Special Collections & Archives Blog

Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert Burns (1787)

Saturday, January 25, 2014 9:43 am

Title page of the Edinburgh edition of Burns's poems

Title page of the Edinburgh edition of Burns’s poems

In December of 1786 a young country poet from the west of Scotland traveled to Edinburgh. Robert Burns hoped to drum up support for a second edition of the collection of poems that he had recently published by subscription in Kilmarnock. On 6 December Burns wrote to a friend

I have now been a week in Edin[burgh] and have been introduced to a great many of the Noblesse.—I have met very warm friends in the Literati… [Letters of Robert Burns, 2nd edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) 61A]

Shortly thereafter he joked to another friend that

I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas a Kempis or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inserted among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin’s and Aberdeen Almanacks… [Letters 62]

Burns could hardly have imagined that his birthday—January 25—would indeed be celebrated far beyond Aberdeen. Robert Burns Night is commemorated all over the world with food, speeches, and song in honor of the man now widely known as the national poet of Scotland.

Frontispiece portrait of Robert Burns from the Edinburgh edition

Frontispiece portrait of Robert Burns from the Edinburgh edition

In 1786, however, young Robert Burns was an obscure country poet. The son of a tenant farmer from the southwest of Scotland, Burns always had a talent for poetry and song. He also had a fondness for women, which may have led indirectly to the first publication of his poems. A few months before his trip to Edinburgh, Burns was making plans to emigrate to the West Indies, in part to escape the demands the family of a woman who had recently borne his out-of-wedlock twins. Before quitting Scotland Burns decided to publish a collection of poems based on the traditional dialect and songs of his native land. The very modest volume, titled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was printed by John Wilson in Kilmarnock in July 1786, its production paid for by Burns’s friends and supporters.

In October 1786 Burns approached Wilson about the possibility of a second edition, which would include some new poems. But, as Burns recounted in another letter, the printer insisted on an advance of £27 for the paper

[B]ut this, you know, is out of my power; so farewell hopes for a second edition ‘till I grow richer! An epocha, which, I think, will arrive at the payment of the British national debt. [Letters, 53]

Before leaving the country, Burns decided to make an attempt at finding patronage in the much larger city of Edinburgh, where, he had heard, copies of the Kilmarnock edition had been well received. He was indeed eagerly received by the Edinburgh aristocracy, and he quickly secured the patronage of the Caledonian Hunt –an exclusive social club for Scotland’s wealthiest men—for the second edition of his Poems.

Dedication page addressed to members of the Caledonian Hunt Club

Dedication page addressed to members of the Caledonian Hunt Club

Much of Burns’s stay in Edinburgh was taken up with preparations for this second edition, which included some new poems not found in the Kilmarnock edition. Writing to one of his partrons in March 1787, Burns records that

I have today corrected the last proof sheet of my poems and have now only the Glossary and subscribers names to print. . . . Printing this last is much against my will, but some of my friends whom I do not chuse to thwart will have it so. – I have both a second and a third Edition going on as the second was begun with too small a number of copies.—The whole I have printed is three thousand. [Letters, 90]

The average edition size at the time for a work of poetry was under 1000 copies, so an edition of 3000 copies was clear evidence of Burns’s ascendant fame. And the 46-page list, printed at the beginning of the volume, of names and tiles of subscribers provided incontrovertible evidence that the literary elite of Scotland had given their approval.

First page of the subscriber list for the Edinburgh edition of Burns's poems

First page of the subscriber list for the Edinburgh edition of Burns’s Poems

Robert Burns was a gifted poet, but he also had the advantage of appearing at the right time. The antiquarian movement of the 18th century had brought about great interest in the literature and material culture of the distant past. And in Scotland, antiquarianism had a decidedly nationalistic bent. English language and culture had been encroaching in Scotland since the union of the two kingdoms in 1603, and Burns’s poetry provided a direct link to traditional Scottish folkways and dialects. Burns himself embraced his identity as a national poet, writing in 1787:

The appellation of, a Scotch Bard, is by far my highest pride; to continue to deserve it is my most exalted ambition.—Scottish scenes, and Scottish story are the themes I could wish to sing… [Letters, 90]

burns twa dogs

Among the new poems included Edinburgh edition was “The Brigs of Ayr”—a dialogue between old and new bridges over the river Ayr– dedicated to his friend and longtime patron John Ballantine. The desire to see this poem in print was a motivating factor in Burns’s publishing a second edition. In 1786, despairing of being able to raise money for a second Kilmarnock edition, Burns wrote

There is scarcely any thing hurts me so much in being disappointed of my second edition, as not having it in my power to shew my gratitude to Mr. Ballantine, by publishing my poem of The Brigs of Ayr . [Letters, 53]

burns brigs

Burns’s ode to haggis was likely responsible for this rather off-putting concoction (offal, onions, and oatmeal boiled in a sheep’s stomach) being enshrined as the national dish of Scotland.

