The Wanderer & other Old-English Poems

My latest limited edition book from The Folio Society is The Wanderer illustrated and signed by Alan Lee. An artist best known for his decades long association with works by Tolkien, both in illustrating his books and his many years in New Zealand working on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.

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The text is largely from a 1966 Penguin Classic ‘The Earliest English Poems’, translated by Michael Alexander, which also included four pages of Beowulf. Over the years this has been revised until the 2008 edition which provides the entire text for this book, with some amendments, which by then was entitled ‘The First Poems in English’. Lee was approached by The Folio Society to see if he would like to illustrate something for them and between them chose this work as it takes him back to the source materials that so inspired Tolkien in his writings. This is by no means a typical way round, the society would normally choose a book that they wanted to publish and then approach an artist to illustrate it; but what it has produced is a book where you can see the love the artist has for the material and I suspect they eventually had to stop him from creating any more artwork so that the book could actually get published. As it is each poem has its own distinctive decorative borders along with the beautiful tipped in colour paintings and on page printed black and white illustrations.

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The poems and riddles themselves come from a very short window in time, between the reign of King Alfred the Great over the Anglo Saxons (886 to 899AD) where he started the process of moving the written word from Latin to Old-English and the Norman invasion of 1066 when all that was swept away with the imposition of Norman French. In truth there were probably just thirty or forty years where Old-English hit its peak before becoming almost extinct. The greatest source material for the work of this period is The Exeter Book which was regarded as largely worthless for centuries before becoming recognised as the treasure trove that it is.  The poems are much more powerful than might be expected from their great age, they clearly come from an oral tradition as they are directed at the reader as though being read to them, I am reminded of the Icelandic sagas in concept if not in size. Indeed as Bernard O’Donoghue writes in his especially commissioned foreword

There’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile

Along with the general introduction and note on translation each poem has its own introduction setting the scene for the following work and providing mush needed context. The works are over a thousand years old and the people who wrote and read them were very different to ourselves.

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The original Penguin book its variants and companion volumes have sold over a million copies in the fifty years since they came out and the quality of the work shows exactly why Michael Alexander is such a respected translator and this edition makes reading them so much more of a joy than the original paperbacks. The text is presented with the original on the left hand side and the translation on the right as can be seen in one of my favourite works included the fragment of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ from the section of Heroic Poems. I suspect I like these more than the somewhat more introspective other poems is my fondness for the sagas and these have more of a feel of those. However this is an account of a real battle that can be also seen in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to such a level of detail that there is also an accompanying map included with the text so the reader can easily see how the fight progresses, which frankly is not well for the English side and a lot better for the attacking Vikings.

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The riddles are great fun and at the back are a set of proposed solutions, however the one that I have shown as an example also has drawings by Alan Lee which somewhat give away the answer. All the riddles are from The Exeter Book where presumably there are a lot more as these start at number seven and there are lots of numeric gaps.

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The answer is of course mead.

As only 750 copies were printed at £395 each and these are all sold out from the Folio Society it would be difficult to get a copy of this fine edition, but if I have whetted your appetite for Old-English poetry and riddles then the Penguin paperback is still in print and considerably cheaper.

There is a short video showing the book from the Folio Society

and a longer video of an interview with Alan Lee.

 

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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This post is going up on Christmas Eve so I thought it would be good to look at one of the Christmas books sent as occasional gifts by Allen Lane (the founder of Penguin Books) and his family. This isn’t a review of one of the greatest works in English literature, rather I want to look at the book itself and how it came into existence.

