Wednesday, January 09, 2019

'A Time When Jests are Few'

There’s a romance to handling an old first edition. It’s not the monetary value but the knowledge that someone a century ago bought the book, read it when it was new and returned to it over the years. It may have become a fixture in his life. Holding the volume and turning the pages suggests a sense of solidarity with the past, knowing someone like you, perhaps a passionate reader, found pleasure or solace in the book.

From the Fondren Library I borrowed the first edition of a book I wrote about last week, Rudyard Kipling’s The Years Between, published by Methuen and Co. in 1919. The jacket is long gone but the buckram boards are dark red fading to brown, and the title and author are lettered in gold on the spine. On the front endpaper is a book plate with an unattributed saying: “Some Books are to be Tasted and Others Swallowed, And Some Few to be Chewed and Digested.” Below it is a drawing of a seated man in silhouette, reading. Next to him are volumes with “Homer” and “Virgil” on the spines. Below the Ex Libris is the owner’s name: Clement Du Poutet. I’m guessing at the surname. The signature is sketchy. At the back of the book are thirty-two pages devoted to Methuan’s catalog. Among their “One and Threepenny Novels” is the intriguingly titled The Red Derelict.

Reading Kipling’s wartime poems in their original book appearance, not in anthologies or an oversized Collected edition, is a stirring experience. Take “My Boy Jack.” (Go here for an excellent reading of the poem.) If we know Kipling’s son John went missing in the Battle of Loos in 1915, and was later found dead, the poem’s final lines bring tears: “Because he was the son you bore, / And gave to that wind blowing and that tide.” Some of the “Epitaphs of the War” are painful to read, knowing Kipling’s situation. Here is “A Son”:

“My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew
What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.”

And “An Only Son”:

“I have slain none except my Mother. She
(Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.”

[Thanks to my friend Melissa Kean, the Rice historian, who confirmed the spelling of Clement Du Poutet's name and found a faint trace of his existence.]

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

The quote is, I believe, from Francis Bacon.