Burns's ode to haggis, a traditional Scottish dish made of offal, onions, and oatmeal boiled in a sheep's stomach

Burns’s ode to haggis

The glossary included in the Edinburgh edition of Burns’s Poems preserves distinctively Scottish words and pronunciations. But the fact that even his fellow Scots needed a guide to the language attests that the dialect was rapidly disappearing from everyday use.

Burns's glossary recorded the pronunciations and vocabulary of the traditional Scottish dialect

Burns’s Poems included a glossary of distinctively Scottish words

The Edinburgh edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect made Burns’s reputation. It also gave him financial security, at least temporarily. On the eve of its publication Burns wrote that

I guess I shall clear between two and three hundred pounds by my Authorship; with that sum I intend, so far as I may be said to have any intention, to return to my old acquaintance, the plough, and, if I can meet with a lease by which I can live, to commence Farmer. [Letters, 90]

Burns did indeed go back to farming, at least for a while. He married the mother of his twin children and fathered several more children. Eventually he took on a job as an excise officer in Dumfries. But he continued to write poetry and continued to take an active interest in the study and preservation of Scottish culture. One of his best known poems, “Tam o’Shanter,” was published in a volume dedicated to the preservation of Scottish buildings and monuments.

First publication of Burns's poem "Tam o' Shanter" in The Antiquties of Scotland (1791)

First publication of Burns’s poem “Tam o’ Shanter” in The Antiquties of Scotland (1791)

Burns died suddenly in 1796 at the age of only 37. But enthusiasm for his poetry never flagged. Memoirs, tributes, and collections of his works were published, and the 1859 centennial of his birth was the occasion for many celebrations.

Souvenir publication from the Burns Club of New York City's centennial celebration

Souvenir publication from the Burns Club of New York City’s centennial celebration

Since then the tradition of commemorating Burns Night on January 25 has spread throughout the world. Robert Burns would no doubt be delighted that his writings have brought the songs and poetry of his beloved Scotland to a global audience.

ZSR’s copy of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect is from the Charles Babcock collection. It is particularly interesting as an artifact because it has never been altered or rebound. With its original printer’s cardboard binding and untrimmed pages, the book is exactly what an 18th century reader would have purchased from an Edinburgh bookseller.

Original publisher's binding on ZSR's copy of Burns's Poems

Original publisher’s binding on ZSR’s copy of Burns’s Poems

Death of a Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney (1966)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 3:39 pm

ZSR's copy of the first edition of Death of a Naturalist

ZSR’s copy of the first edition of Death of a Naturalist

When poet Seamus Heaney died last month at age 74, obituaries hailed him as the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats. The New York Times noted that Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995,

was renowned for work that powerfully evoked the beauty and blood that together have come to define the modern Irish condition. The author of more than a dozen collections of poetry, as well as critical essays and works for the stage, he repeatedly explored the strife and uncertainties that have afflicted his homeland, while managing simultaneously to steer clear of polemic.

Heaney was born in Northern Ireland in 1939. The eldest child of a Catholic farming family, he showed his intellectual gifts early and was sent to boarding school and then to Queen’s University in Belfast, where he took an English degree and began writing poetry.

1965 pamphlet published by Queen's University, Belfast

1965 pamphlet published by Queen’s University, Belfast

By 1965 Heaney had published poems in a number of magazines and newspapers. He submitted a manuscript for a book of poetry to Liam Miller, proprietor of the Dolmen Press in Dublin. Miller and his wife Josephine had founded the Dolmen Press in 1951 with the express purpose of publishing and encouraging Irish poets and artists, so it was a natural outlet for the young poet’s first publication. However, while Miller still had his manuscript under consideration, Heaney received an inquiry from an editor the London publishing firm Faber & Faber.

