Monday, January 1, 2018

Dusting My Little Books

Recently I was engaged in an activity with which many of us are familiar. I cleaned out some stuff (books, in this case) to make room for more stuff (more books). I have a small collection of little books, some of which I’ve had since childhood, and others that mysteriously appeared at some later date.
One of the mysterious arrivals is this lovely antique edition of Paradise Lost, by John Milton.

Curious, I opened it to see if I could learn more about how I came to have this book. It’s an edition printed by the H.M. Caldwell Company, which I didn’t recognize, so I decided to do the contemporary thing and GOOGLE IT! Turns out H.M. Caldwell was a subsidiary of Estes & Lauiat from 1896 – 1914, and was started in order to publish standard classics “intended as better quality competition for the A.L. Burt’s ‘Home Library,’ and gift books in attractive binding.”

I’m guessing this edition of Paradise Lost was meant as a gift book. And most likely to Chlo Blackwell, whose handwriting on this page seems like that of a young girl. 

Chlo kept the book for years. Later, she (assuming female due to name and handwriting) signed the book again, this time with mature handwriting, using her full name: Chlorus Blackwell.

And, she also jotted down other verse in the flyleaf, a snippet from Emily Dickinson, and one from William Wordsworth. Interestingly, the Emily Dickinson poem is the one I used with the chapter I wrote for John’s book Sweetie Drives on Chemo Days.

So I was paging through this lovely volume and noticed it fell open easily to pages 22-23. The first thing my eye noticed on these pages was “wanton rites” and “lustful orgies.” I got to imagining that young Chlorus might have been particularly interested in wanton rites and lustful orgies, and that’s why she kept returning to this particular passage!

As part of obtaining my bachelor’s degree in English, I had to take a “major author” course. The offerings were: Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare. (The fact that only these three dead white guys counted as a Major Author is a subject for another day. And, keep in mind that my undergraduate days were over 30 years ago!)

I chose Milton. I remember being amazed at the amount of Biblical and mythological knowledge Milton must have had to be able to pack so much allusion into Paradise Lost! In fact, I learned more about the Bible in that one class than anywhere else. But mainly, being somewhat of a nerd, I really enjoyed the sound of Milton’s verse, and his long, complex sentences.

Here’s the excerpt that contains the “wanton rites” and “lustful orgies.” It’s not a particularly famous passage, but what do you know—it contains wantonness, lust, and murder, problems mankind still faces.

Also, note the intrusion of supernatural beings, one of the conventions of epic poetry that Milton adapted. This quote is taken from my old textbook, Odyssey Press’s John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, edited by Merritt Y. Hughes, copyright 1957. The edition for my class was this book’s 22nd printing, 1981.
Peor his other Name, when he entic'd
Israel in Sittim on thir march from Nile
To do him wanton rites, which cost them woe.
Yet thence his lustful Orgies he enlarg’d

Even to that Hill of scandal, by the Grove

Of Moloch homicide, lust hard by hate;
Till good Josiah drove them thence to Hell.
With these came they, who from the bord’ring flood
Of old Euphrates to the Brook that parts
Egypt from Syrian ground, had general Names
Of Baalim and Ashtaroth, those male,
These Feminine. For Spirits, when they please
Can either Sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is thir Essence pure,
Not ti’d or manacl’d with joint or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they choose
Dilated or condens’t, bright or obscure,
Can execute thir aery purposes,
And works of love or enmity fulfill.
The text in Miss Blackwell’s edition had been modernized, by the way. And, because an old book is not an old book without illustrations, here is Eve in the Garden of Eden. She’s looking good! She has good hair.

So, this little journey of a blog was begun by happening upon a book that I didn’t know I had, a lovely pocket-sized edition, over 100 years old, that had been most likely given to a young girl, maybe 10 years old. What a difference a century makes. Who today gifts an edition of Paradise Lost to a child?

Finally, I will leave you with this interesting little volume, which is also part of my little books collection. Cluverius, My Life, Trial, and Conviction. By Thomas J. Cluverius. Published 1887 by S. J. Dudley, Richmond, Virginia. I have no idea how or when I ended up with this book, either.

I will do a bit of research. But I can tell you it involves murder and dead bodies!

Until then, enjoy your new year, and don’t forget that wanton rites will cost you woe.
(Reminder: to see the photos in a larger format, click on one to view all in a slide show.)

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