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NOTES ON THE FIRST AND EARLY EDITIONS.
EYOND all doubt Burns was a book-lover-his oft
quoted and much mis-read epigram on an unread,
much worm-eaten, splendidly bound Shakespeare in an Earl's library notwithstanding. The familiar lines :
• Through and through the inspired leaves,
Ye maggots make your windings,
And spare the golden bindings,” are not a protest against the handicraft of the bookbinder, but rather a protest against the vulgar display of material wealth, where that of brain and hand is thrown on the shelf to be idly stared at, like the chimpanzee in the Zoological Gardens.
In a letter to Miss Chalmers, the Poet says,- “ I have taken tooth and nail to the Bible
It is really a glorious book. I sent for
bookbinder to-day, and ordered him to get me an octavo Bible in sheets, the best paper and print in town [Edinburgh), and bind it with all the elegance of his craft.” In the following July, he sends a conditional order to Peter Hill for Banks's New and Complete Christian's Family Bible, published by Cooke. “You will know the character of the performance, as some numbers of it are published: and if it is really what it pretends to be, set me down as a subscriber.” In the same letter, he says,—“I am going to trouble you with further commissions. I call it troubling you—because I want only books; the cheapest way the best ; so you may have to hunt for them in the evening auctions. I want Smollett's works for the sake of his incomparable humour, but, as I said, the veriest ordinary copies will serve me. I am nice only in the appearance of my poets.” In writing to Beugo, who engraved his portrait for the first Edinburgh edition of the Poems, Burns said, “When you finish any head, I should like to have a proof copy of it,” and to another correspondent, regarding Ainslie's Map of Scotland, he said, “Secure me one of the earliest impressions of the plate.”
It cannot be said that the get-up of his own books was not influenced by his own taste. That John Wilson was a capable
printer, goes without saying, but Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was the first really beautiful book he produced. It was the model and pattern of all that followed from his press, and it remains the high-water mark of his art. Fraser's Sermons, with prefaces by the ministers of KilmarnockRussell and Robertson-if a solid, is a somewhat lean performance, remarkable only, if remarkable at all, for the spacing of the type-preceded the poems by one year. In 1787 followed Campbell's Poems, and Russell's Reasons for our Lord's Agony in the Garden, the latter of which ran through several editions, and embellished with the same border which Wilson first used on the title page of the poems which keep his name alive to this day. In the following year, followed the Poems of Lapraik, and in 1789 came the Poems of David Sillar, and Milton's Paradise Lost; the Poems of Janet Little not appearing till 1792, when the border was, for some reason or other, dispensed with. That Burns influenced the work of his printers in a noble way there can be no manner of doubt. Not only were his simple but expressive title pages improvements on previous performances of the kind, but his hand is apparent in the general style and taste of both the Kilmarnock edition and the Edinburgh editions of Creech that followed. Creech's best books are his Burnses; and of these the "skinking” edition of the Poems (1787), which gives the portrait in the best state of the plate, is most prized by collectors.
The Kilmarnock edition, so well known by M'Kie's fac-simile, is an octavo; that is to say, it measures nine inches high by five and three-quarter inches wide. It was issued in blue paper boards with white back, and printed label of same colour pasted thereon; but copies exist-probably those first issued-in blue paper wrappers. The former is in the style of the Sillar and Lapraik; the latter, in the style of the Janet Little poems. Copies in either style are rarely met with. A perfect copy
with the label on the back, as issued by the publisher, would be a rara avis indeed. Few such copies are known to bibliophiles ; and the majority of bound copies have, in the first instance, passed through the hands of a provincial bookbinder, whose main object in cutting down the margins, in penny wise and pound foolish fashion, was economy. The copies bound in the more expensive materials are the shortest, for the reason that they have generally been bound a second time. Economy was the order of the day, and to this end the margins of books were ruthlessly sacrificed. Burns, we know, presented copies of his poems to friends; but we do not remember of his having had any copies specially bound for them. Six editions were published in his lifetime; the last, in the particulars of paper and printing, being inferior to none of its forerunners, or, for that matter, to any Scottish book of its period. That they had ample margins, and were models of style and taste, make it all the more regrettable that but few copies have come down to us intact; almost all, including even
some of the copies that Burns inscribed with his own hand, have been mutilated by the knife of the binder. "Old, sinful Smellie,” as Burns endearingly calls the printer of the first Edinburgh edition, and who was styled "my learned printer" by Lord Monboddo, had the copy, which Burns inscribed “To Mr. Smellie, with the author's compliments,” bound in calf and shortened by an inch; and the good sister of the good Glencairn—to whom Currie presented one of the ten thick paper copies of the Liverpool edition (printed for those who had befriended the Poet), and which bore the inscription, “For the Right Honble. Lady E. Cunningham, from her faithful and obedt. servt., the Editor”_had nearly as much taken off the margins by the binder. It shows the practice of the time, that the librarian of the Athenæum Library, Liverpool, himself a bookbinder to trade, and who otherwise might have been expected to protect from the vandals the biographer's own copy, instead of having the unique gift of Dr. Currie's son “bound in all the elegance of his craft,” had it badly cut and cheaply bound.
