Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Mr. Wordsworth ... in the Kitchen ... with the Butter Knife?

[Note: this is a long post]

There's been an ongoing discussion over on ExLibris lately that prompts this post, which is a short* examination of what seems to be a game of literary "Telephone". The discussion started - I think - with a post about binding errors [update: I'm reminded the original question dealt with what appeared to be an intentional misbinding] and what value (if any) they brought to books. It then slowly morphed into a conversation about shrink-wrapped books, and from there to the difference between "shrink-wrapped" and "unopened" (that is, a book in which the top and fore-edges of the leaves remain connected from where the sheets were folded into gatherings ... not to be confused with "uncut", where the page edges have not been trimmed straight by the binder. See here, the first and second images).

An anecdote, introduced into the thread at this point, starts us on our investigation. Wrote one member (all such of whom shall remain anonymous for our purposes: "
There is an amusing story regarding Wordsworth and Coleridge at Dove Cottage which illustrates their different temperaments: Wordsworth was greatly annoyed to see Coleridge opening new books with the butter knife."

Ah, wrote another Ex-Libran "Smiling to think of the scene (was Dorothy in the doorway? - did she take sides? - I don't remember!)." But wait, said a third: "Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, it was Wordsworth, not Coleridge, who sliced open books with a butter knife. I have a feeling that Harriet Martineau may be the source of that story."

My curiosity then piqued (an effect almost unavoidable under the circumstances) I checked a few book indexes from my shelves and then clicked over to Google Books (which, as I think I've said before, I am coming to think of as a sort of "master index" even though it's not there yet). I found a few citations which named Wordsworth the buttered-knife fiend, and passed them on to the list. Not to be countered, however, the original poster who'd pointed the buttered blade at Coleridge replied "The particulars seem fraught with confusion & conflation. It does
appear that SOMEBODY committed the heinous deed, but the doctors disagree." Pasted below were three more citations, all naming Coleridge. And so the project was on. What's the root of this story? How's it gotten so snarled?

Off we go.

From what I've been able to determine so far - and this could change at any moment, mind you - the originator of this story seems to be Thomas De Quincey, who tells it in his The Lake Poets: Wordsworth and Southey (written 1830-40, but to be found in Volume II of The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, 1889). On page 312 of that volume, De Quincey writes: "[Robert] Southey had particularly elegant habits (Wordsworth called them finical) in the use of books. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was so negligent, and so self-indulgent in the same case, that, as Southey, laughing, expressed it to me some years afterwards ... 'To introduce Wordsworth into one's library is like letting a bear into a tulip garden.'"

De Quincey continues, recounting the tale of the "first exemplification" he had of Wordsworth's 'less than gentle' treatment of books. It was, he writes, "early in my acquaintance with him, and on occasion of a book which (if any could) justified the too summary style of his advances in rifling its charms. On a level with the eye, when sitting at the tea-table in my little cottage at Grasmere, stood the collective works of Edmund Burke. The book was to me an eye-sore and an ear-sore for many a year, in consequence of the cacophonous title lettered by the bookseller upon the back - 'Burke's Works.' I have heard it said, by the way that, Donne's intolerable defect of ear grew out of his own baptismal name, when harnessed to his own surname - John Donne. No man, it was said, who had listened to this hideous jingle from childish years, could fail to have his genius for discord, and the abominable in sound, improved to the utmost. Not less dreadful than John Donne was 'Burke's Works'; which, however, on the old principle, that every day's work is no day's work, continued to annoy me for twenty-one years. Wordsworth took down the volume; unfortunately it was uncut; fortunately, and by a special Providence as to him, it seemed, tea was proceeding at the time. Dry toast required butter; butter required knives; and knives then lay on the table; but sad it was for the virgin purity of Mr. Burke's as yet unsunned pages, that every knife bore upon its blade testimonies of the service it had rendered. Did that stop Wordsworth? Did that cause him to call for another knife? Not at all; he

