Sunday, 16 November 2014

For the love of books

"When o'er these verdant hills I stray, whose outlines bold and flowing to the sight, and forms of beauty swell in soft delight..."
'The South Downs. Sonnet.' - Charlotte Smith : "The Sussex Garland", James Taylor

I found treasure today; it smells wonderful and stirs the imagination in a delightful way. 

I have always adored books. Particularly old, sweet smelling books which have passed from hand to hand and seen a history of love, imaginings, and life. 
Second-hand bookshops and fairs have an irresistible lure for me and the few precious pennies in my pocket.
Throughout the winter, a monthly book fair is held in the community's centre in Midhurst, my home town, and I am often to be found browsing the numerous tables and shelves very much aware of, but trying to ignore, the dwindling bookshelf and storage space available at home. Today was no different, and once again the romanticism of soft paper and faded printers ink drew me to a number of lovely books. Alas, I could not give them all a loving home, and so I settled on one that kept catching my eye. 
Its blue-cloth and gilded cover is a little rough around the edges, but the spine is intact and the pages largely clean and unmarked. Gold letters adorn the spine; "The Sussex Garland". Upon closer inspection I found that its pages were filled with verse, rhyme and descriptive passage clearly inspired by and 'Illustrative of the County of Sussex". The foremost pages include a list of some 89 subscribers, a dedication to the Sussex Archaeological Society, and the date of 1851. It is a piece of Sussex Literary History, and I couldn't resist.

One poem that caught my eye was written by Lady Sophia Burrell (nee Raymond) of Knepp Castle near Shipley. The lines speak of the ruins of the former castle at Knepp that gave the later house its name, and of the rich history woven into the ruined walls and the landscape of the estate. Lady Burrell muses on the scenes the castle would have witnessed and the stories it could tell, and how the fallen stones remind us of how we are each only here for a lifetime and all must give in to fate and the rolling on of time. One of the subscribers was the then vice-president of the Sussex Archaeological Society Sir Charles M. Burrell, Bart., MP., who I am sure would have read the poem on Knepp Castle many a time with the perspective of familiarity.

Later in the book Shelley’s ‘The Skylark’ soars from the page and brings to mind one foggy day early this year when I stood atop The Trundle and listened to the song of a skylark that must have been flying in sunny heavens high above the dank cloud that cloaked my view.

The lines at the top of this blog-post are taken from ‘The South Downs. Sonnet.’ By Charlotte Smith and are just one example of how the downs and the county of Sussex have moved many a literary heart and soul across the years. And now the words of the moved live on long after the author's pen has ceased, to move us now as they have for the 163 years or more since they were recorded and this book was first read. 

I wonder what the history is of this particular copy. It has survived two world wars, and countless other conflicts from global scale down perhaps to family feuds and sibling squabbles. The soaking touch of damp has not reached it, and the fingers of fire have been kept at bay. All that, and now it has landed in my hands. 

'The Sussex Garland' is a book which I can see will have a special place on my shelf. It will join a number of other books that have found their way into my home and make me smile to gaze upon them and remind me of my place in time. Among their number are some with names handwritten within the cover, of family members in previous generations including a small copy of 'Wayside Thoughts From Tennyson', inside which reads "To Mary, from Edwards", names which I have come to know, to put personalities to, and to love, as I have discovered my family history through research in recent months. 

It is often said of how we are not owners but guardians, of land or suchlike, simply looking after it for our ancestors, before passing it on to those who will come after us. And so it is with anything, even with books.  

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