Of all the editions of Burns, the 1786 Kilmarnock edition is the most prized by bibliophiles, and the most difficult to procure in anything like perfect condition. The margins, as with most of Wilson's books, are ample; and, without being cut into the quick, as the early editions of Shakespeare not infrequently are, copies may be shortened quite two inches. In the British Museum there are two copies of the book. That purchased in 1850 from the Perry collection, and which has a name cut from the top of the title page, has the blanks in the text filled in and the misprints, which are few, corrected in the hand of the Poet.
It measures eight inches, while the second copy is two-eighths taller. The shortest copy on the record is under seven inches, and the tallest cut copy—that presented by Dr. M‘Laren to the Kilmarnock Museum-is eight and five-eighth inches, or threeeighths short of the full height of the book. Fortunately, in this instance, it had been decided to use the most inexpensive of materials, which, doubtless relieved the binder of the temptation to reduce the height of the book to the level of his generosity in leather.
Apart from the size, the main factor in determining the price of any particular copy is its condition. Something depends too upon the number of bidders, ho, when the Kilmarnock Burns is catalogued, never seem to slacken in their attendance, no matter when or where the book may come under the hammer. Another consideration, and it is sometimes important, is the reputation of the seller. - In such a transaction character counts for much, and one desirous of acquiring a Kilmarnock Burns which may have belonged to a public man or a trusted bibliophile, would have to reckon with public sentiment in hard cash. But, taking one thing with another, the main factors upon which the price of the book depends, are, as has been stated, size and condition. Copies having the letterpress complete, and which are without damaged or substituted leaves, jottings by illiterate scribblers, or “thumb marks,” and which are otherwise fresh and sound, are safe, according to their size, to realise the prices named below. Excluded from our reckoning are also such copies as Burns
may have presented to his friends, or on which he may have made MS, corrections or additional notes; copies in bindings that may be described as works of art, or which have been Grangerised, or may have belonged to some celebrated personage. Who, for example, could guage the auction price of the two copies bound by Roger Payne, or a chef d'oeuvre of Zaehnsdorf, the binding being as much in repute as the books themselves : or the copy in the Abbotsford Library, which is illustrated with plates, cuttings from newspapers, including additional poems, and in which is inserted an excise report in the autograph of the Poet? And here it may be remarked that there are Grangerised and Grangerised copies; and that, when an inferior copy turns up, a MS. or other matter is often inserted, or a
“dear cheap” binding resorted to, to make the book attractive to a novice.
But "good wine needs no bush," and such expedients, which smack of the Cheap Jack, are seldom successful in attaining their object.
Cut books, in the language of the trade, are called short or tall as they cross the dividing line which is accepted as the average height of any particular book. By this rule, although in the case of important books it would be better to indicate the size by measurement, it would be safe to call copies of the Kilmarnock edition over eight inches tall, and those under that height short, a result arrived at by the measurement of fifty-two copies.
Eight inch copies, otherwise perfect, have recently fetched ninety to a hundred pounds at public sale; while taller copies have
etched more, and shorter copies less. The following figures, so far as the size of the book is concerned, may be taken as indicating the variations in the values of individual copies. Copies measuring 7 inches, ... Do. 77
200 The writer has to thank Mr. F. T. Barrett—the accomplished librarian of the Mitchell Library—for help rendered in making up these figures, which have been approved of by several who for a considerable period have had exceptional opportunities of noting the prices at sales.
In the Burns Calendar, under date, 31st July, the following entry occurs. -“First edition of Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, published at Kilmarnock, price 3s. 1786. This same month, 1874, a copy was sold from an Edinburgh bookseller's catalogue for £19." The recorder merely notes the coincidence. That £19 was not then the value of a sound copy may be inferred from the fact, that in the following year a copy fetched