Friday, November 25, 2011

A 1711 Collection of a Politician's Poems, with a Salem Pedigree

After a nine-month hiatus to deal with the crescendo of work associated with the final stages of my dissertation and the first stages of going on the job market, I’ve decided to return again to Tarquin Tar’s Bookcase.

This week I’m looking at a good copy of an antiquarian book that was part of a lot that I acquired from New England Book Auctions in Northampton, MA, back in June. The book is a late edition of Edmund Waller’s Poems, Etc. Written upon several Occasions and to several Persons…To which is Prefix’d The Author’s Life. The book was published in 1711 by the formidable Jacob Tonson of London and sold at his shop, “Shakespear’s Head,” opposite Catherine Street in the Strand.

The first two editions of Waller’s collected works were published in 1664 by Henry Herringman, with subsequent editions from Herringman in 1668, 1682, 1686, 1690, 1693. In 1694 Herringman and Tonson co-published the eighth edition, but it was described as the sixth edition – presumably because beginning with the edition of 1668 the text had been substantively expanded with new material by the author. Herringman died before the “seventh” edition (ninth true edition) appeared in 1705 and so it was published by Tonson and the “assignes” of Herringman. My copy is of Tonson’s “eighth” edition (tenth) in 1711. He published further editions in 1712 and 1722. The book was, in short, quite popular and remained in demand through the Restoration. This was probably more a factor of the author’s political celebrity than his poetic skill.

Waller was an outspoken royalist in Parliament in the waning years of the reign of Charles I and was banished from England when Cromwell came to power; however, he was eventually allowed to return to political life and temporarily reconciled with the Puritans, even writing a poem of praise for Cromwell. When Charles II was restored to the throne, he again returned to the royalist side and was reconciled also with the king’s party (he wrote a poem of praise for Charles, too; when the king demanded to know why Waller’s poem to Cromwell was better than his poem for the monarch, Waller – ever the artful politician – observed, “Sir, we poets never succeeded so well in writing truth as in fiction.”) Beside his considerable success as a politician, Waller wrote a range of poetic styles and is generally recognized as one of the poets responsible for the return of the heroic couplet to fashion in English verse.

The book begins with a frontispiece showing Waller at age 23. After the title-page there are two prefaces from the printer (both are evidently from earlier editions) and then the biography of the poet (i-lxxxii). This is followed by an engraving of Waller at age 76 and a rather macabre engraving of his tomb, complete with black cloth and skulls. There is then the table of contents and the contents of the book (poems, translations, lyrics, prologues and epilogues, a play, political speeches, etc., paginated 1-423 with several errors in numbering). It includes laudatory poems on various English aristocrats and writers, such as Ben Jonson (whose poem is marked by inky thumbprints, perhaps hinting that someone was holding the book open to that page while copying from it). Beside the portraits of the author and his tomb, it also includes a portrait of the Countess of Carlisle (facing p. 23), General Montague, the earl of Sandwich (facing p. 192), the lady Morton (facing p. 169), and one of the woman whom Waller fell desperately in love with, the Countess of Sunderland (facing p. 98). None of the plates are integral to their gatherings.

The pages measure 12cm x 19cm and are of a fairly cheap stock typical of the turn of the century. There seems to be no watermark on the paper, but there are 3cm vertical chainlines. It may be described collationally as 8o: [A4] a8-f4 B8-2E4: $4. I’m quite pleased that the book is in its original binding of paneled calf with decorative blind tooling, with only moderate wear on the boards and some pulling and chipping on the spine. Inside the front cover are pasted two descriptions of the book; neither bears a date. One of these is clearly cut out of an undated dealer’s catalogue and offers the book for $25.00 (a later dealer has penciled $200 on the facing blank). The second sticker turns out to be from the Catalogue of the Library of the Honorable William C. Prescott of Salem (published by George A. Leavitt & Company, 1881).

Prescott’s library was auctioned by the George Leavitt Company at Clinton Hall in New York in December 1881 and the catalogue was prepared to advertise the items available. Prescott had served as a Justice of the Peace, Salem’s “counselor” to the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of the Commonwealth, Salem’s representative in the state legislature, where he sat on the education committee (fitting, then, that he owned a copy of Waller’s poetry), and had been appointed special justice of the Police Court of Salem. He needed to liquidate his possessions, and raise some cash, in advance of moving to Europe.

It was a tremendous auction with thousands of works of fine art, exquisite rare and antiquarian books from the 14th through 19th centuries, and other exceptional items. Included in his collection were numerous collectible works on the occult and witchcraft, dating back to the Renaissance, as well as (for example) a first edition of John Smith’s General History of Virginia and of Audubon’s Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. As the auctioneer puts it in his catalogue, “Surely after such an array of bibliomaniacal nuggets and gems, words are utterly useless to enhance the value of the lots, one and all, in the Prescott Library.” It was a pleasant surprise to discover, in the course of preparing this week’s blog entry, that this copy shares my own roots in Salem, MA. It was particularly apropos given that this entry was largely researched and written while visiting my family back in Salem for the post-Thanksgiving weekend.

That my copy was, indeed, Prescott’s own copy (lot 1279 in the auction, up for sale on Tuesday, December 20 – the last night of the six-day auction) is confirmed by a reference in the description to an “Autograph signature of ‘Lucy Greene’ on the title.” This inscription does indeed appear on the title page of my copy; aside from this signature, there is no marginalia in the book. It’s not extremely rare to find a book from this period with evidence of a woman’s ownership, though it is relatively uncommon and certainly a rarity in my collection. The handwriting seems to be of the late eighteenth century, though it is impossible to say for certain. The name is, of course, so common as to be virtually – alas – anonymous.

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