Thursday, 16 July 2020

Signatures from the Past

On 28 September 1877 Thomas Hardy jotted down the following note: ‘An object or mark raised or made by man on a scene is worth ten times any such formed by unconscious Nature.  Hence clouds, mists, and mountains are unimportant beside the wear on a threshold, or the print of a hand’.  The same principle surely applies mutatis mutandis to old books, or at least it does for me to the old Morris volumes I’ve collected from secondhand booksellers across the decades.

I’m fond of my one-volume Earthly Paradise from 1890, with its robust dark-green binding and gilt vegetative decorations.  That was a bargain at £7-50 from the Carnforth Bookshop just a few miles up the road from Lancaster, where I’ve found so many good things over the years.  Although I must admit that my middle-aged eyes struggle to cope with the tiny print required to pack Morris’s  twenty-four poetic tales into a single tome.

But it is my copy of Prose and Poetry by William Morris from Oxford University Press in 1913 that is the more haunting volume.  It too is handsomely bound, with a small gilt design on its front cover, and offers a generous spread of Morris’s literary work in its 650 pages.  But it is the Hardyesque human touch which gives this volume its resonance down the century or so that it has survived.  For a couple of pages in is written: ‘fondest regards to you all, Russell, Oxford 1914’. 

No way now of knowing who this 'Russell' was or how the great cataclysm of the 1914-18 war would affect either him in Oxford or the ‘all’ to whom the book is gifted.  But as European calamity broke or was just about to break all around him, Morris’s work seemed, for whatever reason, worth offering as a small but telling gesture to those whom he loved.

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