Senate House Library curator Karen Attar celebrates 250 years of Wordsworth with a look at a rare publication that’s as beautiful in form as in content.

Among those who have never knowingly read his poems, ‘The child is father of the man’ and ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ are two of the better known lines from the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. For those wanting to know more, works by and about him, ranging from first editions to the latest scholarly ones, abound on the shelves of Senate House Library, part of the School of Advanced Study in London’s Bloomsbury.

Wordsworth was born on 7 April 1770. Looking for a focus for a discussion of this one-time laureate 300 years after his birth, I was initially drawn to the late poem ‘Grace Darling’ (1843) because it was printed provincially as a single-sheet publication in Carlisle in Wordsworth’s native Cumbria, and is quite rare (Library Hub Discover, the union catalogue of British academic and research libraries, records only six copies). But then I chose the Essex House Press edition of Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Mortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ (1903) for the sheer beauty of its production—the fine printing of a dead canonical writer as opposed to the first publication of a living one.

Wordsworth wrote the first four stanzas of the Ode, mourning the transience of childhood and of nature, at Grasmere in 1802. He explained the motivation behind it in a letter: ‘Nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being.’

He finished the poem as a reflective celebration of eternity, with loss moving to recompense, in 1804 and published it in 1807 in Poems in Two Volumes. ‘The Ode’ (without a sub-title) is the last poem in Volume Two, ending a section entitled ‘Moods of My Own Mind’.

To Wordsworth, the fact of a poem’s publication did not render it a completed entity. ‘The Ode’ reflects this from the addition in 1815, suggested by Henry Crabb Robinson, of the sub-title ‘Intimations of Mortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’.

Poems in Two Volumes as a whole was lambasted upon publication on the basis of the lyrics (“puerile trash”). ‘The Ode’, however, has become one of Wordsworth’s most memorable poems. Stephen Gill in his biography of Wordsworth (1989) termed it Wordsworth’s greatest achievement in rhythm and cadence as, together with Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth’s strongest meditative poem.

Juliet Barker in her biography (2000) wrote even more forcefully: ‘The second ode, “Intimations of Immortality”, was, quite simply, the greatest William ever wrote. So many of its lines and phrases have been used as titles for books and films, or become part of the common vocabulary, that it is difficult to come to it fresh. Reading it for the first time is like going through a dictionary of quotations.’

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (3e, 1979) validates her claim, reproducing 102 lines of ‘The Ode’. Twentieth-century popularisers of the phrase ‘Trailing clouds of glory’ include Richmal Crompton in her ‘William’ stories and P.G. Wodehouse.

It is in this context of a poem that is part of the national fabric that we must regard the Essex House Press edition from 1903 featured here. This copy, the 25th of an edition limited to 150 copies, was given to Senate House Library as one of 23 books from the Essex House Press within Sir Louis Sterling’s collection of first and fine editions of English literature.

The Essex House Press in London’s Mile End was a private press run by the designer Charles Robert Ashbee. Operating between 1898 and 1910, it took over the presses, ink, paper and vellum, not to mention several workers, from William Morris’s Kelmscott Press after that press’s closure. The Press continued the Arts and Crafts style favoured by Morris while also introducing art nouveau tendencies. Ashbee wrote that it aimed ‘to produce good books and adorn them in the best way we can’.

Wordsworth’s ‘Ode’ had been on Essex House’s horizons since 1900. It was the 29th book issued by the press overall and the ninth of its series of ‘great poems’ ranging from the English Middle Ages to the latter half of the 19th century in America. It followed Shelley’s Adonais, Keats’s Eve of St Agnes, Gray’s Elegy, Walt Whitman’s Hymn on the Death of President Lincoln, Chaucer’s The Flower and the Leaf, Spenser’s Epithalamion, Robert Burns’s Tam o’Shanter and Milton’s Comus.

‘The Ode’ is not regarded as one of the outstanding works of the Press: that honour falls to editions of Erasmus’s Praise of Folie and the Prayer Book of 1901 and the Psalter of 1902. It is, nevertheless, beautiful. The book is printed on vellum in William Morris’s Caslon type, with manuscript initial capitals in gilt, red and blue. A frontispiece by the illustrator Walter Crane, his first contribution to the Press, is hand-coloured.

At two pounds and two shillings upon publication, the book’s high price (standard for the Essex House Press series of great poems) reflected its beauty. One looks at this particular edition of Wordsworth’s Ode for its artefactual artistry rather than the text. But it is a testimony to the poem’s enduring nature as a literary creation that it was printed so spectacularly as to arouse this added facet of admiration.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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