About Author: Patrick Olson

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New Leigh Hunt Manuscripts

Rondeau Manuscript This past spring was a good season for acquisitions in Special Collections, Leigh Hunt material not least among them. Not only did we pick up Percy Shelley’s personal copy of Hunt’s Feast of the Poets—a spectacular association copy, as Hunt and Shelley were remarkably close friends—but we acquired four Leigh Hunt manuscripts.

Two of these are copies of his most famous poems: “Abou Ben Adhem” and “Rondeau.” Perhaps the poem most beloved by posterity, “Rondeau” (more commonly known as “Jenny Kissed Me”) shares the poet’s excitement after having kissed Jane Carlyle, wife of the archetypal Victorian Thomas and neighbor of the Hunts.

The third manuscript is a draft fragment of The Palfrey. Only a few of the lines from this draft found their way into the published version, betraying the significant revisions the poem underwent at the author’s hand.

A transcript of “Velluti to his Revilers” is perhaps the most interesting manuscript in the lot. Velluti to His Revilers It’s not one of Hunt’s best known poems, but the transcript is thought to be in the hand of Julia, the author’s eighth child. While “Velluti” may not make the cut for the latest Norton anthology, Leigh Hunt writes at the end of these lines, “I think them the best (in rhyme) that I ever wrote—if I am old enough to be allowed to talk of my ‘best.’”


Manuscript Mystery Solved

It’s kind of like History’s Mysteries meets Antiques Roadshow. There’s an item that’s been lying in your collection for years, possibly decades, patiently awaiting investigation. What exactly is this thing? Then one day—maybe on a quiet Friday afternoon—you suddenly have the urge to dig into it.

That’s what happened here in Special Collections. A medieval manuscript leaf, for whatever reason, had evaded description these last few decades. This warrants a friendly reminder to all book-loving sleuths: you need not be a medieval manuscripts expert to solve such a puzzle (though it sure would help). Sometimes all it takes is a little resourcefulness, an educated hunch, and a bit of luck.

MsC2Our leaf turned out to be from De vita contemplativa, a fifth-century theological treatise by Julianus Pomerius. Determining the text of a particular leaf is often easy, requiring little more than Googling a short passage from the text in question. Identifying where and when it was made is the tricky part, but fortune was on our side: this particular manuscript was written on paper.

Medieval manuscripts were predominantly written on vellum (or parchment, but we’ll overlook the distinction for now). Paper wasn’t produced in Europe until the twelfth century, and its importation didn’t begin much earlier. What’s more, to an inexpert eye such as mine, the script appeared Carolingian—the standard book hand developed for the copying of texts during Charlemagne’s reign. While Charlemagne died in 814, this book hand—called Carolingian minuscule, or Caroline minuscule—continued to be used throughout Christendom. But just as paper was growing more common in Europe, the Carolingian script was yielding to the Gothic hand that would soon dominate manuscript production. It seemed unlikely, then, to have a true Carolingian manuscript on paper.

Near the end of the fourteenth century, however, Italian humanists revived Carolingian minuscule. Mistaking the Carolingian manuscripts for original Roman texts, these humanists began copying their favorite classical works in what they believed was their original form. This revived form of Carolingian minuscule has become known as humanistic script. It was commonly used throughout Italy (and later throughout Europe) until the printing of books largely obviated the need to copy them by hand.

And just like that, we came to the likely conclusion that our manuscript was probably made in Italy during the 15th century.MsC1

After consulting a couple of manuscript censuses, we learned that a 15th-century Italian copy—on paper—had once been in the private collection of Ernst Detterer, a Chicago typographer and later the inaugural custodian of the Newberry Library’s John M. Wing Foundation. Given the scarcity of copies on paper, and our geographic proximity to Chicago, this all seemed rather coincidental.

With the help of colleagues at the Newberry Library and the University of Colorado, Boulder, we were able to confirm that our leaf did in fact come from that very same Detterer manuscript—more information than we had ever hoped to uncover.

The underlying tragedy, of course, is that the other twenty-eight leaves are scattered across the country, if not the planet. Three, for example, reside at Boulder. It’s a fate befallen many medieval manuscripts, which were commonly sold or otherwise distributed leaf by leaf at a time when the ethics of the practice were a bit murkier. When in Detterer’s collection, the manuscript was unbound, which mustn’t have helped to suppress the urge to separate the leaves. It’s unlikely that all twenty-nine leaves will ever be reunited. The best we can do is to keep our little piece of it safe and secure, to document its history, and to share it with all of you.


Kelmscott Proof Among Our Recent Acquisitions

Poems by the WayAsk three different people why we remember William Morris, and you just might get three different answers. The social activist might mention his work in leftist politics. The designer might recall—with varying degrees of affection—his vivid wallpapers. The literature professor might quote a few lines of verse from the man who, upon the death of Tennyson, politely refused his country’s Poet Laureateship.

Those of us in special collections, however, best remember William Morris for his pioneering work with the Kelmscott Press. And pioneering is just the word. Morris bemoaned the state of bookmaking in Victorian England. (To be sure, he bemoaned just about anything made by machine.) Put off by the industrialization of book production, he returned to the roots of his craft, adopting as role models some of Europe’s earliest and greatest printers, and even tapping into the manuscript tradition that preceded them. His books were produced entirely by hand. In bucking the machine-made trend, Morris founded what has come to be called the fine press movement.

As you might imagine, Morris was a meticulous printer. Lucky for us, Special Collections recently acquired a rare witness to his attention to detail: twenty-two pages of proofs for his Poems by the Way. A proof is a copy of a text run off the press before the first printing intended for publication. Printers and authors would review the proofs and make needed changes. In this case, William Morris was both printer and author. Poems by the Way was only the second book to come off his Kelmscott Press, and the first in which he used both black and red ink.

Some changes aren’t surprising: a typo corrected, an ampersand spelled out. Others betray a much more careful attention to detail. Compare, for example, the decorative initials below. The letter used in the proof (on the left) and that used in the published version (on the right) are remarkably similar. But to a craftsman like Morris, those nuances were the difference between a good book and a great book. Subtle though they are, the changes we see between the proof and the published text offer a rare glimpse into the process behind some of Morris’s earliest book design.

Decorative Initial O