Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sleuthing Out a Notable Early Owner for a Wordsworth Limited Edition

A weekend trip back home to Salem regularly includes a visit to the Antiques Gallery at Pickering Wharf. One of the dealers there has a large selection of collectible and antiquarian books, most are decently priced and occasionally there’s some interesting turn-over in the stock as well. This week’s book was a bargain find from this store.

The book is a craft-printed, limited edition publication of seventy-five Sonnets by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850). It was published in 1910 by Houghton Mifflin and printed by its Riverside Press division in Cambridge, MA in a limited run of 440 copies (Houghton Mifflin came into being in 1880 when the famed publishing firm of Ticknor and Fields merged with The Riverside Press). My copy is number 269. According to the Library of Congress, it was designed by artisan Bruce Rogers (the LC holds copy number 428, which had once belonged to Rogers). It was originally published in a protective slipcase but my copy no longer has the box. The Publisher’s Weekly Vol. 78 (Dec. 10, 1910; p. 2335) indicates that the book originally retailed for $5, or about $120 in modern USD -- quite a hefty sum for one book (PW also, however, erroneously lists the print-run as only 400 copies). Its value today is between $50 and $100, depending on condition.

It is bound in boards covered over with a thin vellum. The spine is a dark striped cloth with a decorative paper label for the title pasted on. The pages are very roughly cut (it was sold with the pages uncut), measuring approximately 16cm x 21cm, and are made of a rich, heavy woven stock bearing the watermark: PM / FABRIANO / ITALY. (Fabriano is a town in Ancona province in central Italy, on the eastern slope of the Apennine ridge; since the 1200s it has thrived as the pioneering paper-making center of Europe and was actually, in 1276, the birthplace of paper watermarking.) I haven’t been able to identify “PM”, but I’ve found descriptions of the mark in a book from 1930 and a print from 1932.

There are no signatures and there is no pagination, though each sonnet appears on its own separately numbered leaf (recto). The collational formula may be expressed as 8o: [A8]-[J8] [K4] [π]. The final blank flyleaf is a different paper, bearing 3.5cm chain-lines and part of a different watermark (not discernible); it is conjugate with the rear pastedown. The contents run as follows: two blanks; title page; two leaves (recto and verso) of “Table of First Lines”; inner title for section “Nature”; poems 1-24; inner title for section “Man”; poems 25-48; inner title for section “The Poet”; poems 49-75. Some of the poems within each section form short sequences of their own and these are often given a heading title on the first poem of the sequence along with Roman numerals for each poem in the sequence.

The copy is in average condition. As noted above, the slipcase is missing; the spine has suffered some chipping cracking. The initial flyleaf is discolored slightly from a reader’s insertion (more below). Whomever cut the pages did an odd job of it: at least one page has its upper outside corner clipped and three pages have been cropped quite severely (never resulting in the loss of text, though). I suspect that whomever it was that cut the pages open (probably the first owner) accidentally tore those pages when he or she was cutting them open and so, to clean up the tear, they trimmed the page off to the depth of the whole rip. A smudged (inky?) fingerprint appears on the title page.

Some early owner has written on the leaf bearing poem 51, using a watery brown ink (fountain pen, most likely) and very blocky handwriting. In the upper outside corner is written “Ref. / 812 / W92 / So.” and in the lower outside corner, “21101”. This seems like a library call number, but it does not belong to any catalog system I’m aware of (and why Wordsworth would be grouped with “Reference” rather than into poetry is unclear to me). There’s no other evidence of library provenance, but I suspect that my copy is indeed ex libris (which would explain the absence of the slipcase as well).

An early reader (or perhaps two) has also extended the collection of poetry to include five more verses. Inserted between the end of the Table of First Lines and the inner title “Nature” there is a leaf torn out of Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1919 edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900. The leaf (pages 599/600) is from the Wordsworth section and offers up four more poems by the writer: “Evening on Calais Beach”, “On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic, 1802”, “England, 1802: i”, and “England, 1802: ii” (poems 521-524 in Quiller-Couch’s collection). This is printed on the usual cheap anthology paper and looks as if it has been folded in half at one point.

The fifth added poem is pasted inside the front cover of the book. It is the late nineteenth century poem “The Chambered Nautilus”, by famed Massachusetts jurist, poet, essayist, physician, and mustache Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935), who served on the United States Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932. The poem meditates on the deeper meaning of a simple, everyday object, taking the nautilus as a symbol for the intellectual development of man and the fact that, as we mature, we outgrow our protective shells. The paper on which the poem is printed seems to be a cheap newsprint (a decorative border is just visible around the poem itself, but nothing seems to show through from the other side); the acid leeching from this to the recto of the facing flyleaf is the cause of the discoloration on that page.

Including Holmes’s poem in a collection of Wordsworth’s flights of fancy might seem odd. I can’t say for certain why an early reader would think to associate these two radically different poets, but I do have a (completely speculative) theory. Some of the books being sold by the dealer at the Antiques Gallery at Pickering Wharf bear a telling bookplate inside their front covers: the chambered nautilus icon used by Oliver Wendell Holmes to mark his own books (the Latin phrase, “per ampliora ad altiora” means “through breadth to depth”).

Perhaps this unique collection of Wordsworth’s poems came, also, from Holmes’s library (during his tenure, it should be noted, on the Supreme Court) -- perhaps the awkward cutting job of the pages was his, perhaps also his is the smudgy fingerprint on the title page. And perhaps the decision to paste his own “Nautilus” poem inside the cover, in the place customarily occupied by a bookplate, was his as well.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on finding a wonderful association copy.The bookplate was etched and engraved by J.W. Spenceley