Restoring the Faber Book of Modern Verse
The Burgess Foundation’s collection of Anthony Burgess’s private library contains over 8000 volumes, many of which have come to us from Burgess’s houses around the world. Travels in Malaya, Malta, Italy and elsewhere, as well as the ravages of time, have unfortunately damaged some of the books: termites, floods, heat, sunlight and vigorous reading have all been dangerous over the years to these valuable objects. We have worked with Formbys Bookbinders of Ramsbottom since 2011 to conserve and restore selected items from our book collection so that we can make them available to visiting researchers.
One of these books is The Faber Book of Modern Verse, edited by Michael Roberts. Bearing the inscriptions ‘jbw/lw’ — for ‘John Burgess Wilson’ and ‘Lynne Wilson’, Burgess’s first wife — it was obviously much used, and in its battered state required complete restoration of the binding and rebacking of the spine and back board in cloth to match. The endpapers have also been replaced with acid free paper, and the surfaces were all carefully cleaned. The volume is now returned to a stable and useable state, and helps us understand more about Burgess’s reading and influences.
The Faber Book of Modern Verse was a very important anthology for Burgess as it contains poetry by a generation of writers who for him defined the modernist movement. These included Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’ Burgess set for choir and orchestra in 1982, and W.B. Yeats, described by Burgess in 1985 as ‘perhaps the greatest poet of the twentieth century’. There are also four poems by D. H. Lawrence, which Burgess set to music for a chamber ensemble in 1984, presumably while looking at this very book; and T.S. Eliot.
Reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for the first time at the age of fifteen was, for Burgess, a revelatory experience. In a long essay on the poem from 1971, he wrote: ‘I understood very little, but I recognised that it was important. I seemed to hear a door, a long way down one of my mind’s corridors, trying to creak open but not quite making it. I copied the whole poem out. Then I got to learning it by heart. The Waste Land is a kind of big railway terminus, from which you can take a train to various literatures and theologies. In the refreshment room you see Mr Eliot himself, taking tea and refusing a slice of peach tart. He is not going anywhere; he has arrived.’
The poem stayed with Burgess all his life. As well as learning it by heart, he acquired a number of copies of it, one of the most important of which is contained in this anthology. This text of The Waste Land is marked up for performance, perhaps for a student production while Burgess was teaching at Banbury Grammar School in the 1950s. Later on, in the 1970s, he composed a full-scale musical setting of the poem for six players, which, in the manner of Eliot’s writing, uses musical styles and techniques from different times and cultures to create a rich, allusive tapestry. As Burgess wrote: ‘It was Ezra Pound who said that music decays when it moves too far from the dance, and poetry decays when it neglects to sing. The Waste Land sticks in one’s mind like a diverse recital performed by a voice of immense variety but essentially a single organ: it sings and goes on singing.’
Our programme of book restoration is continuing, with the help of Formbys, into 2020 and beyond. Further work is currently being carried out on a number of other important volumes. These include Vladimir Nabokov’s four-volume edition of Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin; a signed and inscribed copy of To Be King by Robert DeMaria, a novel about Christopher Marlowe and a precursor to Burgess’s own Dead Man in Deptford; and Lynne Wilson’s copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam from 1931, which is one of the oldest books in the collection.