Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Game Changer

I'm currently working on a substantial sequence of photographs and a book, to be called In Darkness Let Me Dwell, which is the name of a song by John Dowland (1563-1626). Dowland was a lute player and composer, and an exemplar of the Elizabethan cult of melancholy. He wrote a piece with the title "Semper Dowland, semper dolans" (ever Dowland, ever doleful), which was clearly a calculated and self-conscious branding strategy. Other titles ("Flow My Tears", "Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares", etc.) underline the themes of tears, tombs, sweet sadness and fetching black clothes. The Goth sensibility is nothing new.

Despite its melancholy turn, his music is often melodically and dynamically interesting, and has attracted a number of subsequent composers and musicians, especially those looking for a strong, English tradition of composition. I particularly like the recording of "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" by countertenor Andreas Scholl, and there is an interesting Dowland interpretive project on ECM Records involving tenor John Potter of the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist John Surman. We won't mention the Dowland recordings of Sting or Elvis Costello.

In recent times I've been having a lot to do with that early 17th century period, one way or another, and all the time I've been aware of a constant tickle of memory at the back of my mind. Something wanted to be remembered. But what? If I picked up my Clarendon Press edition of Shakespeare's sonnets (a lovely book, published in 1985) the itch became particularly strong. As it did if I thought of my sixth-form days studying English or, oddly, a concert in 1972 at Southwark Cathedral where the Third Ear Band performed their music for Polanski's film of Macbeth. Tantalizing.

This week the memory finally emerged. Yesterday I had a strong urge to read John Donne, and knew it had to be in the Herbert Grierson anthology we had used at school. That is, "Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler", published by the Clarendon Press in 1921, and much reprinted since. Working in a university library, of course, this was an easy urge to satisfy.

As soon as I picked it up, I knew I had re-connected with something. Everything about this book is just right, in ways that are clear to me now, but were only obscurely felt by my teenage self in 1971/2. The original spellings of the poems are retained, for a start, which lends an incantatory, antiquarian charm ("Goe, and catche a falling starre..."). The book is printed on laid paper, crisp as banknotes, and impressed with proper letterpress type, in places as proud of the page as braille. It is sweetly sized -- a "crown octavo" (5" x 7.5") -- and discreetly and durably bound in smooth, dark blue buckram with a gold-blocked spine. But, above all, the poems are laid out on the page in an act of pure typography that approaches a "type facsimile", i.e. they are printed with modern type but using some of the typographic conventions of the 17th century.

Look at those page numbers, so large and so airily enclosed in parentheses! And those bold rules that divide off each poem, like an account book. Never mind the contents, the mere appearance of this little book is an open invitation to mental time travel.

It has historical significance, too: before it appeared in 1921 practically no-one read Donne. Afterwards, everyone did. In terms of literary taste, it was a real game-changer. It's the sort of thing that used to populate school English department cupboards in the days when "textbooks" were intended to last for several generations, and to introduce neophytes to the look and feel of scholarship.

I'm off to the Web straight away to buy myself the best condition example of this little classic I can find.

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