Special collections gives rare glimpse at literary canon

Urizen dividing up the universe using a compass, as pictured in William Blake’s 1794 “Europe; A Prophecy.” (Courtesy of William Blake Archive)

Assistant Professor of English Andrew Burkett’s “Romanticism Revolution” class took a field trip last week to discover the history hiding in Schaffer Library’s third floor.

Unknown to many library users, Union has an impressive assortment of historical writings, all housed in the Special Collections Department of Schaffer Library.

Of interest to Burkett’s class were the first editions of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth’s experimental “Lyrical Ballads” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”

In addition, the class also handled rare copies of William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience.”

Rather than just reading these works from an anthology, students were allowed to experience them in their original form.

It is astounding to see that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s groundbreaking “Frankenstein” is no bigger than two sticky note pads pushed together, and is contained within a rather plain red cover.

However, Coleridge and Wordsworth’s “Lyrical Ballads,” a highly experimental piece for the time, is bound with gold-leafed pages. Apart from the beauty of the written word contained in these pages, the pages themselves are beautiful. The feeling of reading such a beautiful book is incredible.

In addition to the appearance of many of these rare works, the size of these books is also very interesting.

“Lyrical Ballads,” for instance, is not much bigger than the palm of a hand.

Considering the Romantic Period’s fascination with exploring nature, it makes sense that they would make their books travel-size.

Easily placed in a pocket or a knapsack, many of these books that focus on the power of nature could actually be experienced in nature.

One of the most astounding volumes the class was allowed to handle was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1878 “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” illustrated by Gustave Dore.

The volume is massive, probably larger in width and length than this newspaper.

While the text of the poem itself is fairly short, Gustave Dore fills the rest of the book with elaborate, detailed sketches.

The face of the Ancient Mariner is etched in riveting detail. Handling this volume, the reader is truly transported into the scene pictured.

One can image that in an age without television or photography, Dore’s illustrations in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” were a powerful form of media to influence readers’ perceptions of Coleridge’s poem.

Speaking of historical forms of media, William Blake’s characteristic “plates” influence the reader in ways his words might not.

These plates, on which the text of famous works like “Songs of Innocence,” “Songs of Experience,” “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “America; A Prophecy” and “Europe; A Prophecy” is transcribed, are brightly colored and feature images that wind around the text.

Reading these images is akin to reading another version of Blake’s works.

For instance, while it may not be evident that all of Blake’s works respond to scientific ideas of the Enlightenment, the image of Urizen dividing up the world with a scientific compass clearly shows Blake’s distaste of the use of science to explain nature.

While these works are powerful on paper, the emotion contained in the images associated with each poem increases the potency of the work.

Visiting Special Collections reminds the reader that the presentation of historical works matters.

These books were presented in such a way as to make them appealing and to increase their impact.

Holding these fundamental texts, which shaped modern understandings of the English language and the English literary canon, truly aids in understanding them and allows one to be transported to the Romantic Period.



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