By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
The Dalenberg Library blog was created (in part) to highlight unique books, or forgotten books, or collectible editions in the Library. I have often digressed from that task to discuss music or art or films. But I have a lot of un-read books in this Library to discover before I die, so it is time to start reporting on them here.
J.R.R. Tolkien has always been central to my reading mission in life. Back in the 1970’s, when my young mind was fascinated by the discovery of Tolkien, Ballantine Books set about re-discovering and re-publishing many of the great (but mostly neglected) works that had preceded Tolkien, under the imprint of their Adult Fantasy series, the ones edited by Lin Carter and bearing the unicorn colophon. Together, these books form a core to the Dalenberg Library fantasy collection. We at the Dalenberg Library detest many of the post-Tolkien “fat fantasy” books published in trilogies, and tetralogies, and other over-lengthy series formats. We think most of those authors could use an editor. But we love Tolkien and pre-Tolkien (and a few select later science fiction/fantasy hybrids, such as the works of Gene Wolfe.)
William Morris (1834-1896) stands tall as a founder of modern adult fantasy fiction (meaning, fantasy as a literary sub-type that has moved beyond fairy tales), although he is almost never read today. Morris’s writings had a profound impact on Tolkien in his early days. That impact is indelibly evident in Tolkien’s earliest stabs at fantasy fiction, writings that preceded The Hobbit, which have come to light in the years since Tolkien passed away and the effort began to publish every scrap of his tales in every stage of their evolution. As for Morris, his collected works, published between 1910 and 1915, run to 24 volumes. They are once again available from the Cambridge Library Collection (re-published in October, 2012). I would like to say that I own the collection, but that would require a small matter of $820.00. However, the Dalenberg Library has invested in two very fine Folio Society facsimiles of William Morris, and each of them cost about that much or more. These books are works of art in their own right and are certainly in the “Top 10” of collectible books that we own.
A few years ago, Folio Society put out a limited edition of The Kelmscott Chaucer, which was Morris’s luxurious large format hardbound edition of the works of Chaucer, featuring his unique calligraphy & text illuminations, with enhancements contributed by his close friend, Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones. Morris had made his name as a founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, which much like in his fantasy stories, looked back to an idealized medieval period when artisans and craftsmen worked together to create things of value. This was the antithesis to the mass production, grease, and grime of the industrial revolution that Morris disliked. In the last decade of his life, after mastering many artistic techniques through diligent study, Morris turned to producing print runs of artistic books with meticulous calligraphy and illuminations through his Kelmscott Press. The Press did not much outlive him, however, because these books were, by nature, expensive to produce and could only be afforded by the very rich. But in over 50 volumes, Morris produced the finest editions ever released in the Victorian era, utilizing self-designed typefaces, handmade paper, and printing by hand. Other than the 17th Century Dutch family Bible, the Folio facsimile of the Kelmscott Chaucer, the production of which occupied much of the last 6 years of William Morris’s life, is the largest, most beautiful book in the Dalenberg Library.
Aside from not being a scientist, and from being more interested in the Middle Ages than the Renaissance, William Morris was the closest thing in the 19th Century to a Renaissance man. He was famous as a designer of textiles, tapestries, and wallpapers, as well as being a poet, novelist, translator (of Icelandic sagas), and socialist political activist. He is one of the most distinctive and influential artists of repeating decorative designs. Many of his designs are still available commercially today, with their repeating, interlocking floral motifs. Morris & Company, with sales of textiles, wallpapers, stained glass and other interior decorating needs, made William Morris famous and rich in his lifetime. And perhaps it was not quite correct to say that he was not a scientist, because much of Morris’s contribution came from improving techniques of production. He was intimately involved in the technical aspect of his products, down to fine details, such as favoring organic dyes over chemical dyes for the textiles.
Prior to The Kelmscott Press, when Morris started creating fine books in press runs for general purchase, he had toyed with the illumination of texts on a hobby basis. In the 1870’s, he illuminated 18 books, harking back to the style of illuminated medieval manuscripts. The latest Folio Society special edition, put out this year, is a facsimile of a volume now in the Bodleian Library, William Morris’s illuminated text of the Odes of the Roman poet Horace, in Latin. The Folio edition is a wonder to behold, bound in goatskin on fine paper, and looking for all the world like the hand-produced work of the artist himself, down to the gold leaf used in the illuminations. The book is stored in a special presentation box and is accompanied by a separate volume with an essay on Morris’s production of the book and a translation of the Odes into English. The Odes of Horace was probably illuminated as a gift for a friend, possibly the wife of artist Burne-Jones. It is actually only three-quarters complete, but the last portion of the book is still charming, as it has many of the outlines that were later to have been turned into the completed illuminations, which gives it the quality of an artist’s work-in-progress.
The Odes of Horace is a beautiful volume, with a rich leather aroma, and each page is eye candy for a book-lover. After handling it and studying it, I now covet Morris’s storied illuminated edition of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”, and I wonder if the Folio Society will attempt that one and whether I’ll have the $900 or so that it will inevitably cost.
I have chosen here to display the page featuring Horace’s most famous quote, “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero,” which can be translated as “Seize the day, for you cannot trust what tomorrow might bring.” My Latin is almost non-existent, so don’t completely quote me on the rest of the line, but I can vouch for the fact that “seize the day” is the most often quoted translation of “carpe diem.” Horace is a more personal writer of odes than his Greek predecessors, such as Pindar, who were writing poems in praise of the gods and for various ceremonial occasions. Another of my favorites is Horace’s faintly ribald ode to Lydia, who is growing old enough that the young men are no longer calling, and yet she still lusts despite her years. The calligraphy, the emboldened capital letters, and the extreme ornamentation of the initial letter of each poem is vintage William Morris.