The Works of John Keats. The Wordsworth Poetry Library.
Ware, Herfordshire, 1994: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
xv + 491 pp. 1853264040.
I'm fond of romantic poetry; I read Byron and Shelley some time ago,
but for some reason never got around to reading Keats until now. I'm glad
I finally read his poetry, as I found many beautiful and enjoyable things there,
though overall I didn't enjoy it as much as I did Byron's. I wouldn't be
surprised if it turned out that in a certain sense Keats is the more purely
romantic of these two — less action and more feeling — and that
would explain why I lack the sensibility to really appreciate much of his work.
The longest poem in this book, Endymion, is what he called
a “poetic romance” of about 4000 lines. I remember reading plenty
of romances by Scott and Byron, but this is a very different beast, and not
as much to my liking. In Scott you basically get a nice, straightforward
narrative that makes you keep turning the page simply because you're curious
what will happen next. In Byron there's still that, plus the additional
psychological interest coming from the usual Byronic heroes, tired of themselves
and of the world, etc. But here in Endymion, hardly anything
happens. It's basically industrial-grade romanticism; lots of moaning and whining,
visions, poetical descriptions of nature and the like.
The story, such as it is, is set in a kind of idealized early pastoral-age Greece.
Endymion is a young man that falls in love with the moon, and/or the moon-goddess
Cynthia, not that there is any real distinction between the two. He spends much
of the rest of the poem, well, mooning — wandering about and generally being
miserable because he doesn't know how to get to her. In the last book, he falls
in love with a mortal woman named Phœbe instead, and decides to become
a hermit, but then it turns out that Phœbe was really just the goddess
Cynthia in disguise, and the story ends with a happy end. [I suppose I should have
seen that one coming; Phœbe is obviously the female form of Phœbus,
which is another name for Apollo, who was the brother of Artemis, who is the goddess
usually referred to as Cynthia.]
I'm sure this is an excellent poem for people who like this sort of thing, but
I prefer to read something with a bit more plot and action. My favorite part of
the poem was Book III, in which Endymion encounters an old man named Glaucus,
who has been cursed by the witch Circe to stay alive, but old and decrepit, for a thousand years.
He's been spending this time sitting on a rocky shore and burying the corpses of shipwrecked lovers.
Now his thousand years are up and with Endymion's help they bring them back to life.
A minor thing that bothered me about this poem (and others, e.g. Hyperion, on which more below)
is that, although it's set
in ancient Greece, the poet uses the Roman names of the gods all the time. I found
it very jarring, although perhaps his excuse is that his readers would find the
Greek names even more jarring since they were used so rarely in English works
at that time.
Nevertheless there were many passages that I liked in this poem.
Here's one that is a beautiful statement of what you might call extreme romanticism (1.835–42):
———— but who, of men, can tell
That flowers would bloom, or that green fruit would swell
To melting pulp, that fish would have bright mail,
The earth its dower of river, wood, and vale,
The meadows runnels, runnels pebble-stones,
The seed its harvest, or the lute its tones,
Tones ravishment, or ravishment its sweet
If human souls did never kiss and greet?
A lovely passage from a draft manuscript, which Keats didn't include
in the final version of the poem (2.526, see note on p. 98); the poet
professes himself unable to adequately describe the encounter of Venus and Adonis:
—————— O foolish rhyme
What mighty power is in thee that so often
Thou strivest rugged syllables to soften
Even to the telling of a sweet like this.
Away! let them embrace alone! that kiss
Was far too rich for thee to talk upon.
Poor wretch! mind not those sobs and sighs! begone!
Speak not one atom of thy paltry stuff,
That they are met is poetry enough.
A touching passage of despair from 3.539–54, where Glaucus just wants his suffering to end:
———— “Potent goddess! chief
Of pains resistless! make my being brief,
Or let me from this heavy prison fly:
Or give me to the air, or let me die!
I sue not for my happy crown again;
I sue not for my phalanx on the plain;
I sue not for my lone, my widow'd wife;
I sue not for my ruddy drops of life,
My children fair, my lovely girls and boys!
I will forget them; I will pass these joys;
Ask nought so heavenward, so too—too high:
Only I pray, as fairest boon, to die,
Or be deliver'd from this cumbrous flesh,
From this gross, detestable, filthy mesh,
And merely given to the cold bleak air.
Have mercy, Goddess! Circe, feel my prayer!”
