PET Book 1 – Robert Blair’s ‘The Grave’ with Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’

For my Pet Book I have chosen the book, ‘The Grave: A poem, together with Gray’s Celebrated Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ – the only edition found in the Northeastern University Library Special Collections. This text, a book by Robert Blair contains his poem, ‘The Grave: a poem’, together with Gray’s ‘Elegy in a country church yard’ and Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’. Isaac Hill, a politician and newspaper editor, published it in 1817 in Concord, New Hampshire (where Isaac Hill served as Governor). As McKenzie points out in ‘Book as Expressive Form’, texts “allow us to describe not only the technical but the social processes of their transmission”. Isaac Hill was ultimately a newspaper editor at the time of the publication of this book, before turning to politics. It is then interesting to look at this book, particularly the presence of Gray’s ‘The Elegy in a Country Courtyard’, and it’s publishing as a wagon for social comment. Isaac Hill as a newspaper editor and a politician would appear to recognise and seek change in society. Furthermore, Gray’s poem highlights that death does not know human difference; the rich and the poor ultimately have the same end. This poem is a direct comment on society and the class system.

This text drew my attention due to its size, measuring at 12cm in length. I was immediately intrigued by the story behind the size – perhaps it was designed to act as a type of pocket book for personal use, judging by the minimal 43 pages. It became remarkably vivid when imagining this small book kept in a woman’s handbag or in a bedside table. Inside this small book, not surprisingly, is incredibly small type. After addressing Philip Gaskell’s ‘A New Introduction to Bibliography’, it became apparent that the printing type is a development of the neo-classic face, which was included in the baroque romans. F. A. Didot developed the form and by 1800 the neo-classic type resulted “in faces of great contrast combined with vertical stress and un-bracketed, hair-line serifs”, like that shown in this particular text.

Although incredibly worn, the original leather and marbled boards binding is still noticeable. More often than not, calf hide was the popular use of material when binding leather coverings – as seen in this book’s case. The art of marbling was incredibly popular in the binding of texts in the 19th Century. The texts were printed and sewn together, then covered by blue, grey or marbled covered pasteboards, with a paper spine. The art of marbling includes staining the pasteboards with diluted acid to produce the effect of swirling hues. The marbling on this appears to be in the style of Italian marbling, resembling actual marble stone and the thin veins of colour between open spaces.

When researching marbling, it became evident that these simple bindings were not intended to be the finished product. These bindings were intended to be disposable. The owner of the book, after purchase, would take it to a binder and replace the original boards with a different binding. This research caused me to question the owner of this particular book. With the working class buying more books in the 19th Century, books changed from the intent of being collected to actually being read. Perhaps the original owner of this book didn’t have enough money to replace the binding, or simply didn’t find the need due to its personal use rather than showing it off to guests in a bookcase.

I hope to look into the reasoning behind the size of the book; perhaps I am stretching too far in thinking it is made for the person rather than the price of production. I would also like to look into why these three poems were chosen, although I have mentioned Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Courtyard’, I would like to see the relevance of adding Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’. Were three poems normal for a poem book within the early 1800s? Or, were these three of Isaac Hill’s favourite poems?

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