Sonnets of Spinsterhood

Cover of "Sonnets of Spinsterhood"
Cover of “Sonnets of Spinsterhood”

In 1915, the poet Snow Langley was 36 years old and unmarried: a “spinster” in the thankfully now-obsolete parlance. Spinning wool was typically the job of unmarried women, and spinster was used in legal documents as early as the 1600s to denote an unmarried woman who was likely to stay that way. One might think, then, that a book entitled Sonnets of Spinsterhood would be full of bitterness about years of loneliness. However, a better indication of what lies ahead is in the subtitle: A Spinster’s Book of Dreams: Delicate Traceries of Dim Desires. Langley writes in her introduction:

These Sonnets need, perhaps, a word of explanation. In a recent reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, the conviction was borne in upon me that the sentiment of love is worthy of expression, whether or not it outwardly finds an object; “for the romantic passion” as a dream, an ideal or a memory is a source of inspiration in every human life. I have endeavored to make the sequence of sonnets show the ideal progress from the personal to the racial, from the love which seeks individual expression to the love for humanity.

Title page of "Sonnets of Spinsterhood"
Title page of “Sonnets of Spinsterhood”

The book is bound in lavender paper, highlighting the personal, feminine nature of the content. The beautiful decorations are by Audley B. Wells, whom Elder used in a number of his publications.

Nannie Snow Longley was born in Ohio in 1879. Her family moved to California some time after, and she graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1896, where she gave the valedictory address, a historical narrative entitled “The Ballad of Lady Mary.” She left the ranks of spinsterhood at the age of 49 when she married Grant S. Housh in 1928; they had no children. For many years she was an English teacher at Los Angeles High School, where one of her students was the future science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury; he credited her with instilling in him a love of poetry. She died in 1963 and is buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Introductory "Proem"
Introductory “Proem”
The first sonnet.
The first sonnet.
Page 14-15 of "Sonnets of Spinsterhood"
Page 14-15 of “Sonnets of Spinsterhood”
The last two sonnets.
The last two sonnets.

Abelard and Heloise

Cover of "Abelard and Heloise"
Cover of the 1911 edition of “Abelard and Heloise”

The story of Abelard and Heloise is too well known to need repetition here, for these two rank with the few great historic lovers of the world, as well they may. The love of Heloise was sublime in its intensity, romantic in its constancy, appealing in its pathos, and tragic in its suffering.

When I first picked up Abelard and Heloise, I had never heard their names before. But one hundred years ago, so Ella Costillo Bennett informs me, I would have known all about them. (I hope this reflects the great differences in literary curriculum between then and now, as opposed to my ignorance of a story that everyone knows!) Bennett has taken some of their love letters and rewritten them as poems.

Title page of "Abelard and Heloise"
Title page of the 1911 edition of “Abelard and Heloise”

Pierre Abélard (1079–1142) was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, theologian, composer and preeminent logician. Héloïse d’Argenteuil (1090?–1164) was a French writer, scholar, and later a nun and abbess. Their story is certainly a captivating one: two brilliant scholars who meet, fall in love, are separated, but continue to meet in secret. She becomes pregnant and bears a son, they are married but then separated again when Héloïse is sent to a convent. (I am leaving out many details.) They begin a long correspondance, which has become the thing of legend.

Images of Abelard and Heloise's tomb at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Abelard’s and Heloise’s tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Even their mortal remains have become legendary. Their bodies were moved several times over the intervening centuries, most recently to Père Lachaise Cemetery in 1817 by Josephine Bonaparte. At the time, Père Lachaise was outside the dense urban area of Paris, and the reburial is thought to have considerably increased the cemetery’s popularity. It has since become tradition for lovers, or lonely singles, to leave letters at their tomb in hopes of finding true love.

Paul Elder published Abelard and Heloise in a limited edition of 500 copies in 1907, accompanied by illustrations by Will Jenkins. He published a trade edition in 1911.

Page 14-15 of "Abelard and Heloise"
Page 14-15 of “Abelard and Heloise”

Ella Costillo Bennett (1865-1932) was a San Francisco socialite and a minor player in the local literary scene. She was a feature writer for a number of newspapers, including The Wasp and The Pacific Coast Weekly (for which she wrote “Knocks from the Iconoclast”), and an associate editor for Mythland, a children’s magazine.

Much of what is known about Ella Bennett comes from a 138-page scrapbook (now at the University of Colorado at Boulder), created by her daughter Mary L. Bennett. In addition to manuscript letters, typescripts of original poetry, and published articles written by Ella, the scrapbook contains materials relating to the women’s suffrage movement and anti-war petitions. Also figuring prominently is Ella’s son Ray Raphael Bennett (1895-1957), a television and film actor.

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