The Ancient Mariner was the gift in 1945 from Allen and his brother Richard, sadly the third brother John had died during the war, and this was the first one published since 1930. The tradition of an occasional privately printed limited edition book was started by Allen’s uncle, John Lane, who founded his company The Bodley Head in 1887 initially to sell antiquarian books. In 1894 he started publishing in his own right and that year sent a small volume of the autobiography of Sir Thomas Bodley as a Christmas present to family and friends. It is not known how many copies were printed but it is rarely seen so presumably the print run was quite small. I featured this book in my first ever post on this blog.  There were three books printed as gifts from 1928 to 1930, the first was from Allen and Dick Lane, the other two were from Allen, Dick and John Lane and then whilst there was a gap in the production of books, there were some interesting Christmas cards printed instead in some of those years.

As mentioned above John Lane (Allen’s brother as opposed to his uncle of the same name) died during the war so this restart of a tradition came from Allen and Richard (no longer calling himself Dick). The resultant volume bears the mark of being a little hurried, after all it was only a few months after the end of the war and it was presumably also a little celebration that the conflict was over and normal life could start to return. The cover is full dark blue Niger leather with a medallion stamped in gold and looks rather fine (although it does fade quite badly) however the title page in particular is a bit of a mess with five different fonts and type sizes used in just seven lines.

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After that unprepossessing start though the presentation of the poem itself is rather lovely, the paper is hand made with a gilded top edge, the illustrations by Duncan Grant are also quite atmospheric and whilst better than the original attempts which were rejected by the artist were apparently not as good as they might have been.

Duncan Grant was not happy with the first illustrations we produced, so we did them again, adding I think two more colours

Richard Lane

Quite what they would have looked like without the extension of the colour palette I can’t imagine as they are fairly restricted in colours used even as ultimately printed. Hans Schmoller, Head of Typography and Design at Penguin Books from 1949 to 1976, also felt that they were not as good as they might have been, although for a different reason.

I’ve always thought it a pity that Duncan Grant’s beautiful coloured drawings were reproduced photo-lithographically instead of as auto-lithographs.

Auto-lithography is definitely a far superior process and one that Penguin already used very successfully to give far more subtle colour grading and is also under control of the artist so would presumably avoided Grant’s original problem with the first version of the prints. Maybe it wasn’t done because of this extra work that the artist has to do, but anyway the illustrations are good but as Schmoller says, could have been better.

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As can be seen above the actual text is very pleasingly done with the main part of the poem being in black whilst the commentary on the action is in Venetian red. There is also a lot of blank space round the text which makes it easier to read, this is especially noticeable after the cramped styling forced on publishers during the war when the need to conserve paper stocks led to small fonts and words as close to the paper edge as possible. Richard Lane again:

During the war the production of our publications was only moderate – very narrow margins and as many words to the page as we possibly could fit in – so in The Ancient Mariner we went to town on production

I like the book a lot, it is one of the more difficult Lane Christmas books to find as it appeals not only to collectors of these works but Duncan Grant is also very collectable and there were only 700 copies produced. This is a lot compared to the other Christmas books right up until 1950 when the first one with a print run of 1000 appeared but this does appear to be quite elusive, so was one of the last I have managed to acquire for my collection. I leave you with the image of the first appearance of the albatross that would cause so many problems for the Mariner and wish my readers a very Happy Christmas.

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Misericords – Philip Sharpe and Andrew Judd

This lovely book wasn’t planned to be a post on this blog because until the 23rd November this year I didn’t even know it existed. On that day I was in Hay on Wye, which is the worlds first book town, and discovered a new shop that I hadn’t seen before. Balch and Balch (also trading as The Story of Books) specialise in books from Private Presses and although the main room was closed at the time as they were preparing for the Winter Festival to be held the following weekend Graeme kindly brought a selection of about eight titles for me to have a look at, top of the pile was this one. Now he couldn’t have known that I have a lifetime fascination with misericords and if ever I am in a medieval church or cathedral always check to see what delights are hidden away there in the choir stalls.

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So before reviewing the book, just what are misericords? The description as given at the start of the King Penguin book on the subject (written by M.D. Anderson and published in October 1954 as K72) is reproduced below.