Title page from the first edition of Death of a Naturalist

Title page from the first edition of Death of a Naturalist

Heaney asked Miller to return his manuscript. As Clare Hutton observes in her introduction to The Oxford History of the Irish Book, Volume V, Heaney was influenced by the “cultural prestige” of the firm associated with T.S. Eliot, combined with the fact that “Faber was in a much more stable position than Dolmen, which, like many small Irish publishing houses, ran on a precarious financial basis.” So Heaney’s first volume of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, was published by Faber & Faber in 1966.

From the dust jacket of Death of a Naturalist

From the dust jacket of Death of a Naturalist

But the inscription in Liam Miller’s copy of Death of a Naturalist (now in ZSR Library’s Special Collections) suggests that he and Heaney remained on friendly terms.

ZSR's copy of Death of a Naturalist is inscribed by Seamus Heaney to Liam Miller

ZSR’s copy of Death of a Naturalist is inscribed by Seamus Heaney to Liam Miller

Death of a Naturalist was generally well received by the critics. Christopher Ricks wrote in the New Statesman (27 May 1966) that

Literary gentlemen who remain unstirred by Seamus Heaney’s poems will simply be announcing that they are unable to give up the habit of disillusionment with recent poetry. The power and precision of his best poems are a delight, and as a first collection Death of a Naturalist is outstanding.

The reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement (June 1966) called the collection “substantial and impressive” but took Heaney to task for the “rather glib or incongruous imagery stuck on in what seems to be an attempt to hit the required sophistication.” Meanwhile in the New York Times (26 March 1967) John Unterecker was a bit dismissive, calling the poetry “urbane, accomplished, [and] predictable,” but allowing that

Other poems, however, tougher than the norm and more powerful, build out of Heaney’s memories of his rural childhood a poetry that is a little like that Theodore Roethke might have written had he had an Irish upbringing rather than an American one.

Unterecker also devoted quite a bit of space to a discussion of the “odd, persistent set of rat references” in the collection. In this he may have been a kindred spirit of the unnamed reviewer, noted in Heaney’s own annotated copy of the book, who described the title poem as “a long, disappointing poem about frogs.”

heaney8

Faber & Faber published Heaney’s next collection, Door Into the Dark, in 1969.

Liam Miller's copy of Heaney's second published book of poetry

Liam Miller’s copy of Heaney’s second published book of poetry

Seamus Heaney went on to publish many collections of poetry, as well as essays, translations, and dramatic works. But at his death, many of the remembrances quoted “Digging,” the very first poem in Heaney’s first published collection. In it Heaney describes his father’s and grandfather’s work on the family farm and concludes

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

The “squat pen” responsible for Death of a Naturalist would go on to compose some of the most iconic Irish poetry of the 20th century.

"Digging" is the first poem in Death of a Naturalist

“Digging” is the first poem in Death of a Naturalist

All of the images in this article are from Seamus Heaney titles originally owned by Liam Miller. ZSR Library’s Special Collections acquired Miller’s library and the Dolmen Press archives in 1986.

Louis MacNeice in Special Collections

Tuesday, September 3, 2013 12:12 pm

macneice

Louis MacNeice, Blind Fireworks (London: Victor Gollancz, 1929)

Wake Forest University Press has recently released the American edition of Louis MacNeice‘s Collected Poems.  MacNeice’s poetry is experiencing something a renaissance, after spending several decades in the shadow of  W. H. Auden. As New York Times poetry critic David Orr observed in his review of this new collected edition,

[MacNeice's] reputation has been steadily rising for 20 years in Britain and Ireland, in part because of vigorous support from Irish writers like Edna Longley, Paul Muldoon and Derek Mahon. MacNeice’s “Collected Poems” has finally been published in the United States, where readers will now have a chance to approach this under­estimated writer on his own terms.

ZSR Special Collections holds a large collection of MacNeice first editions, including Blind Fireworks (pictured above), his first published volume of poetry. MacNeice was newly graduated from Merton College, Oxford when Blind Fireworks appeared. In his foreword the young poet explains that

I have always admired the Chinese because they invented gunpowder only to make fireworks with it. I have called this collection Blind Fireworks because they are artificial and yet random; because they go quickly through their antics against an important background, and fall and go out quickly.

