on the Sublime
Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’
With 10 wood engravings by Christopher Wormell
Our subscribers and those who follow our trail will know that one of our chief delights is the revival of works from the canon of poetry in English. We have published work by several poets over the years in this area – Spenser, Keats, Clough, Shakespeare, and of course the inimitable Thomas Ingoldsby – but while we have published more contemporary poetry in the last few years – by Robert Bringhurst, Molly Holden, Jan Zwicky, and C P Cavafy – our last dips into the canon date back to 2017 (Musick in partes: Songs & Poems from the plays of William Shakespeare) and 2015 (Fancy: 8 Odes of John Keats). It’s time to explore it again. Up to now we have kept to the renaissance and the 19th century. Now, for the first time, we are moving into the Augustan realm of the 18th century.
Gray’s ‘Elegy’ and Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’ are two of the most celebrated poems of the period. Goldsmith’s poem, first published in 1770, particularly aroused considerable debate. It was read principally as both an argument against the Enclosures Act and a description of the displacement by wealthy landowners of the rural populations of farmers and workers on the land. Some of those displaced moved to the rapidly growing cities, others emigrated to America, but the consequence of both was to initiate the gradual destruction of the traditional English rural lifestyle. Some disavowed this argument, while others embraced it fervently – particularly in the 19th century in the wake of Malthusian theory. Goldsmith had himself seen an example of this upheaval in 1761, when the village of Nuneham Courtenay in Oxfordshire – generally accepted as the model for Goldsmith’s ‘Sweet Auburn’ – was forcibly razed by the 1st Earl Harcourt and its inhabitants re-sited a mile and a half away, in order to allow for the creation of a luxurious landscape garden by ‘Capability’ Brown. (Goldsmith had written a polemical essay at the time, ‘The Revolution in Low Life’, whose geographical description fits Nuneham Courtenay very closely.) Although Goldsmith describes the village of Auburn and its people with affecting particularity, he deliberately avoids direct references to a defined place, in order that the poem may be read as a metaphorical depiction of an acknowledged phenomenon.
However, ‘The Deserted Village’ is not essentially a polemic, but a lament for the disappearance of village life resulting from the enforced shift of large proportions of the population into urban industrial centres, which required a complete reassessment of their lives that most were incapable of addressing. Dickens was only the best known writer to excoriate the results of this development; the passages in The Old Curiosity Shop set in the inferno of the Potteries are perhaps the most scathing of all his attacks on the destruction of the country by industrial concerns, but his novels are filled with the poor and the desperate. Gaskell’s North and South is another, perhaps more measured, attack. Despite the wrongs which overshadow the background of the poem, ‘The Deserted Village’ remains one of the most poignantly affecting descriptions of old village life in the canon, equalled only by John Clare in ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’ (1827).
Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’, first published in 1751, is one of the most resolutely popular and frequently quoted of all English poems. In its earliest drafts from 1842 it is thought to have been written in response to the death of the now unknown poet Richard West, whom Gray knew, and in whose memory he composed other shorter poems at the time. Gray revived these incomplete drafts in 1850, restructured them, and completed the poem, though not then as a specific elegy for West or any one person, but as a meditation on mortality, particularly of any who ‘blush unseen,/ And waste [their] sweetness on the desert air.’ It is to an extent an elegy on his own life, and expresses a concern, which he feels to be universally part of the human condition, about the legacy each of us may leave, or whether we are bound to disappear into obscurity. It is, in that sense, an elegy for Everyman, that paradoxically omnipresent but forgotten figure of western culture, who is at the same time one of its glories.
Ours is by no means the first edition to place these two poems together. Particularly in the late Victorian period, from 1873 on, a number of such editions were published, and in 1896 a reputable journal of the time, The Academy, declared that ‘Gray’s “Elegy” and Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” shine forth as the two human poems in a century of artifice.’
SINGLE STATE: Probably 135 copies. Small Crown quarto: 10 by 6 ½ inches [254 by 165mm]. 60 pages. Hand-set in Bell in green and black with Fry’s Ornamented for display on our last stock of (now unfortunately vintage) Zerkall ENE extra smooth mouldmade paper. Ten wood engravings by Christopher Wormell, printed from the wood. Bound in half Japanese silk with Canal paper printed with a design from gravestone rubbings taken in Kent in 1977. Printed spine label. Slipcased with a portfolio of proofs of the engravings. PRICE: C$975.00.
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