Sonnets From the Crimea

Cover of "Sonnets of Crimea"
Cover of “Sonnets of Crimea”

As I write these words, the political situation in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea is explosive. Historically part of Russia but given to Ukraine in the 1950s, Russia is threatening military action to recover it. So this week I am featuring verses by the Polish poet and activist Adam Mickiewicz, entitled Sonnets From the Crimea. (in Polish, Sonety Krymski). Originally published in 1826, this edition is from August 1917, one of the last books issued by Paul Elder prior to his retirement from regular publishing. It is a slim undecorated volume, with uninspired typography but well-made and printed on quality laid paper.

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) is a renowned figure in Polish literature. He is one of Poland’s “Three Bards,” along with Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński, and is of comparative importance to Lord Byron in English or Goethe in German. He was also a political activist, and campaigned for Poland’s independence from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania–for which he spent five years in exile in Russia. He spent most of his later life in Rome and Paris, but died in Istanbul while organizing Poles and Jews to fight against Russia in the Crimean War.

Title page of "Sonnets of Crimea"
Title page of “Sonnets of Crimea”

The poem highlighted in the image below, “The Ruins of Balaclava,” refers to the Battle of Balaclava, fought on 25 October 1854 between the British and Russian forces. That was also the day of the Charge of the Light Brigade, where miscommunication among the British officers led to the brigade’s charge directly into Russian cannons, resulting in grievous casualties. Tennyson wrote his famous poem just six weeks later, to great acclaim.

The poetry was translated by Edna Worthley Underwood (1873–1961), who learned many languages despite little formal education. Her first works were chiefly historical novels, but by the time of Sonnets From the Crimea she had turned chiefly to poetry and translations. In addition to Polish, she also worked in Russian, Spanish, Farsi, Japanese and Chinese.

Page 31 of "Sonnets of Crimea"
Page 31 of “Sonnets of Crimea”


The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

Fancy suede binding of "The Raven"
Fancy suede binding of “The Raven”

When I was a child, we had a small book of poetry bound in blue boards. My mother enjoyed reading these poems to me, and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” was one of her favorites. I can still hear my mother beginning “Once upon a midnight dreary…”

The Raven” was published on 29 January 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror. It was an instant hit and made Poe famous, although it did not earn him much money. Nearly 170 years later, “The Raven” remains one of the best-known poems in the English language. It has appeared in numerous editions and is a favorite with illustrators. The poem has also been parodied many times; my favorite is “Ravin’s of a Piute Poet Poe,” by Charles Leroy Edson, published in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1925.

Title page of "The Raven"
Title page of “The Raven”

In 1846, the year after publishing “The Raven,” Poe wrote an essay entitled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in part to explain how he composed the poem (although it’s unclear whether Poe actually used the techniques himself). For example, Poe writes that “the death… of a beautiful woman … is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” Poe would feel this very anguish in 1847 when his wife Virginia died of tuberculosis. He himself died in 1849 under mysterious circumstances.

Elder’s edition of The Raven and the Philosophy of Composition is a beautiful one: a limited edition of 1000, in suede cover with title stamped in gold, matching dust jacket, two-color printing and imported handmade paper. On the other hand, the book was set in Washington Text, one of Elder’s favorite display types but a poor choice as a text type. Galen Perrett’s illustrations are Victorian in character, which conflict somewhat with the Arts & Crafts feel of the rest of the book. In addition, the illustrations are reproduced too small, so that the poem (included in the illustration) is difficult to read. Despite these flaws, it is a very handsome book.

First page of the poem
First page of the poem
First page of "The Philosophy of Composition"
First page of “The Philosophy of Composition”
One of Galen Perrett's illustrations
One of Galen Perrett’s illustrations


Cover of "Blottentots"
Cover of Paul Elder & Co’s “Blottentots”

The craft of making art from inkblots is called klecksography (from klecks, the German word for “stain” or “blotch”). The modern reader might call to mind the Rorschach Test, but klecksography has a much longer history.

The first person to publish a book using inkblots was Justinius Kerner (1786-1862), a German poet and medical writer. Due to failing eyesight, he would often accidentally drip ink onto his paper. Rather than throw away the resulting inkblots he decided to keep them as artwork, and wrote poems to accompany them. He finished the book Klecksographien in 1857 but it wasn’t published until 1890, twenty-eight years after his death.

Page 7 of
Page 7 of Justinius Kerner’s “Klecksographien”

In 1896, Albert Bigelow Paine (1861-1937) and Ruth McEnery Stuart (1849-1917) published “Gobolinks,” (a play on the words “goblin” and “ink”). Paine and Stuart envisioned Gobolinks as a game, where the players have five minutes to create an inkblot and then a poem to accompany it. Judges are chosen amongst the group, and they choose the best submissions;  players whose works are chosen then become judges for the next round, and the previous judges become players. After the proscribed number of rounds, the final judging is conducted.

