It’s almost inevitable really. People coming together over wine and poetry, maybe with a few candles and something toothsome to nibble. At some point, the intimacy becomes too distracting and, the next thing you know, the “Book of Verse” is going up in smoke. Obviously, if the intimate moment is taking place upon the “delightful Herb whose tender Green Fledges the River’s Lip”, then it’s a simple expedient to bung the Book into the River to quench the flames. Poetry saved; problem solved.
I have a couple of copies of the Rubaiyat which have had this happen to them – or rather, which I imagine have experienced this – moisture damaged and a little singed around the edges. I call them ‘Ophelias’ because, like the character from “Hamlet”, they too have been burned by love and then drowned.
FITZGERALD, Edward (Willy Pogany, illus.), Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., n.p. (London), n.d. (c.1925).
Duodecimo; limp suede wrappers, with blind-stamped spine titles and upper board decoration, gilt upper board titles and a cream ribbon; unpaginated (96pp.), top edges gilt and all pages untrimmed with decorative borders, with a tipped-in colour frontispiece and three plates likewise.
Moderate wear: covers well-rubbed and edgeworn with charring to the front cover; spine head pulled; text block edges toned with some smoke damage; spine cracked; endpapers moisture damaged with some creasing; previous owners’ contemporary ink inscriptions to the half-title page; ribbon detached; some pages loose; tears to the fore-edges of a couple of the last pages. Fair.
This example bears all of the hallmarks. The front cover is completely singed, with the suede burned down to the leather along the bottom edge; the corners and spine head are chipped where the scorched sections have flaked off and the whole text block is starting to come apart. Basically, it’s a mess, with little or no re-sale value: it’s not even worth getting it repaired. Still, the story it tells of an eventful evening (possibly) is something I find endearing.
FITZGERALD, Edward (Gilbert James, illus.), Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, R.F. Fenno & Company, New York NY, n.d. (c.1910).
Octavo; full red morocco, with gilt upper board titles and decoration and watered-silk bonded endpapers; 118pp., untrimmed, top edges gilt and all pages with decorative coloured borders, with a colour frontispiece (with tissue guard) and 11 plates likewise (no guards).
Moderate wear: boards rubbed and edgeworn with some fraying to the corners; spine extremities pulled and spine sunned; text block edges toned with some staining; spine cracked; moisture damage – rippling and staining to most pages; fore-edges of some pages lightly torn from being separated after being dried; some light scorchmarks to a few page fore-edges. Fair.
In this instance, it’s clear that this was a case of over-compensation. The amount of fire damage here is very slight, but obviously, someone panicked and dunked the book more than was absolutely necessary. I keep this copy around because it contains a selection of the Gilbert James illustrations which have been copied using a kind of photogravure process: this has made the otherwise light and ephemeral drawings rather harsh and flat with a kind of effect similar to the poster work of Alphonse Mucha. It’s also typical of the rampant piracy that the Americans were into back then, in terms of copying this work from across the Pond.
Again, the condition of this book means that it has no real monetary value; but for me, it serves as a demonstrative example of not only James’ collection of Rubaiyat images (which have rarely been published all together in the same edition), but also as a concrete indicator of the publishing story of this poem. And I simply can’t bring myself to throw her away!