Monday, April 22, 2024

'Give Him the Darkest Inch Your Shelf Allows'

Its 1,498 pages tip the scales at 3.2 pounds: Collected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson, originally published in 1929. At Kaboom Books I bought the twelfth printing, from 1959. The dustjacket is a little frayed around the edges but the book is otherwise sturdy. It collects the nineteen volumes of verse published by Robinson. 

Sometimes a book is an artifact salvaged from a midden – not the text but its provenance. On the front end  paper is a bookplate from a prior owner, Rabbi Victor Emanuel Reichert. It shows an oil lamp, two lines of Hebrew script, two Stars of David and a tag from Milton: “He that would hope to write well . . . ought himself to be a true poem, that is a composition and pattern of the best and most honorable things.” The page is signed by Reichert, who adds “Ripton, Vermont” and “August 5, 1960.” How this spirit-rich volume ended up in a Houston bookstore, I have no idea.

A brief online search reveals that Reichert (1897-1990) served as rabbi of the Rockdale Avenue Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio, from 1938 to 1962 and was a longtime friend of Robert Frost. In 1946 Reichert invited Frost to deliver a sermon, and in 1960 he helped secure Frost an honorary doctorate at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Reichert was awarded honorary doctorates from Middlebury College and the University of Cincinnati, where he served as professor of Biblical literature. A death announcement in a 1991 issue of the Middlebury College magazine describes Reichert as “a spiritual leader of profoundly ecumenical temperament.”


Tucked into the book is Reichert’s membership card in the Poetry Society of Vermont, “Dues paid to 10/1/66,” and signed by the treasurer, E. W. Wilcox. With it are two folded pages of typescript. One contains five paragraphs of Robinson biography from Famous Poems and the Little-Known Stories Behind Them (Robert Lewis Woods, 1961). The other is signed by Betty Sander and is a brief thank-you note addressed to Reichert, including: “Ginny Cope tells me Robinson was your favorite before your wife introduced you to Robert Frost. I have never read any of Robinson’s poems, that I can remember, except Mr. Flood’s Party. . . .”


Throughout the volume are notes, underlinings and annotations. In 1946, Reichert published Job: Hebrew Text and English Translation. Of particular interest to Reichert in Robinson’s poem are scriptural allusions, including several from the New Testament. On Page 1,328, he marks some lines in Section I of the book-length poem Amaranth (1934): “. . . ‘Since our young friend has pause / And faltered on the wrong road to Damascus, / Having seen too much light, we’ll drink to him, / And to ourselves, and to our new friend Fargo.’” Reichert writes “Paul + Damascus.” Five pages later he identifies a reference to the Good Samaritan.


Complicating the book’s history is an inscription on the back end paper, in red ink and a different handwriting: “Meg Chase ‘Islander’ Sept. 24th, 1965 / A grand introduction to Mr. Robinson.” Left unmarked is Robinson’s early sonnet, “George Crabbe,” including these lines:


“Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows,

Hide him in lonely garrets, if you will,—

But his hard, human pulse is throbbing still

With the sure strength that fearless truth endows.”

1 comment:

Gary said...

Remarkable, PK, for what you found and for the way you shared it: a good find and a well written account of the serendipity.