Enter Paul Elder & Company in 1907, with Blottentots, and How To Make Them. The book is certainly derivative, but the inkblots are creative and the verses delightful for youngsters’ ears. The author is John Prosper Carmel with calligraphy by Raymond Carter, but the former is believed to be a pseudonym of the latter. I have been unable to find any information about Mr. Carter.

Cover of Stuart and Paine’s “Gobolinks”

In 1921, fifteen years after the publication of Blottentots, Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) wrote his book Psychodiagnostik, which was to form the basis of the test which bears his name. Some have suggested that Rorschach based his inkblots on Kerner’s, but there appears to be no conclusive evidence of this.

The rules of Gobolinks
The rules of Gobolinks
Page 3 of Gobolinks
Page 3 of Gobolinks
Frontispiece and title page of "Blottentots"
Frontispiece and title page of “Blottentots”
Pages 2-3 of "Blottentots"
Pages 2-3 of “Blottentots”
Pages 22-23 of "Blottentots"
Pages 22-23 of “Blottentots”
The first of the ten cards in the Rorschach test
The first of the ten cards in the Rorschach test


An Alphabet of History

Cover of "An Alphabet of History"
Cover of “An Alphabet of History”

In 1905, Paul Elder published Wilbur Nesbit’s An Alphabet of History, a large-format volume of verse for adults. In contrast to some other humorous verse featured here, Nesbit’s poetry has survived the last century in fine shape to be appreciated by the modern reader.

Wilbur D. Nesbit was born in Xenia, Ohio in 1871. He spent most of his career in journalism, working his way up from small-town newspaper reporter to editor at the Chicago Tribune and then the Chicago Evening Post. Along the way he began composing poetry. Nesbit was also in demand as a toastmaster, and was a long-time member of the “Forty Club,” a Chicago version of San Francisco’s Bohemian Club. Nesbit wrote a history of the Forty Club in 1912.

Title page of "An Alphabet of History"
Title page of “An Alphabet of History”

According to The National Magazine of May 1917, what Wilbur Nesbit was best known for at the time was a patriotic poem “Your Flag and My Flag,” often recited at political conventions and Congressional sessions, and which has “a ring of national sentiment that rivals the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ itself.”

The delightful drawings are by the artist Ellsworth Young (1866-1952), who in addition to book and magazine illustrations, was a noted landscape painter and poster artist. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and later worked for the WPA.

Wilbur NesbitReferences: The National Magazine, Boston, May 1917, p304-5.

Frontispiece of "An Alphabet of History"
Frontispiece of “An Alphabet of History”
"An Alphabet of History," letter K
“An Alphabet of History,” letter K
"An Alphabet of History," letter S
“An Alphabet of History,” letter S
"An Alphabet of History," letter Z
“An Alphabet of History,” letter Z

Poem Delivered at the Dedication of the Pan-American Exposition

Cover of "Poem Delivered..."
Cover of “Poem Delivered…”

The Pan-American Exposition was originally scheduled for 1897 on Cayuga Island, New York, a few miles upstream from Niagara Falls. But the Spanish-American War intervened, and fair was eventually held in May-November 1901 in Buffalo, then the eighth-largest city in the United States.

Today, the Exposition is chiefly remembered as the site of President William McKinley’s assassination on 6 September 1901. But before that momentous event, one of the biggest novelties was electricity: the fair was lit by Nicola Tesla’s new three-phase alternating current, powered by Niagara Falls, twenty-five miles away.

Robert Cameron Rogers (1852-1912)
Robert Cameron Rogers (1862-1912)

Robert Cameron Rogers (7 Jan 1862-20 Apr 1912) was born in Buffalo, and graduated from Yale in 1883. His father, Sherman Skinner Rogers, was one of the most prominent lawyers in Buffalo, and Robert spent a year in his father’s firm before deciding that law was not for him. Instead, he turned to writing, and published books, poems and magazine articles. His 1898  poem “The Rosary” was set to music several times, most notably by Ethelbert Nevin, and sold very well as sheet music.

Rogers moved to Santa Barbara in 1898. In 1901 he purchased The Morning Press newspaper, which he molded into one of the most influential and best-edited papers in California.

Aerial view of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo NY
Aerial view of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo NY

At first glance, it is perhaps surprising the small San Francisco firm of Elder & Shepard should publish this volume, especially since New York City, the undisputed center of American publishing, was so close to the Exposition. This was probably due to Morgan Shepard’s Santa Barbara connections, perhaps his sister-in-law Katherine Putnam, author of Wayfarers in Italy.

The cover and title page feature a tomoye design, though the tomoye has no connection with the poem or the Exposition. The tomoye had only recently been chosen as a sort of “logo” by Elder & Shepard, and they were clearly trying hard to establish their brand.

Rogers died in Santa Barbara in 1912 from complications of an appendicitis operation.

Title page of "Poem Delivered..."
Title page of “Poem Delivered…”
Page 1 of "Poem Delivered..."
Page 1 of “Poem Delivered…”