Monday, July 22, 2024

'The Hunting of the Snark' at 150

It was 150 years ago today that Lewis Carroll began to write 'The Hunting of the Snark'. As Goetz Kluge explains at his 'The Hunting of the Snark' blog, on 18 July 1874, 'the very last line of Carroll's Snark tragicomedy came into his head while out on a walk at Guildford: "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see." ' Then 'the first stanza was composed on 22 July 1874'. This became the last stanza of the poem:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
   In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
   For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

This upside-down way of writing, last verse first, is entirely proper for the poem. In October 1875, Goetz Kluge adds, Carroll gave the work its title, and on 1 April 1876 the book was published. Sub-titled 'An Agony in Eight Fits', it was first illustrated by Henry Holiday and there have been numerous other illustrated interpretations of it since, notably by Mervyn Peake and Ralph Steadman. 

The poem may be seen as the apogee of Carroll's nonsense writing, a work which achieves a perfect balance of absurd humour and yet elusive, wistful melancholy. It feels as if it might be an allegory of - something - yet it is all the better for being entirely frolicsome and free of any distinct meaning. 

In his wonderfully tongue-in-cheek Preface, Carroll explains that if, as might be 'wildly possible', he is accused of writing nonsense in 'this brief but instructive poem', he would defend himself against 'this painful possibility', not by an indignant appeal to his other writings as 'proof that I am incapable of such a deed', nor by reference to the poem's evident 'strong moral purpose' or 'arithmetical principles' or 'noble teachings in Natural History', but simply by explaining what happened. This explication invokes the Jabberwock and Humpty-Dumpty, so naturally is entirely lucid and conclusive.

But those who wish to explore the poem further may like to consult The Institute of Snarkology, which publishes a twice-yearly printed journal, The Snarkologist, whose volumes, like the poem, are arranged in 'Fits'. It also organises Snarkological events, and offers Snarkological links and other resources. For The Hunting of the Snark is a restless and eternal quest.

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Burnside Rare Books

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Arthur Machen: Balms and Ornaments

Arthur Machen published two books in July 1924, one hundred years ago. Both are slim volumes, both were published in limited editions (numbered and signed), and both are highly interesting for very different reasons.

Precious Balms came out first. It is basically a collection of extracts from the negative reviews of his writings that Machen had received from early on (The Great God Pan, 1894) to the present (Dog and Duck, 1924). The title comes from Psalm 141, the text as given in the  Book of Common Prayer:  “Let the righteous rather smite me friendly and reprove me, but let not their precious balms break my head.” But the content of the volume is not all depressing, for just under a quarter of the published pages include a chapter “The Other Side” which gives some specimens of Machen’s good reviews.

Machen had the idea for the book on the 5th of November 1923 (per Gawsworth’s The Life of Arthur Machen, p.301). In February 1924, Machen passed the proofs for a prospectus for the book, which his publisher took to America for publicity, in which an anonymous statement (by Machen himself) noted that Machen was “languishing in the cells of Carmelite House, serving a term of eleven years” for a series of obscure crimes. The Americans did not understand Machen’s humor, and thought this referred to some kind of a prison sentence. Carmelite House was, in fact, the name of the building that was the home of a newspaper, the Evening News, where Machen had been employed for eleven years (April 1910 through November 1921).  

Machen passed the proofs of Precious Balms on June 5th 1924 (adding a letter of apology about the misunderstanding of the prospectus), and 265 copies total of Precious Balms were printed. By July 16th, Machen had received his author’s copies, but in a letter to Colin Summerford on July 25th, Machen wrote that “I believe the whole edition was subscribed before publication. Only very few copies were sent out for review.”   

One wonders if Machen knew that James Branch Cabell had done a similar exercise at the back of his book Beyond Life (1919), where the negative quotations appear on first glance to be publisher’s advertisements. Cabell re-worked these quotations variously in reprints. See my blog post here for further details and examples.  

The second book, Ornaments in Jade,  was published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf of New York on 18 July 1924. Machen noted receiving his copies in August 1924. The edition was limited to one thousand copies, numbered, and signed by Machen. It is an oversized book, with a diamond pattern stamped in blind on the black cloth covers, and with soft jade green endpapers. This elegant production was issued in a black cardboard slipcase, which rarely has survived to the modern day.