MacNeice’s future career proved anything but a flash in the pan: he went on to publish over 50 volumes of poetry, plays, and criticism. ZSR Special Collections’ Louis MacNeice collection is a part of our extensive holdings in 20th century English and Irish poetry.

Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman (1855)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011 9:50 am

We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer; then in the middle age; then in Calvinism. . . .Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet” (1843)

The young Walt Whitman heeded Emerson’s call for an American poet, and the result in 1855 was Leaves of Grass.

Whitman had worked as a printer and newspaper publisher, and this first edition of his poetry was self-published in every sense of the word. The book was printed at the shop of Whitman’s friends Andrew and Thomas Rome. The poet himself was involved in all aspects of design and production, even helping to set some of the type.

The first edition of Leaves of Grass was, like its author, an oddity in mid-19th century America. Whitman’s name did not appear on the title page; instead his now-famous portrait was featured opposite as a frontispiece.

The book is only 95 pages long but is printed on large paper. The size and the leafy decoration and lettering on the dark green covers suggest a Victorian botanical scrapbook.

The twelve poems that make up the text of the first edition are untitled. It was not until 1881 that the first and longest was given the name “Song of Myself”.

Z. Smith Reynolds Library’s Special Collections holds two copies of the 1855 first edition of Leaves of Grass. One is from the library of Charles Babcock; the other was purchased in 1954 with funds from the Oscar T. Smith bequest. The O.T. Smith copy includes a page from a 19th century autograph album tipped in at the front, inscribed by Whitman to his friend John H. Johnston and his wife.

The autograph note reads: “Walt Whitman, visiting New York City after an absence of over four years– guest now of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Johnston at 113 East 10th Street. March 15th, 1877.”

The visit was a sadly memorable one. Johnston wrote to mutual friend Horace Traubel on March 17, 1892

Fifteen years ago yesterday Walt was with us when my wife was taken sick and died. He was in the room until the last, and went home next morning after a month’s stay– his first visit.
[Traubel, Horace, With Walt Whitman in Camden (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906) 607]

Whitman printed 795 copies of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, but the book did not sell particularly well. About 200 copies of the 1855 edition are known to survive today.

Ivan Marki writes in the Walt Whitman Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998) that

The importance of the first edition of Leaves of Grass to American literary history is impossible to exaggerate. The slender volume introduced the poet who, celebrating the nation by celebrating himself, has since remained at the heart of America’s cultural memory because in the world of his imagination Americans have learned to recognize and possibly understand their own. As Leaves of Grass grew through its five subsequent editions into a hefty book of 389 poems (with the addition of the two annexes), it gained much in variety and complexity, but Whitman’s distinctive voice was never stronger, his vision never clearer, and his design never more improvisational than in the twelve poems of the first edition.

Whitman continued to tinker with Leaves of Grass throughout his entire life, giving it one of the most complicated publishing histories of any major American literary work. The second edition, published by Whitman in 1856, was smaller in format and included twenty additional poems.

In 1860 the progressive new Boston publishing firm Thayer & Eldridge came out with a third edition.

The third edition included another 120 new poems as well as Whitman’s revisions of poems from the first two editions. Whitman’s friends referred to the new frontispiece engraving as his “Byronic portrait”.

This was Whitman’s first publication by a commercial press. The poet’s reputation had grown since the first Leaves of Grass, and the third edition sold reasonably well. Unfortunately Thayer and Eldridge proved not to be astute businessmen, and their firm went bankrupt in 1861. The stereotyped plates were sold to another publisher, who published several more issues of the third edition without Whitman’s permission.

In 1867 Whitman published a fourth edition of the book which incorporated his Civil War poetry. 1871-72 saw a fifth edition that was again revised and reconfigured. The seventh edition of 1881-82 finally achieved a definitive arrangement of the poems; future editions merely appended material to this text.

The seventh edition, published by James R. Osgood of Boston, marked the first time that Leaves of Grass was issued by a major commercial publisher. But when threatened with an obscenity suit by a Boston district attorney, Osgood quickly ceased publishing the book and sold the rights to the Philadelphia firm of Rees, Welsh & Co.

From left to right: WFU’s copies of the 1867, 1881 (Osgood), and 1882 (Rees, Welsh) editions.

The final “deathbed edition” of Leaves of Grass (1891-92) was really just a reprint of the 1881 edition with the addition of “annexes” of new material.