And another contribution to my growing collection of depression-inducing
quotes, from Phœbe's song in 4.173–80:
I bade good-morrow,
And thought to leave her far away behind;
But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind:
I would deceive her
And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and kind.
Apparently I'm not the only one who didn't care much for Endymion;
Keats was so hurt by negative reviews of it that he abandoned his next romance,
Hyperion, after less than 900 lines. I think that's a great pity, because,
judging by what we have of Hyperion, I'd probably like it a lot better
than I did Endymion.
This poem was meant to deal with the Titans,
who used to be the ruling group of Greek gods until
Zeus Jove and the other Olympian gods overthrew them. Now their
is in a deep sleep and the rest of them are either vegetating miserably
in some sort of cave or wandering around (see start of book 2). Only Hyperion
has retained his former splendor and his job as the Sun-god. His wife Thea
wakes Saturn up, whereupon he and the other Titans have a discussion on what to do.
This debate was my favorite part of the poem and reminded me a little of Milton's devils
in Paradise Lost,
which was perhaps an inspiration for it.
One of the most eminent Titans, Oceanus, makes an interesting argument (2.173–243)
that the replacement of the Titans by the Olympian gods is just a kind of evolutionary
step forward and that the Titans should accept the new reality, since the Olympians
are simply better, just as the Titans were better than their predecessors (Earth and Uranus).
But others aren't so resigned to their fate, and I'm curious how the story would have
continued if Keats hadn't abandoned the poem.
A fine stoical passage from Oceanus's speech (2.202–5):
“Now comes the pain of truth, to whom 'tis pain:
O folly! for to bear all naked truths,
And to envisage circumstance, all calm,
That is the top of sovereignty. ——
This is probably my favorite among the longer poems in this book. According to the note
on p. 193, it was inspired by an anecdote about Apollonius,
a Greek philosopher. A young man named Lycius meets a beautiful and mysterious woman, falls in love
with her and comes to live with her in Corinth. Eventually he persuades her that they should get
married; his old teacher, Apollonius, also shows up for the wedding, and recognizes that
the bride is really a lamia, a kind of demon; as a result, she vanishes, along with her riches,
which were mere illusions.
Keats modifies this story a little, to make it more romantic. In his poem, Lamia (which is her
proper name here) is not a demon and has no ill designs upon Lycius; she is more like a nymph and
is genuinely in love with him, as is made clear in the early part of the poem. However, she
pretends to be a regular mortal woman because she knows he'd freak out if he knew the truth.
When he convinces her to announce a wedding, she urges him not to let Apollonius attend it,
but the old man turns up anyway and practically stares her down into disappearing.
So in Keats's version, Apollonius is undoubtedly the bad guy, going out of his way
to ruin Lamia's and Lycius's happiness for no good reason whatsoever. I suppose Apollonius
would say that he didn't want Lycius to base his entire life on an illusion, but that
doesn't strike me as much of an excuse. Who is Apollonius to say that it's better to know
the truth and be miserable, than to live an illusion and be happy? Besides, who is to say
that she couldn't still reveal her true nature to Lycius after a while, once she got more
comfortable trusting him with that sort of information? Whatever happened to the good old
idea of minding your own damn business, Mr. Apollonius?
Actually this old question of romance vs. philosophy (nowadays we'd probably say ‘science’ in its place)
is a notable theme of this poem. Keats of course sides with romance here, and I for my part
am happy to agree with him. There's a beautiful passage about this in book 2 (ll. 229–238):
———— Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.
Now, of course the well-known excuse of scientists, skeptics, philosophers and their ilk
is that understanding a phenomenon doesn't necessarily detract from its charm, and may in fact
add to it; for example, Richard Dawkins makes that argument in one of his books,
Unweaving the Rainbow,
whose title was in fact inspired by the lines quoted above.
Such people do have a point, in a way; but at the same time, it's easier and more pleasant to get charmed
by letting your imagination wander freely around a phenomenon that is unknown and not understood,
whereas by committing yourself to a scientific approach you have basically chained your mind
to reality such as it really is, regardless of whether you find it appealing or not.
Of course, while being charmed by Keats's take on the story, my more practical
side couldn't help wondering how the relationship between Lycius and Lamia would work
in practice. What would it be like to be in a relationship with an immortal person?
How would Lycius react in a couple decades time when he realizes that she doesn't age?
If she cuts her finger, does she bleed? What happens if she gets squished in a car accident?
Will she find someone new after he dies, and so on indefinitely? How will she deal when she
reaches the modern time, when they will ask to see her papers before she can get married,
and when her next Lycius will become suspicious why she isn't filing out an income tax form every year?
