“‘TIS dark: quick pattereth the flaw-blown sleet.”
Keats’s scene-setting for The Eve of St Agnes — a January poem if ever there was one — could serve just as well to set the scene where I sit snug in my study, surrounded and comforted by my books, while fitful gusts fling the weather against my window.
But I have warmth, lamplight, the sleeping dogs at my feet, and, best of all, my books as familiar friends; volumes of every shape and size, some elegantly bound, some worn and splitting, each with a story to tell, not only within their pages, but about their pages, too.
They carry the memories of when and where I bought them, the different times I read them, the friends with whom I read them. They are none of them catalogued or constrained into rank and file by any system. I let them stand on shelves or lie open on tables and chairs in any order, as happy chance or my own fancy finds them. Sometimes, I feel sure, they consort together and shift around when I’m not in the room. I’m certain I left John Donne safe in George Herbert’s improving company, but here he is on the table consorting with T. S. Eliot, again!
This evening, my pleasure in books themselves was intensified, when, idly turning the pages of Leigh Hunt, I came upon his little essay “My Books”, and read the opening sentence:
“Sitting, last winter, among my books, and walled round with all the comfort and protection which they and my fireside could afford me . . . I began to consider how I loved the authors of those books; how I loved them, too, not only for the imaginative pleasures they afforded me, but for their making me love the very books themselves.”
The very same scene. I felt as though he were here with me, or I there with him.
In that amiable essay, Hunt also remembers the friends with whom he shared his reading and his library. He tells how Charles Lamb loved his old folio of Chapman’s Homer so much that he gave it a kiss (as well he might — for it was this same volume that gave Hunt’s other friend Keats such delight that he wrote the immortal sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”).
“Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,” I could say with Keats, but my realms of gold include Keats himself, Hunt, and their mutual friend Shelley; for what makes Hunt’s little essay so poignant is that it was written in Italy just after Shelley’s death. Hunt, who had stood on the shore with Byron as Shelley’s body was burned, tells us that it was a volume of Keats which he himself had lent to Shelley that they found in his pocket when he was recovered from the sea. Shelley had promised that it would always be with him till Hunt saw him again.
Hunt says one more thing, to close the essay. He had once asked Shelley what book he would most like to save, and the famous atheist replied, “The oldest book, the Bible.” “It was a monument to him”, Hunt says, “of the earliest, most lasting, and most awful aspirations of humanity.”
So I laid down my Leigh Hunt, moved by that great radical to pick up and open, once more, the oldest book.