This Week in Dover Street: Yeats’s Zodiac – Dorian Gray’s Yellow Book – and Joyce’s Devil’s Cat.
Here at Peter Harrington Dover Street we like to showcase the very best in rare books, encompassing everything from the keenest heights of political economy to the most nostalgic depths of children’s literature. There really are some astounding things here and, since it would be a little selfish to keep them all to ourselves, we have decided to share a special selection of three exceptionally interesting items every week with the wider world. I hope you enjoy reading about these books from time to time – you can click through from the picture to the full entry on our website, where you can also browse our entire gallery and rare book stock. Additionally, if you find yourself in the area, please drop by 43 Dover Street and I’d be happy to show you around.
Moon in Aquarius; Mars in Leo; Saturn in Libra; Venus in Taurus; or, yours Zodiacally, W. B. Yeats [#78199]
Yeats’s obscure but excellent Stories of Red Hanrahan is one of my favourites. In it Yeats, ever the hungry mythographer, conjures up his own folkloric figure, a wandering poet (or “gleeman”), the passionate, bitter and generally out-on-his-arse Owen Hanrahan, and sends him careering across ancient Ireland, loving, hating, drinking, grubbing food, stealing wives and weaving both spells and curses with his magic words. It’s worth a read. Fourteen years later, in The Tower (1928), Yeats would remember his creation in some of his best lines:
“I myself created Hanrahan
and drove him drunk or sober through the dawn
He had but broken knees for hire
and horrible splendour of desire”.
As such, it was a great privilege when I was thrown a first edition of this book (Dun Emer Press, 1904), inscribed by Yeats himself, and was asked to decode the inscription:
Plainly enough it was inscribed to a Mrs Worthington “from her friend the writer, with pleasant memories of the Hudson”. The recipient was an American society hostess, and W.B. would have met her on his American literary tour. No surprise, really – Jack Yeats described her as “a sort of duchess over here”, and W.B. had a thing for aristocrats. The trouble, or the fun, came with the symbols beneath Yeats’s signature:
A layman might recognise in the first a moon (or banana), and perhaps in the fourth and seventh the standard signs for Male and Female. After some time engaged in that feverish process of alchemical research whereby the bookseller turns from layman into professor, I worked out that these symbols were astrological. They are comprised of four sets of two – with four celestial bodies and four zodiacal signs. The male and female ones are in fact Mars and Venus, and the whole set reads thus: Moon in Aquarius, [Leo/Sagittarius?] Mars; Saturn in Libra; Venus in Taurus. The third character is hard to decipher, but the seven provide enough information to find the link to Yeats – these are the zodiacal positions of the celestial bodies as they were on June 13th 1865, which was Yeats’s birthday, making this his Zodiacal signature. Anyone who knows about Yeats’s dealings with the Golden Dawn, who understands the obsession with alchemy that governed Yeats’s imagination in the second phase of his life as surely as the gods of Gaelic folklore had governed it in the first, or who has read A Vision (1925, in which he codified in particular how one’s astrological birthmark dictates the thematic arc of one’s life), will appreciate the resonance of this inscription. We know of no other book so inscribed.
“His eye fell on the yellow book” (from The Picture of Dorian Gray) – a superb first edition copy in the original yellow wrappers of A Rebours by Joris Karl Huysmans [#59280]
One of the especially innervating experiences of working in this world is that you occasionally run across real copies of books that you had only hitherto encountered within other books – the whole thing tends to bring the world of fiction that much closer to reality, which is probably not healthy. Nevertheless, here at Dover Street we have a little yellow book – unremarkable, perhaps, except that this is the “yellow book” that “absorbed” Oscar Wilde’s character Dorian Gray into a world of utterly abandoned sensual decadence. The yellow wrappers were used in Paris to signify lascivious content, and, by the time Wilde was writing The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Huysman’s A Rebours (1884) had become the notorious archetype of such books. It tells of a Parisian aristocrat who devotes his life to aesthetic experimentation. He keeps, as two infamous examples, a garden of poisonous flowers and a jewel-encrusted tortoise (which eventually dies under the weight of its decorations). I shall give you Wilde’s incantation of it here:
“His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What was it, he wondered. He … flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed. It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.”
All bit sickly perhaps – but thankfully the book is locked behind glass, and I have only schoolboy French, so I should be safe.
“The Devil can speak quite bad French very well though some who have heard him say that he has a strong Dublin accent” – The Cat and the Devil, by James Joyce [#99491]
James Joyce is not generally known as a children’s book author (though once can tell perhaps from the opening lines of A Portrait of the Artist that he had a feel for it). He did, however, write just such a book, The Cat and the Devil, which told of a small Loire-side town’s pact with the Devil, and how it resulted in an unlikely feline friendship. It was written especially for his grandson Stephen, and was never published in his lifetime. This is the first UK edition, wittily illustrated by Gerald Rose, and would make a great gift for Joyce-freaks, cat-lovers, and Satanists alike.