Incidentally, before reading this poem, my vague idea of the word ‘lamia’ was that it
refers to some kind of vampire, as I remembered seeing it in a fake Latin phrase occasionally found
on the web: “nunquam lamiae morde me dice”, meaning “never say ‘bite me’ to a vampire”
:) See also the Wikipedia page about Lamia
for several beautiful pre-Raphaelite paintings on the subject.
Isabella, or The Pot of Basil
Another very pleasant and touching narrative
poem, based on a story from the
Isabella and Lorenzo fall in love, but alas! she is from a rich merchant family
and he is just the servant employed by Isabella's two brothers. When the
brothers find out about this, they secretly murder Lorenzo and tell Isabella
that they sent him away on a long business voyage. Three months later,
his fate is revealed to Isabella in a vision, she finds his grave, digs
up poor Lorenzo's head and buries it in a pot of basil, which she then proceeds
to water with her copious tears. The brothers eventually take even this pot away
from her, and she dies of grief.
I was particularly impressed by stanza 51, in which Isabel digs up Lorenzo's
corpse (remember that he has been buried for three months):
In anxious secrecy they took it home,
And then the prize was all for Isabel:
She calm'd its wild hair with a golden comb,
And all around each eye's sepulchral cell
Pointed each fringed lash; the smeared loam
With tears, as chilly as a dripping well,
She drench'd away:—and still she comb'd, and kept
Sighing all day—and still she kiss'd, and wept.
On the one hand, of course: ewwwwwwww. I mean, it's a three-month-old corpse, come on.
But on the other hand: awwwwwww <3 Nowadays such a thing would be laughed at
as unrealistic, or condemned as pathological; but at one time it was possible
to write such a scene in such a way that it conveys to the sympathetic reader
a portrayal of an incredibly intense sort of love-inspired grief.
I wonder how one would describe a feeling of such intensity
today without seeming grotesque; would it even be possible? I can't help feeling that people
in the middle ages (when this story probably originated) simply lived,
and felt, so much more intensely than in modern times, both for good and for bad.
Otho the Great
This is a verse tragedy of about 1800 lines, and seems to be Keats's only play.
Some of the historical background of the story seems true enough:
the titular Otho really existed,
fought off a Hungarian incursion and dealt with a rebellion of his son L(i)udolph.
The rest is, I guess, Keats's invention. Prince Ludolph, the son of emperor Otho, was
set to marry the emperor's niece Erminia, but the intrigues of duke Conrad and his sister Auranthe
have ruined her reputation and he marries Auranthe instead. Eventually their guilt
comes to light and leads to the usual kind of tragic denouement.
This play was pleasant enough to read, but in hindsight, it does have a few defects.
Scene 1.3 makes much of Ludolph's proud character and his complicated
relationship with Otho, but this doesn't seem to have any real effect on the rest of the story.
Ludolph going mad with grief after the guilt of his wife is discovered (scene 5.4)
is very silly; after all, he was a medieval German prince, not some sort of sissy-ass emo
romantic poet. This is the wrong way of trying to make us sympathize with what is
probably supposed to be one of the tragic characters of the play.
Otho is a pretty decent and just person, as far as medieval monarchs go. Here are
some fine lines of his (1.2.175–8):
I know how the great basement of all power
Is frankness, and a true tongue to the world;
And how intriguing secrecy is proof
Of fear and weakness, and a hollow state.
I liked the negative characters better. Conrad almost rises to mustache-twirling levels
with his plotting and trickery; and as for Auranthe — well, evil + beautiful is
a combination I always had a soft spot for. At times she sounds like a medieval
equivalent of a mean girl (4.1.32–4):
How many whisperers there are about,
Hungry for evidence to ruin me;
Men I have spurn'd, and women I have taunted?
I just wish she had more agency; now she seems
too much a pawn in her brother's machinations.
It was getting a bit worrying when I reached the start of Act V and nobody important
died yet; I was wondering how he was finally going to kill off his characters.
The ending in particular was a bit weak and the deaths of Ludolph and Auranthe
struck me almost as a cheap deus ex machina.
The Cap and Bells
This is probably one of the most deliciously frivolous things ever written
in Spenserian stanzas.
If he hadn't abandoned it after 88 stanzas, it could be
a masterpiece of comical poetry.
The story, so far as we have it, is simple and already pleasantly silly.