An intelligent sightseer who wishes to understand the mentality of ordinary people living in the Middle Ages will find a rich reward for even a superficial study of the carvings on Gothic choir stalls, particularly those of misericords. The medieval priests, finding the physical strain of standing through a succession of long services beyond their endurance, devised a hinged seat with a corbel projecting from its under-surface which, when the seat was tipped up, allowed them to combine the comfort of sitting with the appearance of standing. In an age which was lavish in the use of fine craftsmanship it was natural that these corbels, although seldom seen, should be decorated with carvings and the work gave a rare opportunity for self-expression to carvers employed.

As implied there is a wide variety of subjects to be seen on misericords and a lot of the time you wonder what they are doing in a church, real and imaginary animals, people making beer or wine (and drinking it), various domestic scenes, knights in armour or even in New College Oxford a series depicting the seven deadly sins… What is rarely depicted is religious subjects. these carvings after all were intended to be sat on and it was not seen as suitable to have sacred images for that purpose. This brings us to the carvings in St Mary’s church at Ripple in Worcestershire, England which were used to inspire the illustrations in this book. Of the sixteen misericords in the church twelve depict ‘the labours of the months’ and Andrew Judd has produced some lovely linocuts of these to accompany not only a medieval poem but also twelve new works by Philip Sharpe that fill out the story.

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The book is printed in a limited edition of just 50 copies of which mine is number 45 by a private press called MKB Editions about whom I have unfortunately been able to find out very little other than it appears to be a Hereford based collaboration between Sharpe and Judd as everything I can find published by the press involves one or both of them. Of the 49 other copies of this book, two are held in libraries according to worldcat, at the University of Oxford and also, somewhat more randomly, the University of Arizona.

It really is a beautiful book, printed by letterpress on Zerkall paper it is quarter cloth bound with printed boards forming the cover. In total there are fourteen prints, one for each of the months along with one facing the anonymous medieval poem that formed part of the inspiration to the book and a further image making up the final page; all are based on the misericords in St. Mary’s. I admit to buying it for the prints rather than the poetry by Philip Sharpe which is OK but without the images I would not have looked twice at the book. There are several references to the River Severn (which flows roughly 100 yards from my front door) and also its propensity to flood, which living here I am all too aware of, so the verses ring true to my locality. But sadly other than the geographic recognition I don’t have a deep feeling for the text; but I will treasure the book nevertheless for adding to my love of the remarkable misericord and a chance discovery decades ago in childhood that has led to a fascination with old churches that I still retain today.

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Ars Amatoria – Ovid

Much better known for his work Metamorphosis, Ovid also produced this treatise on the technique for finding and importantly keeping the love of your life. That it also includes hints for hiding infidelity and some of the advice is a little too true to life for some of its readers two thousand years ago probably didn’t help when he fell out of favour with the Emperor and was exiled from Rome for the final sixteen years of his life.

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As the lovely Folio Society edition that I have is quarter bound in leather with a plain brown cover I have chosen not show the outside as it is rather dull but instead to have three extracts with the drawings by Victor Reinganum which decorate most of the pages, including the opening shown above where Ovid sets out what he hopes to achieve. The book was published in 1965 and uses the translation by B.P. Moore originally published by Blackie & Son Ltd. The font used is Poliphilus 13 point and I think suits the text admirably well. Unusually for Folio the book was reprinted just two years later which attests to its popularity.

The work consists of three short books, the first two are aimed at men trying to find a partner and get her interest (book 1) and then Ovid looks at how to keep her (book 2). The third book was written slightly later and is aimed at women looking for a man. Despite being over two thousand years old much of the advice given by Ovid is as good today as it was in Roman times. The first, and most obvious, but still got wrong many times, is that if you want to meet a woman then it is best to go to where they are, don’t hang around in places with your male friends, go to the parks or theatres. But remember you are not there just to watch the play.

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When you have found ‘the one’ then how to make sure she knows you are not only interested but are looking for more than just a friend is covered next, and then once a relationship has started make sure that she knows that she is the only one for you.