In “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” an essay appended to this final edition, Whitman addresses future generations of readers:

Result of seven or eight stages and struggles extending through nearly thirty years, . . . I look upon “Leaves of Grass,” now finish’d to the end of its opportunities and powers, as my definitive carte visite to the coming generations of the New World. . . . That from a worldly and business point of view “Leaves of Grass” has been worse than a failure–that public criticism on the book and myself as author of it yet shows mark’d anger and contempt more than anything else . . . is all probably no more than I ought to have expected. . . . I have had my say entirely my own way, and put it unerringly on record– the value thereof to be decided by time.

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, published at the Hogarth Press

Tuesday, August 3, 2010 3:38 pm

T. S. Eliot’s bleak “anti-epic” The Waste Land is considered by many to be the most influential poetic work of the twentieth century. It was first published in book form by the New York firm Boni and Liveright in 1922, but Eliot offered the first British edition to Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

The Woolfs had already published Eliot’s Poems at their Hogarth Press in 1919.

The Hogarth Press was founded by the Woolfs in 1917. In the early years it was a hand press in the dining room at Hogarth House in Richmond, England, on which Leonard and Virginia hand set and printed their own works and those of their friends and associates. Between 1917 and 1946, the Hogarth Press published 525 titles (34 hand-printed by the Woolfs), including works by T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Graves, H.G. Wells, and many others. Leonard Woolf later wrote that “The publication of T.S. Eliot’s Poems must be marked as a red letter day for the Press and for us.”

By the time they began work on The Waste Land in 1923, the Woolfs had gained experience and skill as printers. Virginia hand set the type for The Waste Land, and Eliot’s innovative use of line spacing made it one of her most challenging typesetting projects.

Wake Forest purchased this copy of The Waste Land in 1979. The Rare Books Collection at Z. Smith Reynolds Library has a near-complete collection of Hogarth Press imprints as well as an extensive T.S. Eliot collection. Both of the Eliot books published by the Woolfs are on view in the exhibit “The Modern Muse: 20th century American Poetry”, which runs from August 2010 to January 2011 in the Rare Books Reading Room.

Paradise Lost, 1669

Monday, April 5, 2010 4:03 pm

The first issue of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost appeared in 1667. The anti-royalist Milton, blind and near sixty years old, had fallen on hard times in Restoration England, but Paradise Lost fit the apocalyptic mood of a nation that had recently suffered an outbreak of plague, the great fire of London, and defeat in the Anglo-Dutch wars.

Milton’s legal agreement with printer Samuel Simmons is one of the earliest English author contracts to survive. In it Simmons agrees to pay Milton £5 for the manuscript, plus an additional £5 after 1300 of the 1500 copy initial print run have sold, with any additional profits going to the printer. This was a fairly standard author contract of the day.

Sales of the work were sluggish at first, and Simmons reissued the first edition sheets of Paradise Lost with seven different title pages between 1667 and 1669. The 1669 reissue included, as per Simmons’s note to the reader, a 14-page “Argument” that provided a prose summary of each book’s plot.

The Printer to the Reader
Courteous Reader, There was no Argument at first intended to the Book, but for the satisfaction of many that have desired it, I have procur’d it, and whithall a reason of that which stumbled many others, why the Poem Rimes not.
S. Simmons

It also includes Milton’s impassioned explanation of “why the Poem Rimes not”:

The Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter…. This neglect then of Rime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem’d as an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover’d to Heroic Poem from the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing.

It is not surprising that Milton’s first readers were nonplussed by his use of unrhymed iambic pentameter, since it was seldom used at the time except for dramatic works. But his influence on succeeding generations of English poets was great, and by the 19th century blank verse was the standard form for long poems.

Wake Forest’s Special Collections holds two copies of the 1669 Paradise Lost. The first copy was purchased in 1949 by the Friends of the Wake Forest College Library in memory of alumnus Joseph Quincy Adams, who was the first Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. This copy has been rebound in 20th century red morocco.

The second copy is from the library of Charles H. Babcock. It is bound in an unmarked brown calf leather typical of inexpensive bindings of the 16th-18th centuries. This book’s known provenance begins with a Robert Wynne who signed and dated the volume on April 20, 1719. It passed through the collections of railroad millionaire Ross Winans and well-known collector Marshall Clifford Lefferts before being purchased by Babcock, who eventually donated his library to Wake Forest College.


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