Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

On Book Borrowing: Forming Part of a Literary History Seen through the Perspective of a Book from Charles Lamb's Library

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

On Book Borrowing: Forming Part of a Literary History Seen through the Perspective of a Book from Charles Lamb's Library

Article excerpt

"I shall die soon, my dear Charles Lamb! and then you--will not be vexed that I had bescribbled your Books."

--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, May 2, 1811

COLERIDGE WROTE THESE WORDS ON THE BACK FLYLEAF OF A COPY OF John Donne's Poems owned by Charles Lamb. (1) It would not be the first book he returned to his friend with predictions of imminent death or marginalia destined to outlive both men. A few months later, in Lamb's folio of the plays of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Coleridge prophesied: "I shall not be long here, Charles! I gone, you will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a Relic." (2) In reality, Coleridge was nowhere near death, and while he may not have known that, he certainly did know that he was not spoiling Lamb's book. "Spite of Appearances," he wrote on Lamb's 1669 edition of Donne, "this Copy is the better for the Mss. Notes. The Annotator himself says so." (3) Lest there should be any doubt about the annotator, he signed the note (as he did others) "S.T.C." Coleridge was a master of that scattered genre, marginalia, a term he himself coined. He was voluminous in his marginal commentary, so much so that Princeton University Press had to devote no less than six hefty volumes--one of them over twelve hundred pages--in his Collected Works to it. In Lamb's essay "The Two Races of Men," Lamb spoke teasingly of the manuscript notes Coleridge left in his books as "vying with the originals" not only in quality, but also "not unfrequently" in terms of quantity. (4)

Indeed, Coleridge was not above commenting on his own comments. "N.B. Tho' I have scribbled in it," he wrote in Lamb's copy of Donne, "this is & was Mr Charles Lamb's Book, who is likewise the Possessor & (I believe) lawful Proprietor of all the Volumes of the 'Old Plays' excepting one." (5) He was referring to the third volume of Lamb's twelve-volume set of Robert Dodsley's Select Collection of Old Plays, which he had lost. The volume included a revenge tragedy, a history, and three Jacobean comedies (John Webster's The White Devil, Jasper Fisher's Fuimos Troes, Robert Tailor's The Hog Hath Lost his Pearl, John Cooke's Greene's Tu Quoque, and Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton's The Honest Whore), and for Lamb, it was "perhaps the most valuable volume of them all." (6) Coleridge had borrowed it along with Lamb's copies of Samuel Daniel's Poems and Philip Sidney's Arcadia. "Pray, if you can," Lamb pleaded, "remember what you did with it, or where you took it out with you a walking perhaps; for, to use the old plea, it spoils a set. " (7) But Coleridge could not remember, and, on this occasion, having loaned his books to Coleridge, Lamb wound up with an unsightly gap in his bookshelves and two books made valuable not only because Lamb owned them but, more importantly, because he and Coleridge wrote in them.

These two races of men--lenders and borrowers, Lamb and Coleridge-were connected through what is called, in the book trade, the association copy, and also, more generally, through what we might call the principle of association. Lamb's library was a living nexus of association. The nodes of that network included books as well as readers, annotators, owners, booksellers, and a multitude of bookish encounters and events. To follow patterns of association between books, or between people who have been involved in the life of a book, is to build so many paths to, and through, a lost world of letters. Embracing the associational principle as a literary critical technique--belletristic and book historical, biographical and bibliographical--this essay will explore literary history from the perspective of the book. The story it contains will be transatlantic, spanning the gap from Lamb's bookshelves to Greenwich Street in lower Manhattan, and our primary means of conveyance will be that same octavo edition bearing the marks of Lamb, Coleridge, and various other hands since the seventeenth century: Poems, &c. …

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