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The third book, for women hoping to secure a man, repeats the suggestion from the first book to go where they are although it point out that the sensible men that are also looking for women (and have read the earlier treatise) will be where she already is, so maybe start at the theatre. However there is also beauty advice, such as for make-up (basically don’t overdo it, use enough to enhance not redefine) and hair (pick a style that suits your face shape). The words about makeup are particularly poignant when you consider the very basic types available at the time which would degrade quite quickly in the Italian sun. I love the suggestion in the passage shown below that the morning beauty routine is best done away from the gaze of the man the lady is hoping to attract, after all why should he know what she has done to enhance her beauty.

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I don’t want to give the impression that Ovid is just covering beauty tips, there is much the same sort of advice given to the ladies as to the men in how to attract a mate and even what to do when you have got him. How to arrange messages between you when things are still not publicly known and you don’t want anyone else to know. This also applies to illicit trysts when secrecy is vital and he is not shy of making this clear in his text.

Overall the book(s) are a fun read and in places could be lifted straight into the advice columns of today. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an ancient past that perhaps is not that ancient after all.

A note on the translation used is probably useful here at the end of the review. Clearly Moore updated some parts, there are two references to cars for instance when leaving the vehicles as period would have been far less jarring. There are other lines where I felt the intrusion of the modern was out of place and disturbed the flow of the text. Having said that the translation is very readable apart from these examples and the deliberate attempt to keep notes to an absolute minimum (just two pages at the back which mainly name the character referred to when a reader in 2AD would have simply known who it was) makes it more a reading pleasure rather than an academic exercise. There is a translation available at Project Gutenberg which dates from 1885 but this is in prose rather than the verse employed by Moore and is a lot less fun to read so overall I’m glad I have this edition.

Hansel and Gretel – Simon Armitage

This was not the book I expected to be writing about at the beginning of June as the publication date is not until the 24th of this month, but on the 31st May a wonderful package arrived and I couldn’t help abandoning what I had been reading and starting on this beautiful volume straight away.

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Simon Armitage has just been made the Poet Laureate for the next ten years and this is therefore his first newly published work since that honour. The poem originally appeared as a ‘libretto’ to a puppet production designed and directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins which toured England between July and November 2018 but this is its first book publication.

You can see the entire production with the darkly appropriate music by Matthew Kaner, performed by the Goldfield Ensemble here

Clive Hicks-Jenkins has produced a wonderful series of illustrations for this book published by Design For Today. These are clearly based on the theatre production without being limited by his original work.

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The subtitle of the poem is ‘A Nightmare in Eight Scenes’ as the Hansel and Gretel story has been re-interpreted as a modern tale of refugees from a war zone. Without giving too much away the family are starving as the bombs rain amongst them at the start of the book and the parents decide to at least get the children away from there to somewhere where they stand more chance of survival. Hansel and Gretel though mishear their parents planning and think they are simply to be abandoned. This is not the only time that mishearing becomes a plot device in the poem.

As in the original Brothers Grimm tale there is a ‘witch’ and a gingerbread cottage, a trail of stones, a trail of breadcrumbs and abandonment to avoid famine followed by a return only this time without the treasure that would lead to a happy ending. In the modern world of war meted out against helpless civilians there is rarely a happy ending…

The illustrations fit the text so well and the design of the book is beautifully done. I particularly like the colour coding of the words so that you know who is speaking, each character has their own colour as specified in the cast list at the start.

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Oddly I’d never read any Simon Armitage before this but I will definitely be seeking out more of his work. According to his website there are a lot of books to check out

The total production run of this book is two thousand copies, of which one hundred form a further limited edition signed by Simon Armitage and Clive Hicks-Jenkins and which include two extra art prints. Mine is copy number twenty two.

