Robert Browning’s Book and a Moment of Friendship

IMG_1132 copyIn 1860 the English poet, Robert Browning (1812-1889) received a book as a gift from his friend and fellow author, Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), who was also friends with the novelist Charles Dickens, the poet Robert Southey, and others.  The image to the left appears to show the spine of this book’s binding, indicating that the book in question is a copy of a 1640 edition of works by the Roman poet, Catullus (c.84-54 B.C.E.) Penn Libraries LatC C2994 640c.  It also indicates that this book was a gift with the words “PRESENTATION COPY FROM W.S. LANDOR TO ROBERT BROWNING” stamped on the leather.

I say that this only appears to be the binding of the book because, while it may look like a binding in the online image displayed here and in the POP flickr feed, this is actually an image of a box containing the copy of Catullus in question, as shown in the image to the right.  The actual spine of the book  (probably a 19th or late 18th century binding) is shown below.  This is, therefore, a IMG_1121book that can be judged, not just by one, but by multiple different covers.  The first cover, the case that looks like a binding, is made to declare that the provenance of this book is something very important, to be shown immediately.   Not only before the book is opened, but before the container has been opened so that the book can be taken out, this case communicates that one of the special things about this book is that it belonged to two well known literary figures.  By contrast, the cover of the book itself is a plain, inconspicuous, and rather worn black binding that announces nothing very special at all about the pages it holds together.  The contrast between these two types of cover highlight the way the significance of this book has been transformed across time.  What was once a private exchange of friendship between two people, an exchange only significant to, and possibly only known to Browning and Landor, has now become an event worth proclaiming to future readers perusing the shelves.  IMG_1127Another thing about this book that may not be immediately apparent from the close-up images of it is its size.  As the picture of it in my hand to the left suggests, this book is a pocket sized volume, measuring only 4″ high by 2.25″ wide, and a little over 1/2 and inch thick.  This small size again reinforces the personal and private nature of the book, which was not a showy volume for display, but a memento from a friend to be carried about and reaIMG_1124d often.

The moment that this memento was transferred from Landor to Browning is captured in a presentation inscription on a blank leaf near the front of the book, shown below (and in the image with my hand).  Landor has written in English: “W.S. Landor gave this book to the kindest of his friends Robert Browning/ June 16 . [18]60” and Browning has added an asterisk, indicating the Greek inscription that he himself wrote below:  “Es aei memnesomeno ten charin” (To the one who is always remembering grace), and signed with his initials, “RB.”  With the addition of his Greek comment, Browning appears to be gently indicating that any kindness Landor has perceived in Browning is due to Browning remembering the grace that Landor has shown to him in the past.  This charming exchange between two friends displays a moment of shared affection, in which each indicates the kindness and grace the other has added to his own life. Below his note of the date he gave the book to Browning, Landor has also added an additional private detail.  He writes that “This is the first book W. Landor ever bought.”  This final thought communicates the importance of this moment as, not only the gift of a book of poetry from one friend to another, but of Landor giving a memory to Browning, giving him a significant object, the first book he ever bought, possibly as a schoolboy at the prestigious Rugby School in Warwickshire with the family money that could fund the purchase of a 17th century book.

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The 1860 date of this inscription is from the period when Landor was living with Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning at their home in Florence.  Though Landor had inherited considerable land and wealth, in the late 1850’s he was plagued by political scandals associated with his radical views, legal troubles, an estrangement from his wife and family, and, in 1858, a stroke that left him weakened though not entirely disabled.  As a result of these troubles, he came to Florence at the end of 1859 with no place to live and little money, and the Brownings took him in for a period.[1]  So the inscription in this book is not only an expression of general gratitude to a good friend, but of gratitude for recent hospitality in a time of need.    As a gift from the then 85 year old Landor to the 48 year old Browning, it is also an act of passing a part of his youth, the first book he ever purchased, to the next generation.  In 1845 Landor had published a sonnet addressed to Robert Browning, praising the talent of the younger poet, available to read here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173835  If that sonnet provides us with a formal expression of praise bestowed upon the young poet, Browning, from  an older writer he admired, then the inscription in this small book 15 years later provides us with the informal, personal, expression of gratitude on both sides for a sustaining friendship.  It is a moment of recognition for the relationships that so often go unremarked on, the accumulations of gratitude that go unexpressed in day to day life, and often little recorded for history to witness.  It is a moment of friendship between two poets that exists, like the well-worn, quotidian binding of the little pocket sized Catullus, hidden beneath the  shiny cover of fame.

Visit this link to see all the provenance images associated with this book on the POP flickr feed. 

[1] “Landor, Walter Savage (1775–1864),” Geoffrey Carnall in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, Oxford: OUP, , http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/15980 (accessed August 28, 2014).

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