'Look'd at the knife that caus'd his pain:
And look'd and sigh'd, and look'd and sigh'd again';**

and then, after this momentary tribute to regret, he tore his way into the heart of the volume withis knife, that left its greasy honours behind it upon every page: and are they not there to this day? This personal experience first brought me acquainted with Wordsworth's habits in that particular especially, with his intense impatience for one minute's delay which would have brought a remedy..." De Quincey goes on to say that he'd purchase the Burke volume cheaply and wouldn't have mentioned the incident at all, "only to illustrate the excess of Wordsworth's outrages on books, which made him, in Southey's eyes, a mere monster..."

But what of Coleridge? Ah, De Quincey says in the next paragraph, "has Wordsworth done as Coleridge did, how cheerfully should I have acquiesced in his destruction (such as it was, in a pecuniary sense) of books, as the very highest obligation he could confer. Coleridge often spoiled a book; but, in the course of doing this, he enriched that book with so many and so valuable notes, from such a cornucopia of discursive reading, and such a fusing intellect, commentaries so many-angled and so many-coloured that I have envied many a man whose luck has placed him in the way of such injuries; and that man must have been a churl (though, God knows! too often this churl has existed) who could have found in his heart to complain."

I just couldn't resist quoting that at length; it had to be done. So, now, onward.

In Holbrook Jackson's The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1981, page 423), much of De Quincey's account is quoted verbatim. Heather J. Jackson in Marginalia (2001, page 95) references the same, noting that De Quincey "compares [Wordsworth] unfavorably with Coleridge." The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (1993, page 781), summarizing De Quincey's work: "Coleridge is shown in all his intellectural grandeur and human weakness: simultaneously the most original English mind of his time and a compulsive plagiarist. Wordsworth's genius is fully honoured, but he is also the proud bibliophobe - sacreligiously cutting open precious pages with a used butter-knife on the kitchen table...".

Not all authors seem to have been so careful in their use of De Quincey, however. In How to Form a Library (1886) Henry Benjamin Wheatley comments (page 53) "Southey cared for his books, but Coleridge would cut the leaves with a butter knife..." Channeling Wheatley to a suspicious degree, Adrian Joline, in The Diversions of a Book-Lover (1903, page 27): "If I am not mistaken, Southey was careful with his books, but Coleridge would cut the leaves with a butter-knife, and De Quincey was merciless toward them." A.J.K. Esdaile, in Autolycus' Pack and Other Light Wares (1969 reprint, page 51), speaking of Samuel Johnson: "Let us trust that he did not, like Coleridge, cut books open at breakfast with the butter knife."

The examples abound, in biographies, newspaper articles, and works of literary criticism. For the most part, they convict Wordsworth; the earliest example I can find which places the blame on Coleridge is Wheatley's 1886 comment. That certainly doesn't mean earlier examples don't exist, just that I haven't come across them. I'd be interested to see other citations, either taking the story back earlier than De Quincey's account (presuming his truthfulness in having witnessed the event, these shouldn't exist), or finding pre-1886 examples naming Coleridge as the butterer (quite possible). I have not yet had a chance to read the newest account of the Wordsworth/Coleridge relationship (Adam Sisman's The Friendship), which may or may not contain this anecdote.

No matter what, this has been a fascinating examination, and it shows, I think, both the power of the new technologies (this little study could not, I suspect, have been done in a single morning to the same degree without Google Books) and the literary knots that exist out there just waiting to be untangled. And so, at long last, I must conclude on De Quincey's evidence, that it was indeed Mr. Wordsworth, in the kitchen, with the butter knife.

* Alright, not-so-short.
** A paraphrase, apparently, from Dryden's "Alexander's Feast".

1 comment:

David G said...

Sir, a masterful dissection of the tangled threads of this most curious event. Some may pass over it as unworthy of their notice but I hold that it informs my perception of Wordsworth's character.

So, what is your instrument of choice?

David G Anderson