Elzevirs and Diverse Other Matters

[This is taken from Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac.]


Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” and Lockhart’s “Life of Scott” are accepted as the models of biography.  The third remarkable performance in this line is Mrs. Gordon’s memoir of her father, John Wilson, a volume so charmingly and tenderly written as to be of interest to those even who know and care little about that era in the history of English literature in which “crusty Christopher” and his associates in the making of “Blackwood’s” figured.

It is a significant fact, I think, that the three greatest biographers the world has known should have been Scotch; it has long been the fashion to laugh and to sneer at what is called Scotch dullness; yet what prodigies has not Scotch genius performed  in every department of literature, and would not our literature be poor indeed to-day but for the contributions which have been made to it by the very people whom we affect to deride?

John Wilson was one of the most interesting figures of a time when learning was at a premium; he was a big man amongst big men, and even in this irreverential time genius uncovers at the mention of his name.  His versatility was astounding; with equal facility and felicity he could conduct a literary symposium and a cock-fight, a theological discussion and an angling expedition, a historical or a political inquiry and a fisticuffs.

Nature had provided him with a mighty brain in a powerful body; he had a physique equal to the performance of what suggestion soever his splendid intellectuals made.  To him the incredible feat of walking seventy miles within the compass of a day was mere child’s play; then, when the printer became clamorous, he would immure himself in his wonderful den and reel off copy until that printer cried “Hold; enough!”  It was no  unusual thing for him to write for thirteen hours at a stretch; when he worked he worked, and when he played he played—that is perhaps the reason why he was never a dull boy.

Wilson seems to have been a procrastinator.  He would put off his task to the very last moment; this is a practice that is common with literary men—in fact, it was encouraged by those who were regarded as authorities in such matters anciently.  Ringelbergius gave this advice to an author under his tuition:

“Tell the printers,” said he, “to make preparations for a work you intend writing, and never alarm yourself about it because it is not even begun, for, after having announced it you may without difficulty trace out in your own head the whole plan of your work and its divisions, after which compose the arguments of the chapters, and I can assure you that in this manner you may furnish the printers daily with more copy than they want.  But, remember, when you have once begun there must be no flagging till the work is finished.”

The loyalty of human admiration was never better illustrated than in Shelton Mackenzie’s devotion to Wilson’s genius.  To Mackenzie we are indebted for a compilation of the “Noctes Ambrosianae,” edited with such discrimination, such ability, such learning, and such enthusiasm that, it seems to me, the work must endure as a monument not only to Wilson’s but also to Mackenzie’s genius.

I have noticed one peculiarity that distinguishes many admirers of the Noctes: they seldom care to read anything else; in the Noctes they find a response to the demand of every mood.  It is much the same way with lovers of Father Prout.  Dr. O’Rell divides his adoration between old Kit North and the sage of Watergrass Hill.  To be bitten of either mania is bad enough; when one is possessed at the same time of a passion both for the Noctes and for the Reliques hopeless indeed is his malady!  Dr.  O’Rell is so deep under the spell of crusty Christopher and the Corkonian pere that he not only buys every copy of the Noctes and of the Reliques he comes across, but insists  upon giving copies of these books to everybody in his acquaintance.  I have even known him to prescribe one or the other of these works to patients of his.

I recall that upon one occasion, having lost an Elzevir at a book auction, I was afflicted with melancholia to such a degree that I had to take to my bed.  Upon my physician’s arrival he made, as is his custom, a careful inquiry into my condition and into the causes inducing it.  Finally, “You are afflicted,” said Dr.  O’Rell, “with the megrims, which, fortunately, is at present confined to the region of the Pacchionian depressions of the sinister parietal.  I shall administer Father Prout’s ‘Rogueries of Tom Moore’ (pronounced More) and Kit North’s debate with the Ettrick Shepherd upon the subject of sawmon.  No other remedy will prove effective.”

The treatment did, in fact, avail me, for within forty-eight hours I was out of bed, and out of the house; and, what is better yet, I picked up at a bookstall, for a mere song, a first edition of “Special Providences in New England”!

Never, however, have I wholly ceased to regret the loss of the Elzevir, for an Elzevir is to me one of the most gladdening sights human eye can rest upon.  In his life of the elder Aldus, Renouard says:  “How few are there of those who esteem and pay so dearly for these pretty editions who know that the type that so much please them are the work of Francis Garamond, who cast them one hundred years before at Paris.”

In his bibliographical notes (a volume seldom met with now) the learned William Davis records that Louis Elzevir was the first who observed the distinction between the v consonant and the u vowel, which distinction, however, had been recommended long before by Ramus and other writers, but had never been regarded.  There were five of these Elzevirs, viz.: Louis, Bonaventure, Abraham, Louis, Jr., and Daniel.

