Book Review: The Household Book of Poetry

First posted in February, 2004

I spent time with one of my most cherished possessions this morning: a heavy, hardbound volume, provincially entitled The Household Book of Poetry. Its cover is a lovely (but not quite dark enough for my taste) green, and I've intermittently engaged in several years of internal debate over whether the gilding on the cover is garish or adds to its charm. I love spending time with this book; there's a pleasant weight to its over eight hundred pages when it rests in my lap, however I'm always slightly sad that, despite being over one hundred thirty years old, it has yet to acquire that intoxicating Old Book Scent that I adore.

The editor, a Mr. Charles A. Dana (who, at least in August of 1856, was of New York), writes:

The arrangement of the book will be seen to be somewhat novel; but it is hoped that it may be found convenient to the reader, and not altogether devoid of ęsthetic congruity. The Editor also flatters himself that in classifying so many immortal productions of genius according to their own ideas and motives, rather than according to their chronology, the nativity and sex of their authors, or any other merely external order, he has exhibited the incomparable richness of our language in this department of literature, quite as successfully as if he had followed a method more usual in such collections.

I will set aside comment on the amusing egotistical nature of the preface for a second so that I can whole-heartedly concur with his method of thought. The book is arranged by topic; were I the editor in charge of every poetry anthology ever printed, they would all be arranged this way. (And I don't think of indexing by subject matter as anything novel, but perhaps in the mid nineteenth century it was.)

At any rate, there are but six topic headings: Poems of Nature, Childhood, Friendship, Love, Ambition, and Religion. Most of the time, I peruse the index under my three favorite headings (nature, love, and friendship) and choose what to read based on the mood of the title. I choose most of what I read from the realm of unknown-to-me works in this manner: if a title evokes an image or a compelling mood within me, I am drawn to it. If it doesn't, I tend to pass it by. This more often than not pays dividends, but occasionally I hit something really horrid that just happens to have a great title, and there's always that nagging thought that perhaps I've passed up something wonderful merely because it was dressed in an unappealing manner. Similarly, I tend to avoid the other three headings of the book (childhood, ambition, and religion), and wonder if I'm missing out on something I'd enjoy. This is a very diffusive prelude to a very simple statement: I generally only read one or two poems from the book in a sitting, sometimes choosing based on title from under a favorite heading, sometimes opening to a random page to see what else is there.

It's a book I've held in my hands hundreds of times, and each time I discover something new. Sometimes it's a poet of whom I've never heard nor read, sometimes it's a brilliant poetic aphorism, sometimes it's finding something of unexpected quality from a poet I've written off as not being to my taste.

This morning I found something new in the book, but it wasn't a poem. For some reason, I turned to the inside of the front cover; there was no real reason to do so, and I expected it to be blank. I've owned this book for over half a dozen years, and yet I've never looked inside the front cover. I remember standing in the darkened antique store where I first touched its binding, flipping through it with what must have been a very hungry expression, because the clerk told me he'd sell it to me for the amazingly ridiculous price of twenty dollars. I subsequently never looked inside the cover for a cost, but instead gladly gave the man nearly all the money I had in my pocket and strolled out into the light of a summer day searching for a place to sit and read.

So this morning, in opening the front cover, I found three things. The first is a price tag on a string, attached to the book by Scotch tape. The handwriting on the label is a lovely cursive script, seemingly feminine, written with a black felt tip pen. It reads:

         A252         BP
The Household
Book of Poetry
(Dana)    1873

I knew they'd sold it to me for far less than it was worth! I wonder why the man felt compelled to let me have the book for so little. Was it the fact that I was in my early twenties, dressed in the part of a predictably impoverished college student? Was it that look I no doubt had in my eye? Who knows.

The second item inside the cover is a hand-written receipt, this in a more masculine script, stating that I purchased the book in May of 1997 and that I was charged, with tax, a total of $21.65. I think I'll keep both the price tag and the receipt, just as a reminder of that pleasantly warm, typically Southern May afternoon when someone was kind enough to let me have something I couldn't afford.

And so to the final and most intriguing item: a brief history of this particular copy of the eleventh edition of The Household Book of Poetry. I'm inclined to hope that the handwritten notes inside the cover reveal the full history of where it's been, perhaps having been owned by merely five people over its entire existence. And the notes aren't just names, but tell also of relationships. The book was given by a woman named Eugenia Greenwood of Pine Street, Merrimac, Massachusetts to Harriett Louise (Thorn) Kelly in June of 1934. The various notes tell me that Harriett lived from 1860 to 1943, and so there's this wishful thinking inside me that maybe Eugenia, being "a close family friend," was older than Harriett and perhaps purchased the book when it was new. (What it must have been like, shopping for books in Massachusetts in the 1870's! I wonder what the store was like, what other sorts of books it carried.) Anyway, it seems that Harriett, who lived on the Kelly Homestead on Birch Meadow Road in Merrimac, passed the book on to her grandson, Willard Thorn Kelly, Jr, who in turn gave it to his son, Richard Edward Kelly, in 1963, precisely eleven years to the day before my own birth.

It's just interesting to me, knowing not just the names of who owned my book, but where and when they lived. I'm curious if there were other owners, and how it came to be in the antique store where I discovered it... was it acquired as part of the estate sale for Richard Kelly, or did he give it to some uncaring fool who sold it for a quick buck to buy pizza? I suppose I'll never know.

Anyway, it's all just added a richness to this book for me... memories of the gloriously sunny day when I floated about all afternoon, enamored with my new old book... curious thoughts about the other lovers of poetry who hopefully spent as many or more hours with this book as I have... I wonder if they found something new at each reading, just as I do, or whether they tried taking it all in at once.

And if I ever sell this book, or give it to someone who's worthy of it, I should probably print the above paragraphs onto some acid-free paper and tape them inside the back cover for someone else to find one hundred thirty-one years from now.