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Summoned by Bells – John Betjeman

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This autobiography in verse covers Betjeman’s early life from his Edwardian childhood (he was born in 1906) to his university days at Magdalen College in Oxford where he was taught by C.S. Lewis. The book was first printed in 1960 just as Betjeman was getting serious recognition as a poet with a dozen volumes published before this and it is also the year he received The Queen’s Medal for Poetry and was made a CBE. The verse has his characteristic humour but also darker times like describing being bullied at school. It is uncharacteristic also in being, for the most part, blank verse, though he can’t stop himself at times, from adding in some parts in rhymes. The book is split into nine chapters as we follow him growing up.

We start in Highgate where the family had moved when he was three years old, they were clearly relatively well to do as they owned a four wheeled carriage and regularly holidayed in Cornwall. Apart from Maud, his overbearing nurse, who seemed to delight in punishing him for slight misdemeanors he appears to have had a happy childhood up until he went to school. Apart from one traumatic incident that clearly haunted him right up to his fifties when he wrote the lines on just the second page of Summoned by Bells.

Safe were those evenings of the pre-war world
When firelight shone on green linoleum;
I heard the church bells hollowing out the sky,
Deep beyond deep, like never ending stars,
And turned to Archibald, my safe old bear,
Whose woollen eyes looked sad or glad at me,
Whose ample forehead I could wet with tears,
Whose half-moon ears received my confidence,
Who made me laugh, who never let me down,
I used to wait for hours to see him move,
Convinced that he could breathe. One dreadful day
They hid him from me as a punishment:
Sometimes the desolation of that loss
Comes back to me and I must go upstairs
To see him in the sawdust, so to speak,
Safe and returned to his idolator.

His father was the third generation owner of a silversmith and cabinet making business and was very disappointed in John because he refused to carry on the firm and all this is covered in the second chapter of the book. In this edition each of the chapters has a small line drawing by Michael Tree and a brief summary of what will be covered. The description of the workshops for the business in this section and the hours that John spent clearly enjoying himself with the craftsmen employed there made it all the more galling for his father when he later expressed no interest in continuing it

To all my father’s hopes. In later years,
Now old and ill, he asked me once again
To carry on the firm, I still refused.
And now when I behold, fresh-published, new,
A further volume of my verse, I see
His kind grey eyes look woundedly at mine,
I see his workmen seeking other jobs,
And that red granite obelisk that marks
The family grave in Highgate cemetery
Points an accusing finger to the sky.

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Chapter three has him at school and being bullied at both his junior schools, he seems unclear why at the first one but at the second his apparently German surname in 1913/4, spelt then Betjemann, led to him being picked on by gangs and having to come up with various routes home to avoid them. Ironically the family was actually originally Dutch and the additional ‘n’ was added when they came to the UK over a century earlier but soon Britain was at war with the Netherlands, so they wanted to appear German. During WWI the second ‘n’ was quietly dropped again. Chapter four and the family is on holiday in Cornwall leading to the start of the young Betjeman’s love affair with railways and the English countryside.

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Chapters five and seven describe his private education, first at Dragon preparatory school in Oxfordshire and then Marlborough college in Wiltshire. His time at Dragon appears to have been pretty happy and exploring by bicycle leads him to churches and that other great love of his throughout his life, architecture. Marlborough however was a more difficult time, there are stories of beatings and the prefects birching the boys and terrorising them as a group known to the younger boys as “Big Fire” because of where they sat in the evenings. A boy who had transgressed would be called to “Big Fire” for a beating or sometimes worse. I skipped chapter six which covers being back in London during holidays exploring the London Underground and buying books, the family had moved to Chelsea and the bookshops abounded

Untidy bookshops gave me such delight,
It was the smell of books, the plates in them,
Tooled leather, marbled paper, gilded edge,
The armorial book-plate of some country squire

I’m with Betjeman all the way with those sentiments.