A hundred years ago a famous bibliophile remarked:  “The diminutiveness of a large portion, and the beauty of the whole, of the classics printed by the Elzevirs at Leyden and Amsterdam have long rendered them justly celebrated, and the prices they bear in  public sales sufficiently demonstrate the estimation in which they are at present held.”

The regard for these precious books still obtains, and we meet with it in curiously out-of-the-way places, as well as in those libraries where one would naturally expect to find it.  My young friend Irving Way (himself a collector of rare enthusiasm) tells me that recently during a pilgrimage through the state of Texas he came upon a gentleman who showed him in his modest home the most superb collection of Elzevirs he had ever set eyes upon!

How far-reaching is thy grace, O bibliomania!  How good and sweet it is that no distance, no environment, no poverty, no distress can appall or stay thee.  Like that grim specter we call death, thou knockest impartially at the palace portal and at the cottage door.  And it seemeth thy especial delight to bring unto the lonely in desert places the companionship that exalteth humanity!

It makes me groan to think of the number of Elzevirs that are lost in the libraries of rich parvenus who know nothing of and care no  thing for the treasures about them further than a certain vulgar vanity which is involved.  When Catherine of Russia wearied of Koritz she took to her affection one Kimsky Kossakof, a sergeant in the guards.  Kimsky was elated by this sudden acquisition of favor and riches.  One of his first orders was to his bookseller.  Said he to that worthy:  “Fit me up a handsome library; little books above and great ones below.”

It is narrated of a certain British warrior that upon his retirement from service he bought a library en bloc, and, not knowing any more about books than a peccary knows of the harmonies of the heavenly choir, he gave orders for the arrangement of the volumes in this wise:  “Range me,” he quoth, “the grenadiers (folios) at the bottom, the battalion (octavos) in the middle, and the light-bobs (duodecimos) at the top!”

Samuel Johnson, dancing attendance upon Lord Chesterfield, could hardly have felt his humiliation more keenly than did the historian Gibbon when his grace the Duke of Cumberland met him bringing the third volume of his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” to the ducal mansion.  This history was originally printed in quarto; Gibbon was carrying the volume and anticipating the joy of the duke upon its arrival.  What did the duke say?  “What?” he cried.  “Ah, another ---- big square book, eh?”

It is the fashion nowadays to harp upon the degeneracy of humanity; to insist that taste is corrupted, and that the faculty of appreciation is dead.  We seem incapable of realizing that this is the golden age of authors, if not the golden age of authorship.

In the good old days authors were in fact a despised and neglected class.  The Greeks put them to death, as the humor seized them.  For a hundred years after his death Shakespeare was practically unknown to his countrymen, except Suckling and his coterie: during his life he was roundly assailed by his contemporaries, one of the latter going to the extreme of denouncing him as a daw that strutted in borrowed plumage.  Milton was accused of plagiarism, and one of his critics devoted many years to compiling  from every quarter passages in ancient works which bore a similarity to the blind poet’s verses.  Even Samuel Johnson’s satire of “London” was pronounced a plagiarism.

The good old days were the days, seemingly, when the critics had their way and ran things with a high hand; they made or unmade books and authors.  They killed Chatterton, just as, some years later, they hastened the death of Keats.  For a time they were all-powerful.  It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that these professional tyrants began to lose their grip, and when Byron took up the lance against them their doom was practically sealed.

Who would care a picayune in these degenerate days what Dr.  Warburton said pro or con a book?  It was Warburton (then Bishop of Gloucester) who remarked of Granger’s “Biographical History of England” that it was “an odd one.”  This was as high a compliment as he ever paid a book; those which he did not like he called sad books, and those which he fancied he called odd ones.

The truth seems to be that through the  diffusion of knowledge and the multiplicity and cheapness of books people generally have reached the point in intelligence where they feel warranted in asserting their ability to judge for themselves.  So the occupation of the critic, as interpreted and practiced of old, is gone.

Reverting to the practice of lamenting the degeneracy of humanity, I should say that the fashion is by no means a new one.  Search the records of the ancients and you will find the same harping upon the one string of present decay and former virtue.  Herodotus, Sallust, Caesar, Cicero, and Pliny take up and repeat the lugubrious tale in turn.

Upon earth there are three distinct classes of men:  Those who contemplate the past, those who contemplate the present, those who contemplate the future.  I am of those who believe that humanity progresses, and it is my theory that the best works of the past have survived and come down to us in these books which are our dearest legacies, our proudest possessions, and our best-beloved companions.


See also: Elzevirs, by Andrew Lang



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