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Two stories of the Chaucer

When William Morris printed The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, there was almost universal recognition that it was the most ambitious and remarkable book produced in the nineteenth century. The new publication, The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census by William S. Peterson and Sylvia Holton Peterson, locates and describes as many copies of the Chaucer Book as possible and reconstructs their complicated history of ownership. Check out these excerpts from The Kelmscott Chaucer that reveal the neat stories of two copies of the Chaucer.

Bibliothèque du Musée Rodin

Service des Archives et de la Bibliothèque du Musée Rodin, Paris. Quar­ter­-linen binding. Wilson–Shaw–Rodin copy. [Inventaire n° 6731]

Inscription in the book (signed by Bernard Shaw, 12 July 1907): “I have seen two masters at work, Morris who made this book, | The other Rodin the Great, who fashioned my head in clay: | I give the book to Rodin, scrawling my name in a nook | Of the shrine their works shall hallow when mine are dust by the way.” In a hard brown protective cover and a brown box.

Provenance: Sotheby, 23 January 1907, lot 261 [Library of the late Samuel Eyres Wilson, Esq., Bedford Square] (sold to Sydney Cockerell for George Bernard Shaw for £49). — Shaw. — Auguste Rodin (gift from Shaw, 13 July 1907). — the French state (gift from Rodin, 1916). — Musée Rodin (opened 1919).

All we know about Samuel Eyres Wilson is that he was a Londoner and that his books (sold at Sotheby’s, 23 January 1907, after his death) formed a collection of English literature and illustrated works.

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), the Irish playwright, knew Mor­ris well and in fact had an affair with his daughter May during the 1890s. In 1903 he boasted to William Dana Orcutt, “… I have a book [the editor of his letters, Dan H. Lawrence, believes this is a reference to the Chaucer] which Morris gave me—a single copy—by selling which I could cover the whole cost of set­ting up the ‘Superman’…” (Collected Letters, p. 355). Shaw described Morris as “the greatest printer of the XIX century, and one of the greatest printers of all the centuries” (p. 353), and he was to demand that in the future all his books be set in Caslon, following the design standards of Morris and Emery Walker.

In the spring of 1906 Shaw went to Paris to sit for a sculpture by Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), a French artist, who produced both a marble head and a bronze bust. (the latter is now in the Rodin Museum, Philadelphia; the for­mer is in the Musée Rodin, Paris.) To express his gratitude, Shaw arranged for Sydney Cockerell to purchase a copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer as a gift for the sculptor: “I bought one for Bernard Shaw the other day at Sotheby’s for £49,” Cockerell wrote to Harold Peirce on 12 February 1907 (Grolier Club). (Both Shaw and Cockerell had been present for the public unveiling of Rodin’s work in Paris in 1906.) Shaw remarked wryly that Rodin “knows absolutely nothing about books—thinks they are things to be read” (Collected Letters, p. 618). Ro­din donated all of his possessions, including the Chaucer, to the French state in 1916.

National Library of Ireland

National Library of Ireland, Dublin. Quarter-­linen binding. Yeats copy. [W. B. Yeats Library, no. 377]

Binding worn; first gathering loose. An institutional bookplate (patterned after Yeats’s bookplate, which was designed by T. Sturge Moore) indicating that the book was part of the Yeats Library (inserted in 2002). A few passages in the text are marked, and between pp. 278 and 279 an extract from a book­seller’s catalogue (offering a Chaucer in quarter linen, £98, June 1902) is laid in. The following text is tipped in on the rear endpaper: “TO W. B. YEATS. For June 13, 1905. From S. C. Cockerell. Edmund Gosse. A. H. Bullen. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. A. E. Horniman. Will Rothenstein. Augusta Gregory. Robert Gregory. E. Montgomery. Maurice Baring. Elkin Mathews. Castletown. John Masefield. Arthur Symons. Charles Ricketts. C. H. Shannon. Gilbert Murray. T. E. Lawrence. Ana Birch. Hugh P. Lane. William Orpen. John Quinn. A. Sul­livan. R. C. Trevelyan. Millicent Sutherland. John Shaw­-Taylor.”

Provenance: Wickham Flower (purchased from Quaritch in 1896). — Sotheby, 10 March 1905, lot 495 [Library of the late Wickham Flower, Esq., F.S.A., Great Tangley Manor, Guildford] (sold to Sydney Cockerell, acting on behalf of Lady Gregory, for £49).1 — W. B. Yeats (gift from lady Gregory and other friends, 13 June 1905). — Yeats family. — National Library of Ireland (gift from Yeats family, 2002).

W.B. Yeats

The name of Wickham Flower (1836–1904), a London solicitor, ap­pears in the mailing list of the Kelmscott press, but he purchased the Chaucer from Quaritch (in an undated advance order). In addition to books, Flower also owned a large collection of paintings (both old masters and modern) that were sold at Christie’s in December 1904, a few months after his death.

William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), the Irish poet, moved on the edges of the Morris circle during the years when he lived in Bedford park, close to Kelmscott House in Hammersmith. The scheme to give a Kelmscott Chaucer to Yeats on his fortieth birthday was hatched by his friend Lady Gregory. “Yes, please try for the Chaucer at £40 or even say £50,” she wrote to Cockerell on 29 January 1905 (Friends of a Lifetime, p. 268). “The truth is (private) I have never known W.B. Yeats wish for anything so covetously as for that book, and I think of getting 40 or 50 of his friends and admirers to give £1 each and give it to him (I buying it in the first place). I have given him no hint of this. His birthday is in June and I should at any rate by that time have made up the number. It would be a better compliment, I think, than a few large sums from a few.”

Cockerell was successful in buying a copy at a Sotheby’s auction in March, and after receiving the gift, Yeats wrote to Cockerell in early July, “I do not know how to thank you for the trouble you have been put to about the Chaucer. It is a book I have longed for for some years, indeed ever since it was made. To me it is the most beautiful of all printed books. It is especially valuable to me just now, for I am to start reading Chaucer right through” (Friends of a Lifetime, p. 269). To another of the contributors, Charles Elkin Matthews, Yeats remarked, “I have not read Chaucer since I was a boy & have just come to him in my read­ing, working back from Spenser, when this book, which has always seemed to me the most beautiful of all decorated books came to me” (Collected Letters, 4:166). Yeats kept the book on a painted lectern, designed by Robert Gregory (Lady Gregory’s son), between two candlesticks (Foster, Yeats, 2:158).

The Chaucer came to the National Library of Ireland in 2002 as a part of Yeats’s full library, a gift from his son Michael Yeats, his daughter­-in­-law Mrs. Gráinne Yeats, and his daughter Anne Yeats (who had died in 2001).

Click here for more information on The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census.

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