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The summary above of chapter eight pretty well covers it, his father is even more dominating than before but now John is big enough to escape and does so on long cycle rides round the area discovering yet more churches.

The final section deals with his years at Oxford, a place he freely admits to doing little or no work at and certainly not studying for his degree. Instead he builds a wide social network which become extremely useful to him in later years

No wonder, looking back, I never worked.
Too pleased with life, swept in the social round,
I soon left Old Marlburians behind.
(As one more solemn of our number said:
“Spiritually I was at Eton, John”)
I cut tutorials with wild excuse,
For life was luncheons, luncheons all the way-
And evening dining with the Georgeoisie

How much of this lack of drive towards his degree was down to the mutual dislike between himself and C S Lewis it is difficult to tell, it’s quite possible that even with a more sympathetic tutor who may have got more out of him he would still have left without a degree. In the poem he blames a failure of the compulsory divinity course but in reality he really put so little effort into his studies that he was never going to pass.

The book is a fun read and so unusual in the use of verse throughout. I first read it many years ago and had forgotten how much I enjoyed it.

 

It’s been a year

I have kept this weekly blog now for just over a year and I thought I would take the opportunity to look back at the entries and see if it can give me some ideas as to which books to talk about next. To my surprise the top five liked entries as I write this are all related to Scotland

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William McGonagall wrote excruciatingly bad verse about Scotland and the people there and was a proud resident of Dundee, eventually Dundee has become proud of him as well. Iain Banks was another Scotsman through and through and the book I reviewed was his homage to the land of his birth. Shaun Bythell’s book was one of the first things I wrote about so his diary of keeping a Scottish bookshop going has had a whole year to accumulate its tally of likes whilst I only wrote about Elizabeth Cummings book about Scottish artist Sir Robin Philipson a couple of weeks ago and it has already made it to number five. You may have noticed I skipped Robert Service, he was also Scottish although found fame as a poet in Canada however I left him to last as he highlights another trend in popular posts here and that is poetry.

This is even more obvious when I look at the next five entries…

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The Frogs is a classical Greek play in verse, Persian Poets is clearly about poetry and Under Milk Wood is a poetic masterpiece by Dylan Thomas, this makes half of the top ten liked entries are about poetry although there is nowhere near that percentage represented in the total number of essays I have produced so far.

The remaining two are interesting. The Royal Tour is a beautifully illustrated diary of a cruise around a lot of the then British Empire and Uncle Jim is a bit of a sleeper as it deals with the early output of fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett but without mentioning him in the title so you had to read the article to find out.

There are other statistics available that don’t display on the front page so aren’t visible to readers of the blog and from those I can see that Deep in the Forest – Estonian Folk Tales is looked at more often than any other entry and it is viewed from all over the world, as opposed to my other Estonian review of the Apothacary Melchior books which also gets quite a few readers but 90% of these are in Estonia or Finland. Only one entry has not been read by anybody according to the statistics available and that is The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Sorry Will although I have all your plays several times I don’t think you are going to be featured here again.

So what does all this tell me? Well poetry is definitely popular here and that’s good as I also like poetry and have quite a few more poets to write about, one of which will probably be in the next four weeks. Bearing in mind the Scottish bias as well I suppose I had better get the volume of Robert Burns I have from 1946 out and reread that soon.

The Frogs by Aristophanes was a surprise hit, to me at least, so we will see how next weeks entry, which is also classical Greek, goes down. I have a lot of ‘the Classics’ and am also planning a review of a book dealing with the subject of what makes a classic in the next month or so. Art and Design has also been popular and again this is something I have a lot about in my library so expect more of those subjects in the coming year.

But is there anything you would like me to write about? Not specific books, as according to the rules I set myself I have to own the title to write about it so you would have to be really lucky to hit one of the 6,500 titles on my shelves, but general subjects. I haven’t done much on Travel and Exploration but what has been done has been generally well received, should I do more? Any suggestions would be good either as a comment below or as a message through the site.