The faery emperor Elfinan is in love with a mortal woman, a Miss Bertha Pearl
of Cambridge, England; but he is finally persuaded by his advisors to send an embassy
to fetch him a proper faery princess from a nearby kingdom as a bride.
Meanwhile he sends for Hum the magician, who reveals to him that Bertha is
really a changeling, thus a faery and technically he could marry her instead.
Elfinan takes off towards Cambridge, and meanwhile the embassy returns, finding
his palace in a chaos.
But the story isn't really the point here; it's the style, the playful
inventiveness, the generous abundance of nonsense scattered throughout the poem.
Much of the humor is based on contrasts and parallels between the world of the
faeries and our real world. For example, there's a rant on the introduction of gas,
“Which to the oil-trade doth great scaith and harm,/ And supersedeth quite
the use of the glow-worm.” (24.8–9)
I know that for some reason many people dislike puns, but how can
you not laugh when a faery says “by my fay” (52.9) :)))
The home of Elfinan's bride can boast the most hilarious blazon ever:
“The Imaian 'scutcheon bright—one mouse in argent field.” (65.9)
There are a few jokes about the faeries being small (73.1–3):
“Five minutes before one—brought down a moth
With my new double-barrel—stew'd the thighs
And made a very tolerable broth—
I love the notion of ‘bringing down’ a moth, as if it were an elephant
:) On a related note, 86.1–2 refers to “the state purveyor/
Of moth's-down, to make soft the royal beds” :))
Another very funny passage from 68.6–8:
He bow'd at Bellanaine, and said—“Poor Bell!
Farewell! farewell! and if for ever! still
For ever fare thee well!”—and then he fell
A laughing!—snapp'd his fingers!—shame it is to tell!
These lines allude to the opening of Byron's poem,
Fare Thee Well:
“Fare thee well! and if for ever,/ Still for ever, fare thee well:”.
It's one of my favorites among Byron's poems, full of beautiful if somewhat overwrought
grief; and in fact I first encountered those two lines not in Byron, but in Eugene Onegin,
where they are used as an epigraph for one of the chapters. But here Keats puts
them in a silly and light-hearted context, where Elfinan is mocking Bellanaine, his faery-bride,
as he is getting ready to fly away just in time to avoid having to meet her. Was Keats
trying to tell Byron something like ‘get a grip, George, and stop being so emo’? :)
Some aspects of the faery world have been inspired by India:
Elfinan's city stands “In midmost Ind, beside Hydaspes cool” (1.1),
their law-code is a “faery Zendervester” (2.5),
and the emperor amuses himself by playing the “Man-Tiger-Organ” (37.9).
Probably about half of this book consists of shorter poems, a much higher
proportion than e.g. in Byron; and on average I probably liked them better
than the longer ones. In fact the only bits of Keats's work that I knew before
reading this book are two or three short poems: Ode on a Grecian Urn and
La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which are still among my favorite
poems in the entire book; and the sonnet On First Looking into Chapman's Homer,
which is also nice. I also enjoyed the Ode to Apollo, in his capacity
as the god of poets (pp. 286–7).
There are many fine poems about friendship, and it
was really nice to see him on such good terms with his brothers;
and there is of course the usual romantic obsession with flowers and birds
(“For what has made the sage or poet write/ But the fair paradise
of Nature's light?” — from “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill”, ll. 125–6).
For lovers of emo poetry, there's a beautiful Ode on Melancholy (the following is from 3.1–6):
She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine.
And a very touching sonnet on the subject of mortality (p. 303):
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
I guess that for him, this was an especially relevant topic, as he knew
that he had tuberculosis and wouldn't live long; see also the introduction, p. xv.
On a related subject, there's also the sonnet The Human Seasons (p. 308),
which draws parallels between the stages of life and the seasons of a year.
From another sonnet, “Why did I laugh tonight?” (p. 348):
Why did I laugh? I know this Being's lease,
My fancy to its utmost blisses spreads;
Yet would I on this very midnight cease,
And the world's gaudy ensigns see in shreds;
Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed,
But Death intenser—Death is Life's high meed.
Another short poem I liked was “In a drear-nighted December” (p. 338),
about how it's remembering past joys that makes people extra miserable.
By contrast, some poems are delightfully lively and cheerful.
Stanzas to Miss Wylie begins thus:
O come Georgiana! the rose is full blown,
The riches of Flora are lavishly strown,
The air is all softness, and crystal the streams,
The West is resplendently clothed in beams.