Ornaments in Jade is a slim collection of ten prose poems, masquerading as short stories.  Machen wrote them in the summer of 1897, and after they were rejected by one publisher, he put them aside. (One appeared in print in 1908, in E. Nesbit's The Neolith.) John Gawsorth described them as “a sequence of ten very precious, very musical and very beautiful short symbolic tales, which were so chiselled and finished that he called them collectively Ornaments in Jade” (The Life of Arthur Machen, p. 145). Mark Valentine has perceptively noted: “Machen’s vivid evocation of the high splendours and the shaded secrets of the spiritual world, which he here distills into sentence after sentence that has the harmony of the psalms and yet the voluptuousness of the most vice-steeped verses of the decadents” (Arthur Machen, p. 58)

Thus two very different, and very interesting, Machen books, have now reached their century.

Saturday, July 13, 2024

A Dunsany Conundrum

My Wormwoodiana post of last month, on the centenary of Lord Dunsany's novel The King of Elfland's Daughter, elicited some interesting correspondence from various friends and Dunsany collectors.  First, I can confirm that the paragraph by Dunsany I quoted from the US dust-wrapper of The Blessing of Pan (1928), did in fact appear earlier on the flaps of the 1924 US dust-wrapper for The King of Elfland's Daughter. I do not know whether it is on the 1924 UK edition dust-wrapper (but I can say it is not in that edition of the book), so if anyone out there has this dust-wrapper, or has seen it, let me know. 

I was informed about another interesting text associated with The King of Elfland's Daughter. The 1976 French translation of the book, as La fille du roi des elfes, contains Lin Carter's introduction to the 1969 Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition, translated into French, and a short text headed "The Land of Men". It appears on the next page after Dunsany's usual single-paragraph Preface. These three paragraphs are in French, though I present them here in English: 

The Land of Men

At that time, man only had a vision of the world reduced to the distance he could cover on foot or on horseback. Most were content to stay in the regions they knew and listen to the stories of wandering travelers who brought back from their odysseys descriptions of strange places where even stranger events took place. Everything they said then seemed possible and probable because no one other than them had seen these things, and deep in their dazzled eyes could always be read the twinkling of the stars and wonder.

This is how everyone had heard about the Enchanted Kingdom. In fact, many had even seen its misty shores at the ends of the Earth, but no one ever dared to approach it too closely, because everyone also knew of the special powers that elves possess. Nevertheless, the brave bourgeois of the Aulnes valley were very eager to attract the benefits of this singular magic; so that they all rejoiced when Alveric, Prince of the Alders, ventured beyond the mists and brought with him the attractive daughter of the Elf King, Princess Lirazel.

These beginnings were auspicious. Because Lirazel was not a mortal being, Lirazel was a fairy. There was no malice in her, but she could not adapt to the narrow limits of human life. No supernatural creature, no elf can be fully satisfied. And especially in the Land of Men…

Does this text ring any bells with readers? The French edition gives no source or specified copyright of this text (it also gives no source or copyright credit for Lin Carter's introduction). I do not recognize it.  I has the feel that it might be by Dunsany, and I wonder if it might have appeared on the 1924 UK first edition dust-wrapper, or elsewhere, whether it is by Dunsany or not. 

Comments welcomed.


Friday, July 12, 2024

Ulric Daubeny: Two Tales

The latest hand-printed publication from Chad Oness at The Last Press is Two Tales by Ulric Daubeny, ‘The People of the Hidden Room’ and ‘The Other Occupant’, both taken from his very rare collection The Elemental: Tales of the Supernatural and Inexplicable (1919).

This elegant production with a twine-and-button fastening and charming holly leaf decorations, is a wonderfully apt format for the Cotswold antiquarian’s uncanny stories, which reflect his rich imagination and arcane learning.

In a brief foreword, Chad Oness discusses how difficult Daubeny’s book is to find and wonders if it ‘bears a curse of obscurity’. Perhaps, he reflects, reviving the work ‘a little at a time’ might evade the malediction. This finely-crafted edition is of ‘fewer than 65 copies’ in Perpetua types on ‘Velata Wove & Iyo glazed papers’, and is a delight both to handle and to read. There is also a deluxe edition of just 5 copies with marbled papers and a hand-made box.  

(Mark Valentine)