard Norton puts it), or if you have not yet seen Johnny Depp’s somewhat fanciful take on the Earl’s life in The Libertine, John Wilmot (1647-1680; shown here crowning his pet monkey as poet laureate) can best be described as a satirist and a bawdy poet. He was also known for his voracious sexual appetite and indignant disregard for anyone who suggested he remain quiet about it (legends about Wilmot were so pervasive that characters based on him appeared on the English stage for over a century following his death). Though a member of the nobility and part of King Charles II’s personal circle, Wilmot was equally at home amongst the whores, pimps, thieves, and actors of London; his poetry, long repudiated as vulgar and gross by readers unable to see past the surface-layer of his debauchery and unorthodox lifestyle, actually brims with bitingly honest subtext that captures in plain, unflattering terms both the latent socio-political energies of the early Restoration and hypocritical public mores of its ruling elite. For more critical and in-depth information on the Earl and his work, I refer you to the honors thesis of Ealasaid Haas, which she completed at Occidental College (California) in 2001.

Following the single page prefatory note (paginated ix) there is a section on “The Text” of the works (xi-xviii), a general “Introduction” on the poet (xix-l), and finally a single-page “Chronological Table” of the key dates in the Earl’s life (including such choice episodes as “Attempt to elope with Miss Malet...May 28th, 1665”, “Banished for Satire on the King...1673” [his second of three such banishments], “Tavern brawl at Epsom...June, 1676”, and “Sets up as a Mountebank...1676”).

Though Hayward claims that his edition is “in no sense...definitive”, its comprehensiveness and the inclusion of copious amounts of well-researched scholarly material makes this both a beautiful book (as most Nonesuch Press books are) but also a valuable one for any person interested in reading and learning about the Earl of Rochester. It is as thorough, if not more, than many cheap modern editions now available on the market. It contains 152 pages of the Earl’s poetry, a transcription of the broadside used to advertise his services when he disguised himself as “Alexander Bendo” (the “mountebank” mentioned above), The Tragedy of Valentinian, a scene from Sir Howard’s Play, and 51 pages of his personal letters. The book concludes with three appendices: poems attributed to but not certainly by the Earl, a court masque, and a series of letters written by his mother describing the illness that eventually ended his life and his famed deathbed repentance and conversion. These appendices are followed by a section of textual notes (329-351) and explanatory notes (355-404). The last four pages provide an index to the poems listed alphabetically by their first lines.

A few remarks on Nonesuch Press would be in order. Nonesuch was one of a number of small, independent publishing shops that opened up in London in the decade following World War I. Founded by Sir Francis Meynell, his wife Vera Mendel, and author David Garnett in 1923 it released approximately  8-18 titles per year up until 1935. During the years of World War II its output dropped dramatically to approximately 1-5 titles per year. In the 1940s and 1950s the Press went through a period of transitional owners (including a time under the control of George Macy, founder of the Limited Editions Club) until it was eventually closed in 1968. Recently modern presses such as Duckworth and, in 2005, Barnes and Noble have reissued Nonesuch editions. Unsurprisingly, these editions are fairly cheap and unremarkable; original Nonesuch volumes, on the other hand, are prized collectibles and can often fetch up to $2,000.

The Press specialized in English literature (though in its last years it expanded its market to include high-end children’s literature) and its signature style was single-color boarded hardcovers with text printed on heavy (often hand-made) paper, usually sold uncut. Unlike many of its competitors, Nonesuch employed a small Albion hand-press (like the one shown here) for the set up and design its books; these designs were then given to a machine-press printer (such as, in the case of my book, William Brendon of Plymouth) for production. This system allowed Nonesuch to mass-produce (and competitively price) titles that have the look and feel of high-end, handmade volumes. According to Meynell, in a 1936 retrospective bibliography on the first 100 volumes issued by the Press, this system demonstrated that “mechanical means could be made to serve fine ends.” In this sentiment, Meynell belongs to that generation of craft businessmen who between the wars seized on revolutions in industry and technology to economize products to a large market but who refused to relinquish those aspects of the pre-industry crafts age that consumers were thought to value as markers of personalization and quality.

It would be irresponsible of me to feature a collection of the Earl of Rochester’s works and not offer a sample from his work. Thus, to conclude, here is his “To the Postboy”, in which Rochester conflates the simple business of asking for directions (to Hell, no less) with a kind of perverse self-praise (the language is mostly accessible for modern readers, though the word “swive” is no longer in regular use). If you like what you read here (or if you are merely disturbingly fascinated by it), more of his works can be found at the Luminarium. Also, below this is an image taken of his rather raunchy "A Song. To Cloris.", in which Rochester riffs with ribaldry on a traditional pastoral poetic theme.

Rochester: Son of a whore, God damn you! Can you tell

A peerless peer the readiest way to Hell?

I've outswilled Bacchus, sworn of my own make

Oaths would fright Furies, and make Pluto quake;

I've swived more whores more ways than Sodom's walls

E'er knew, or the College of Rome's Cardinals.

Witness heroic scars -- Look here, ne'er go! -- 

Cerecloths and ulcers from the top to toe!

Frightened at my own mischiefs, I have fled

And bravely left my life's defender dead;

Broke houses to break chastity, and dyed

That floor with murder which my lust denied.

Pox on't, why do I speak of these poor things?

I have blasphemed my God, and libeled kings!

The readiest way to hell -- Come, quick!

Boy:                          N'er stir:

The readiest way, my Lord, 's by Rochester.

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