And sometimes he can be surprisingly down-to-earth:
“Give me women, wine and snuff/ Until I cry out ‘hold, enough!’ ” etc. (Women, Wine and Snuff, 1–2).
There's a delicious poem called Sharing Eve's Apple, which is about as full of
double entendres as you can imagine given the title (pp. 303–4; the following is stanza 3):
O sigh not so! O sigh not so!
For it sounds of Eve's sweet pippin;
By these loosen'd lips you have tasted the pips
And fought in an amorous nipping.
In a similar vein, there's The Devon Maid, which begins (p. 314):
Where be ye going, you Devon Maid?
And what have ye there in the Basket?
Ye tight little fairy just fresh from the dairy,
Will ye give me some cream if I ask it?
And I love the plausible deniability in the third stanza: “I love your hills, and I love
your dales,/ And I love your flocks a-bleating—” he's obviously talking about the
beautiful landscape of Devon, what else? ;P
There's a very pretty immitation of traditional ballads (from “Extracts from an Opera”, p. 310):
The stranger lighted from his steed,
And ere he spake a word,
He seiz'd my lady's lilly hand,
And kiss'd it all unheard.
The stranger walk'd into the hall,
And ere he spake a word,
He kiss'd my lady's cherry lips,
And kiss'd 'em all unheard.
The stranger walk'd into the bower,—
But my lady first did go,—
Aye hand in hand into the bower,
Where my lord's roses blow.
My lady's maid had a silken scarf,
And a golden ring had she,
And a kiss from the stranger, as off he went
Again on his fair palfrey.
He seems to have done a tour of Scotland at some point,
and several of his shorter poems were inspired by it. There's even
a nonsense poem in an immitation of Burns's dialect (A Galloway Song,
pp. 324–5). He visited Ben Nevis, the highest mountain of Scotland,
where the mist inspired a comparison with the general ignorance of himself
and all humankind: “all my eye doth meet/ Is mist and crag, not only on
this height,/ But in the world of thought and mental might!”, Sonnet written
upon the top of Ben Nevis, 12–14). On a lighter note, the same climb inspired
a comical dialogue between the mountain and “one Mrs. Cameron of 50 years of age
and the fattest woman in all Invernessshire who got up this Mountain some few years ago—true
she had her servants—but then she had herself . . .” (note to Ben Nevis, a dialogue, p. 333).
A good deal of poetry in the second half of the book
are bits and pieces that he included in letters to his friends and relatives;
much of it nonsense verse, written out of the sheer joy of
writing poetry, improvising and extemporizing.
“There was a naughty boy/ And a naughty boy was he,/ For nothing would he
do/ But scribble poetry—” (A Song about Myself, 2.1–4).
Other pleasant poems of this sort include “When they were come into the Faery's Court”
(pp. 349–52) and Two or Three (a delightful bit of nonsense verse, p. 353).
There's a curious Sonnet on the Sonnet (p. 361), in which he complains
about the constraints imposed upon poetry by this particular verse form.
Many people have made such complaints, but I wouldn't expect them from one
who wrote so many sonnets himself :)
From the first of two Sonnets on Fame (p. 360), where he basically
suggests that fame is like those women who like assholes instead of Nice Guys :P
Ye love-sick Bards, repay her scorn for scorn,
Ye Artists lovelorn, madmen that ye are!
Make your best bow to her and bid adieu,
Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.
From You Say You Love, a poem about mixed signals:
You say you love; but with a smile
Cold as sunrise in September,
As you were Saint Cupid's nun,
And kept his weeks of Ember.
O love me truly!
He seems to have been quite fond of Spenser, and wrote several poems
in Spenserian stanzas, occasionally even immitating his archaic language
(Spenserian Stanzas on Charles Armitage Brown, p. 342).
Perhaps it was simply a bit of a fashion trend; Shelley also wrote much in
Spenserian stanzas. In any case, I'm always glad to see another Spenser enthusiast
as I enjoyed his work a lot when I read it many years ago; his Daphnaida
made me weep on a bus once; but then I was in a weepy mood.
A few revolutionary lines
Unlike in some of the other romantic poets I've read, Keats doesn't seem
to have written much on political and revolutionary subjects.
There is the occasional hint (Epistle to George Keats, 128–30):
Through which the poppies show their scarlet coats;
So pert and useless, that they bring to mind
The scarlet coats that pester human-kind.
There's also a sonnet to Kosciusko (p. 41).
And there's this beautifully aesthetic cry against exploitation from Isabella (14.3–16.8):
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quiver'd loins did melt
In blood from stinging whip;—with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.
