Thursday, 21 November 2013

Bloomfieldiana II

 Richard & Kate a Suffolk Ballad. Engraved facsimile of Bloomfield's manuscript.

Engraved leaf 243 x 208mm max.; Bloomfield's signed manuscript of the first eight stanzas of the ballad first published in Rural Tales, 1804, printed in facsimile, recto only, on heavy wove paper; large engraved vignette after G. Harrison of “Austin’s farm at Sapiston Suffolk the early residence of Robert Bloomfield”.

Purchased from Claude Cox Old & Rare Books (Ipswich), “Lightly foxed & soiled; margins largely cut away just cropping text at left; vertical & horizontal folds with two old unobtrusive repairs to cracks along folds (no loss). Extremely scarce - we have been unable to locate another copy. Presumably produced early in the century at the height of Bloomfield’s popularity. Few copies of this ephemeral piece can have survived.”

Bloomfield wrote at a time when the collecting of writers' autographs had become a mania. I believe this facsimile was produced to satisfy the importunate demands of autograph hunters. Bloomfield, I would say, was the first English poet to achieve “celebrity”; before Byron, let alone Coleridge & Wordsworth, or even Walter Scott. And Bloomfield endeavoured to exploit his fame by the production of this facsimile and the two mezzotint portraits - self-published for sale to “fans” like the Hollywood portraits of the twentieth century.

In August 1834, a Mr William Saunders of Liverpool asked James Hogg for one of Walter Scott’s letters. Hogg told him to get lost. Mr Saunders appears to have been a persistent collector. He had asked Coleridge for something similar during the preceding month, and there he had more luck. The poet sent him the following:
“Rich Men, who keep accounts at various Banks,
Should not give Autographs to Strangers, ne’er!”
So said a shrewd Attorney, one who ranks
High ’mongst the Jews, and in th’Old Bailey Sphere.
But I keep none: and therefore have no fear
In letting loose my hand-writing and name,
To gain such fair Extension to my FAME!
This “Doggerel Letter for an Autograph” is apparently the last verse Coleridge wrote. He replied to other requests. The only known holograph of “Kubla Khan” was forwarded by Southey to an autograph hunter in 1804. Hogg regarded autograph hunters as pests; history has reasons to thank them

The pursuit of autographs was a popular pastime in nineteenth-century Germany too. Goethe was not the first who had to cope with such requests from readers, but he, like Bloomfield, came up with a solution that is both noteworthy and elegant. Tired of scribbling the desired specimen, but unwilling to appear impolite to admirers, Goethe turned to the new technology of lithography. In the 1820s, he would transfer a verse and his signature to a litho stone from which duplicates could be printed. The prints seem to have delivered the author’s aura to the autograph seeker quite successfully. One solicitous correspondent after another around 1830 received this “hand-written” verse:
Was ist denn aber beim Gespräch,
Das Herz und Geist erfüllet,
Als dass ein echtes Wortgepräg'
Von Aug' zu Auge quillet!
Which one might translate as, “What is it in a conversation that fulfills both heart and mind, but this: that genuine words do flow from eye to eye”. Underneath was Goethe’s (lithographed) signature. The lines praise “genuine” words and the fulfilment of conversation. Goethe’s lithograph is therefore twice removed from the authenticity it invokes.

The irony of Goethe’s lithographed verse and signature, satisfying requests from admirers for an autograph was not lost on the poet. No irony in Goethe was ever unintended, even when it is not always obvious. In this case “Wort-Gepräg” alludes to the new technique of reproduction he employed. The irony, however, does not stop there as Goethe, the collector, was not above soliciting autographs himself. In December 1811 he had privately published and distributed among friends and acquaintances several hundred copies of a broadside catalogue of his Autographa, signed and dated in his own hand. It included historical figures, such as Guillaume Budé, Calvin and Colbert, but mostly contemporary writers, scientists, musicians and artists.

The true purpose of this exercise was revealed in the subscription, printed in a larger, cursive font than the catalogue itself: “Mit Bitte um gefällige Beiträge”, which might be translated as “additions will be gratefully received”.

To revert to Bloomfield’s sop to the autograph hunter, what happened to all the copies he must have had printed? Apart from my copy, there are two copies in Suffolk Record Office, Bury St Edmunds Branch (“Print. Austin's Farm at Sapiston the early residence of Robert Bloomfield and facsimile of part of “Richard and Kate” with signature.  1511/205/3  undated”) but apparently no other copies in institutional collections. And are these copies also trimmed close to the text, presumably to convey the impression that they are genuinely hand-written rather than printed?


Indebted to an extended discussion in the TLS, (01.02.2013), 36; (15.02.2013), 36 (01.03.2013), 6.

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