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The Present; or, Fragments from Celebrated Modern Poets

Few things are as tempting to the average person as empty paper. Whether we’re doodlers, list makers, would-be writers—few of us can resist marking up a clear patch. Thus, The Present; or, Fragments from Celebrated Modern Poets, which appears to have inspired one owner to make it into a personal collection of favorite poems.

All hands here are unknown: the printer, the editor, the anthologist who added what must have been favorite passages. The chapbook itself is a generic product with creative spelling and inefficient use of the page. Covers are blank blue paper. Page size is 5.75″ (14.6 centimeters) tall and 3.5″ (8.9 centimeters) wide. “The person who selected these Fragments, takes the liberty to present them to his friends,” reads the introduction; the collection may have been created by someone with a printing press and a lot of free time—possibly a printer learning the trade. Pages are laid out strangely, with the poem on page 3 beginning about halfway down the page. Page numbers and the introductory paragraph are in a font much larger than that of the poems themselves. Printed margins are erratic, sometimes with one side margin at 1.25″ (1.75 centimeters) and the other at .25″ (.635 centimeter); bottom margins range from 1″ (2.54 centimeters) to 2.5″ (6.35 centimeters). Stanzas are split by the bottom of the page, even when there would have been space on the next page for the entire stanza. Even at sixteen pages, there appears to have been less text than the printer planned for, with several poems ending halfway down the page. It’s … amateurish. This copy was, however, loved: at some point the front cover was torn, and the edges were carefully stitched back together.

The editor of The Present includes a number of extracts from well-known authors: Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron (two extracts), James Montgomery (five extracts). “The White Clover” already had appeared in the Juvenile Port-folio and Literary Miscellany (21 August 1813; p. 180) and later was reprinted in a number of works; Drops from Flora’s Cup identifies the author as “Miss S. Smith.” The editor of The Present seems to have been fond of flowers and graves and love and noble death and the bright flame of a well-turned phrase.

So was the anthologist adding extracts in all that open space. Most of these additions—written in an unpracticed hand—are from various religious poems by unremarkable poets. But there’s room for love and descriptions of impossibly beautiful women and improbably beatific men. Sometimes the anthologist seems to comment on the original text. On page 14, the printed “nought could save/ Her beauty from the tomb” is followed by the handwritten “Life is a span a fleeting hour.” “There liv’d a man!” the printed text declares on page 15; “In vain this deadened ear/ Ere I should cease to love him more/ Than ever man was loved” is the written response. Stanzas from “The West Indies” describing “a spot of earth supremely blest,” which is “thy home,” are followed by the anthologist’s “But retirement is the true home of man.” Amusingly, the chapbook editor’s introduction is accompanied by “Ah why should this mistaken mind/ Still rove with restless pain/ Delight on earth expect to find/ Yet still expect in vain”—which seems to comment on the editor’s efforts (or on the stated lack of pretension).

Who was the anthologist who took this little chapbook and made it into a personal collection? A name does appear in its pages: Emma Stubert, apparently of Haverhill, Massachusetts. I’ve been unable to identify an Emma Stubert, even with variations of her name. Was she the owner of the booklet? someone important to the owner/ anthologist? Was she the printer?

Most of the extracts are from various poems more popular in 1815 than today and are straight transcriptions. Some, however, have been altered, accidentally or on purpose. A number of the alterations are similar to the mistakes made when copying dictation: “in vain” changed to “again,” for example. Incorrect punctuation—or lack of any punctuation at all—also seems to speak to someone writing from dictation instead of copying from print, though punctuation could have been changed while copying for any number of reasons. Two extracts, though, may have been altered to reflect an individual in the anthologist’s life. The handwritten “And purer the glance of her soul kindled eye” reads “And purer the glance of the soul-kindled eye” in the original poem, hinting that the lines added to this chapbook are directed at an individual. On page 10, a dark-haired woman in “Ca-Lodin” is given auburn hair in the passage copied into the chapbook, and the name in the original text is scratched from the chapbook’s page. Was the passage intended to refer to someone the anthologist knew?

Interestingly, the first and last handwritten extracts are from the same poem: “The Voice We Love.” The first extract—on the inside front cover—is longer and altered from the original. “Then say, fond Youth, upon thy pensive breast,/ Is not this truth indelibly imprest” is changed to “Come say fond youth, upon my pensive breast/ Is not this truth indelibly imprest,” which reads as rather more of an invitation than the original poet intended; and the words are impressed not on the youth’s own psyche, but on that of another. The two lines on page 16 distill two lines from the poem into an expression of their basic meaning.