For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush'd blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half-ignorant, they turn'd an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.
Why were they proud? Because their marble founts
Gush'd with more pride than do a wretch's tears?—
Why were they proud? Because fair orange-mounts
Were of more soft ascent than lazar stairs?—
Why were they proud? Because red-lin'd accounts
Were richer than the songs of Grecian years?—
Why were they proud? again we ask aloud,
Why in the name of Glory were they proud?
A nice inspirational quote, from the Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke (ll. 99–100):
The air that floated by me seem'd to say
“Write! thou wilt never have a better day.”
From Sleep and Poetry (90–5):
Life is the rose's hope while yet unblown;
The reading of an ever-changing tale;
The light uplifting of a maiden's veil;
A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air;
A laughing school-boy, without grief or care,
Riding the springy branches of an elm.
A very fine thought on poetry, which I'm afraid would be considered old-fashioned
nowadays (Sleep and Poetry, 245–7):
—————— the great end
Of poesy, that it should be a friend
To sooth the cares, and lift the thoughts of man.
From a beautiful sonnet that's identified in the page header as “Keats's Last Sonnet” (p. 486):
“Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
[. . .]
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
Grumbling about this edition
Facsimile reprints of old, long out-of-copyright books are all the rage these days.
You see them polluting the catalogues of AbeBooks, Amazon, eBay etc. in huge numbers.
Most of them are ridiculously overpriced and come with completely generic covers
which give me the impression that they were made by some completely automated process;
probably some shady outfit has amassed scanned copies of a few thousand books by crawling
the PDF files from archive.org and
Google Books, assigned new ISBNs to them and
inserted them into catalogues, all in a completely automated manner,
and the same system now prints them on demand if/when some poor fool decides to order a copy.
The situation was very different back in the late stone age, when dinosaurs walked the earth and print-on-demand
seemed to belong to the sphere of science fiction — that is to say, in the mid to late 1990s.
Publishers that wanted to do this sort of reprints had to actually do their own scanning
and print the books in advance, so they had to be careful which books to choose and how
to price them. One such publisher that had a strong presence in the bookstore where I do
most of my book-buying was a small British one called Wordsworth Editions; their main product
seemed to be a “Wordsworth Poetry Library”, consisting of a few dozen reprints
of single-volume editions of collected poetical works of various well-known British poets.
I bought about 15 of those books, and read about half of them by now.
Their main advantage was that they were very cheap (the equivalent of about 4 EUR, if we don't
count inflation between then and now) and thus in a sense good value for money. This also had some
downsides, of course; the binding was a bit shoddy and occasionally a page or two would fall out.
But my main complaint is that the publishers deliberately provided no information about
the source edition of their reprints — who was the original publisher, where and when
was it published, they didn't even provide the name of the editor. This struck me as
rather shameful; first of all, the poor editor did a lot of honest work to bring the book
together so he deserves to at least have his name mentioned in it; and secondly, it makes it seem
as if Wordsworth was trying to fool us into thinking that this is not a reprint of
a book from 100 years ago, which is just plain insulting to the intelligence of the reader.
The other thing that bothers me about these Wordsworth reprints is that they
omit the original editorial introductions and often also the endnotes. For example,
in their reprint of Byron's works, the poems end at p. 840 and the index begins at
the next page; but the index occasionally refers to pages with numbers above 840, even above 900, which suggests that
there used to be some notes there and the index originally came after the notes. So they omitted
the pages with notes and renumbered the pages of the index to try hiding this fact.
I suppose they would say that they tried to save money by making the book a bit thinner;
but it's 800+ pages long anyway, so a couple dozen pages more or less surely won't
make any difference.
This excuse would make even less sense for the Keats volume, which is just around 500 pages
long but they still omitted the original editor's introduction of some 55 pages,
as well as the 15-page “List of Principal Works consulted” — judging by the table of contents, from which they
surprisingly didn't try to delete the corresponding lines. What we got instead was a
new, 5-page introduction by Antonia Till, which is interesting enough, but that's hardly a reason
to omit the original one.
Interestingly, I tried looking this book up on amazon.co.uk by ISBN; it turns out to be still for sale,
but with a different cover than the one I have, and its amazon page says that the introduction is by
Paul Wright, and that the book is 544 pages long. The one I have is definitely around 40 pages shorter than
that; either there is some mistake or the new introduction is much longer than any of the introductions
I've seen in the Wordsworth paperbacks so far.
Labels: books, poetry