On Monday the class met at the Houghton Library at Harvard University for our final library field trip of the semester. Trying to find the library was a bit challenging, and asking some Harvard students for help revealed that some of them were unfamiliar with the library. Some students were very unsure of directions to the library even though it was pretty close by. I must admit that I was a bit surprised by this since it is such an incredible resource!
Once we had all stowed our bags in the lockers, we went into the first room we visited on our tour. We were surrounded by so many old and rare books in just that one room, it was amazing! Unfortunately we couldn’t wander around the room to see the exhibit (which featured books selected by Harvard professors that they felt were meaningful) because some materials were set out for a group that was arriving after us. Still, even from the part of the room we could go in, it became very clear that the library housed a truly amazing collection.
Next we made our way up a (super cool!) spiral staircase into a room that was specifically designed to look like a house in England during Samuel Johnson’s time. Once we were all gathered in the room, we got to see a selection of the Houghton’s absolutely massive Samuel Johnson collection. The room not only featured not only Samuel Johnson books, but also portraits of him and his inner circle. They have the most extensive collection in the world, ranging from his personal set of of Bibles to first editions of his dictionary to his personal letters. All of these items were collected by a couple who later donated them to the Houghton. One of the items we looked at was a book that had never been folded, stitched together, or cut, so it remained in a pristine original condition. It was very interesting to see especially since it was a good chance to see one of the stages of the book making process. There was also a copy of the plan of the dictionary that was still in its original blue paper cover.
My favorite part of the whole tour came next! Once we were done in the Samuel Johnson room, we went into the next room over to see the books and letters that were set out for us to look at. Most of the items related to readings on our syllabus, so there was lots to see! There was a copy of the Samuel Johnson dictionary (as well as his letters), other dictionaries (including one specifically for “hard words”), a Latin copy of the Philobiblon, a copy of Pale Fire, an 1818 first edition Frankenstein, and a first edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. My two favorite items were Frankenstein and the book of sonnets. The Frankenstein books were really neat to see. The novel was split into three individual volumes like we had discussed in class, and it was kind of wild seeing the title page of Volume 1 since we had done a whole class activity relating to it! The sonnets were also incredible because apparently there are very few copies of the book known to exist and the one at the Houghton is probably in the best condition of all of them. It was beautiful and I felt so happy that I got to take a closer look at it (without touching, since it is apparently one of the most rare books in the library). I did ask to see the page for Sonnet 106, which is my favorite, so I was quite excited about that!!
Our tour of the Houghton Library was very exciting and interesting. We were reminded several times that this library is not just for Harvard students and that we are free to visit the library again and research the materials there! There is an online catalog that books can be requested through and if you get a special ID you can work with them in the reading room. It is great to know that this library is a great resource for us, and it is only a Redline ride away!
I selected Shakespeare’s Sonnet 106 in part because it is my favorite one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ever since I first encountered it I have really enjoyed the imagery and the subject matter, as well as the beautiful language. Additionally, I thought that it would be apropos for this assignment given that in the sonnet, Shakespeare looks back on subject matter that was popular in the Medieval Period. He describes beautiful ladies and chivalrous knights. For this reason, I thought it would be an interesting poem to illuminate because he is remarking on the type of content that would be in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. I wanted my illumination to reflect this as well. When I thought about what I wanted to depict in my illumination of Sonnet 106, I had the illuminations that decorate Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript in mind. The illuminations in that manuscript include images of knights and horses in the depiction of the Green Knight after his decapitation in King Arthur’s hall. Additionally, there are depictions of chivalrous interactions between knights and ladies in the illumination featuring Gawain feigning sleep and Bertilak’s wife. These illuminations were part of what inspired me to focus on the line in the sonnet “In praise of ladies dead, and lovely knights” (Shakespeare 4). This line lent itself to illumination because it allowed me to be inspired by the Cotton Nero A.x illuminations. I combined the idea of a knight and horse and a chivalrous interaction between a knight and lady into one image to reflect both the sonnet and the illuminated manuscript.
I also added a marginal detail of a clock (at the suggestion of my partner) to bring in the theme of passing time in the sonnet. In particular, I think the clock is appropriate to the line “in the chronicle of wasted time” (1). I decided to have the clock draped in vines both to capture the idea that a lot of time has passed, and also to reflect the frequent use of floral imagery used in Medieval illuminations. The clock serves as a reminder that this poem is in part is partially about connecting the past to the present in an attempt to capture the beauty of the woman Shakespeare seeks to describe. This is also part of the reason why I positioned the knight in a position of giving respect to the lady in the poem. Although Shakespeare says the poets of the past could not have expressed the beauty of his subject, by including a lady with the knight treating her in a chivalrous manner I hoped to convey the respect and awe that Shakespeare has for his subject. Also, I outlined the drawings in black ink to reflect part of the illumination process depicted in the video we watched in class.
This activity made me realize the challenge of attempting to capture the essence of a whole poem in just a few illustrations. As we learned in class, real illuminators only had a very limited space to work with in many cases, and even without having that restriction, it was still a challenge to decide what type of images would best reflect the content of the poem. Since Sonnet 106 has several themes and images, narrowing down what I wanted to portray in the illumination was really challenging since I felt like I could have filled pages with illustrations for this poem. This shows that the relationship between text and image is deeply intertwined, so much so that deciding what parts of this relationship should be depicted is rather difficult.