The inside back cover of this copy of The Present was too tempting to leave blank, and the anthologist pasted onto it an extract clipped from a printed source. Even here, though, the anthologist’s pen is present, with phrases enclosed in bold parentheses. Interestingly, the marked phrases pare the poem to its essential emotions: the empathy of the woman hearing the tale of the death of a young girl, and the horror of the man who witnessed it. “O God! and did she fall?” the woman asks; and the man answers, “far, far down/ … Her lovely form was found/ … O! never will that scene/ Part from my heart”.

Not all the authors of extracts are identified by the chapbook’s editor; most are identified below:

page 11: “The Grave,” James Montgomery

page 12: “The White Clover,” Miss S. Smith

page 14: “The Common Lot,” James Montgomery

In the section below, I’ve identified almost all the extracts added to the original chapbook.

cover page 2: “Come say fond youth”: from “The Voice We Love,” by Cesario:

Then say, fond Youth, upon thy pensive breast,

Is not this truth indelibly imprest—

“No dulcet sounds can so harmonious prove,

As the soft accents of the voice we love?”

[The change of “thy pensive breast” to “my pensive breast” hints at personalization of the lines, with “come say fond youth” making the lines into an invitation.]

page 2: “Ah why should this mistaken mind”: opening lines from “Faith,” by Mrs. Steele, a poem appearing in several collections of hymns and religious poems.

page 2:“Vexatious world thy fatering snares”: poem by Mrs. Steele; it appears in the same collection as “Faith”:

Vexatious world! thy flatt’ring snares

Too long have held my easy heart;

And wilt thou still engross my cares?

Vain world, depart.

I want delights thou canst not give:

Thy joys are bitterness and woe;

My pining spirit cannot live

On aught below.

page 3: “Say does not heaven our comforts mix”: from “To the Mother,” by Ann Steele:

Say, does not heaven our comforts mix

With more than equal pain;

To teach us if our hearts we fix

On earth, we fix in vain?

[The anthologist’s change from “On earth, we fix in vain” to “On earth, we fix again” reverses the meaning of the original. The substitution of “again” for “in vain” might be an indication that at one time the anthologist copied the lines from dictation—either while adding the lines to this chapbook or earlier, with the mistake later copied here.]

page 4: “My wearied spirits cannot find repose in the gay circle of the world”: unidentified

page 5: “But retirement is the true home of man”: unidentified. This extract may be part of the extract on page 4.

pages 6 & 7: “Weary of these low scenes of night” and “Sighs for the dawn of sweet delight”: opening lines of “Resignation and Hope,” by C. M. Steele

page 8: “More bright than the sunbeam”: lines from “The Minstrel’s Meed” (see The Spirit of the English Magazines, 1818)

page 9: “O sweet is the breath”: opening lines of “The Minstrel’s Meed”:

O Sweet is the breath of the dew-sprinkled thorn,

And bright is the gleam of the clear vernal sky;

But richer’s the sigh that from feeling is drawn,

And purer the glance of the soul-kindled eye.

[The change from “the soul-kindled eye” to “her soul kindled eye” makes the transcription appear to be aimed at a particular audience. The third line appears in other versions of the poem as “But richer the sigh that from feeling is born”; the anthologist may have begun with one of these versions.]

page 10: “If on the heath she moved”: from “Ca-Lodin,” by Ossian, translated (or created) by James MacPherson; the 1800 edition at google books has these lines as prose, rather than poetry, and the woman’s hair is dark, rather than auburn. The words erased on the page would have been, in the original, “white-handed Strina-dona!” Was the description changed (and the name erased) to reflect someone the copyist knew?

page 11: “Thou mayst be lovd by many”: unidentified

pages 12 & 13: “There is a time for all to rest” and “So dear is he excelling all”: a poem in “an obscure collection of English poems” which a character reads in The Recluse of Norway, by Anna Maria Porter (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1814)

page 14: “Life is a span a fleeting hour”: opening lines of “On the Death of a Child”, by Mrs. Steele

page 15: “In vain this deadened ear”: the same source as extracts on pages 12 and 13

page 16: “What can half so fragrant prove”: from “The Voice We Love,” by Cesario:

Yet say, what sweets can half so fragrant prove,

As the soft Breath of those we fondly love?

[Here, the anthologist has pared the lines to their basic meaning.]

cover page 3: “The Fall of Beauty” apparently is from “The Hunting of Badlewe, a Dramatic Tale,” by James Hogg; a review of this was reprinted in Analectic Magazine (May 1815). The anthologist has clipped it from another source and pasted it inside the back cover (cover page 3), marking off several phrases with bold parentheses which are reproduced in the transcription at merrycoz.

The Present is presented here as a single file, with the original page numbers. The marginalia added by an owner of this copy appears in the appropriate place in a slightly larger font in brown, set off by a border of dots.

The Present; or, Fragments from Celebrated Modern Poets

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