I read an old copy of an old poem. I was given this gorgeous anthology of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s work, an original Excelsior Edition published in 1880. The book is both an artifact and a piece of art; beautifully bound, heavy, glossy paper framed in red and an ornate cover in browns and gold. Photographs don’t do it justice. It’s amazing to hold in your hands a copy of a book that was printed three years before Queen Victoria herself met with the author (arguably the greatest poet of the Victorian age) to tell him how much she admired -and found personal solace in- the poem you are reading right now. Which brings me to the point.
I read it. I didn’t just look at this artifact on a shelf, or open it to look at the pages before putting it away again. I read it (I was careful of course; I only read at my desk, handled it very carefully, didn’t eat a tri-tip sandwich while doing so, all that). My visual memory of this poem is forever linked to this specific artifact. It’s not priceless ( these kinds of things can easily be found for less than a hundred dollars) but I know people who’d cringe at my choice here. What’s wrong with picking up a Norton Critical Edition of the poem from Powell’s, or finding an old (not ancient) copy at a used-bookstore? Fair enough. I fully understand that my reading of it isn’t doing anything to preserve the life of this book, but books are first and foremost a means of communicating. This edition doesn’t just communicate the beauty of Tennyson’s poetry, but a concrete sense of the intangible “historicity”. In a poem most critically studied as a lesson on the essence of all things Victorian, that’s no small feat.