Carolyn Vega's blog

Robert Burns on Auld Lang Syne

In the early 1790s the Scottish music collector George Thomson approached Robert Burns, asking for help in compiling and editing his Select Collection of Original Scotish Airs. Burns readily agreed (although with the proviso that his name not be attached to the publication), and the nearly 60 letters from Burns to Thomson that survive are filled to the brim with working and fair copies of some of Burns’s most famous songs.

One letter, written in early September of 1793, discusses in detail no fewer than 74 songs – and it is within this letter, buried nearly at the end, that we find his full text to Auld Lang Syne.

Cricket on the Hearth

Published 165 years ago today, Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home was the third of Charles Dickens' Christmas books. It was immediately successful, quickly running through two editions and outselling his Christmas books from the previous two years (Christmas Carol, 1843 and The Chimes, 1844). The story is about John and Dot Peerybingle, a carrier and his wife, who are having marriage difficulties. John suspects Dot of having an affair, and consults the ever-chirping cricket on the hearth. The cricket reassures John that his fears are unfounded, and the story ends happily.

A strange photograph in Mary Millais's scrapbook

Mary Millais was the daughter of the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais and his wife Effie Gray (who had been previously married to the critic John Ruskin). This scrapbook, which was presented to Mary when she was 15, is a typical Victorian compilation of letters, photographs, and clipped signatures -- and just about everyone represented in it is (or was at the time) a famous public figure. She has pasted in letters to her father from Anthony Trollope, Robert Browning and Wilkie Collins, and the clipped signatures include a few of King George IV and novelist Henry James.

Dickens and his Shower-Bath: "I don't care for the possibility of a Tepid Shower"

On July 14, 1851, Charles Dickens expressed his interest in Tavistock House to his brother-in-Law Henry Austin. A mere 11 days later, he put down £1,542 for a 45-year lease of the grand 18-room mansion in the Bloomsbury section of London.

With Austin’s help, Dickens oversaw the remodeling of Tavistock, concerning himself with the most minute of details, down to the picture rods and pantry shelving. By early September he had "estimated every new thing in the way of furniture and fitting that will be wanted" and found that "the figures are rather stunning."

A Company of Adventurers at Plymouth Plantation

Some of the earliest surviving descriptions of Plymouth Plantation are in the letters of Emanuel Altham.

Captain of the Little James, Altham made two voyages to New England between 1623 and 1625, and his letters provide lengthy accounts of the "Company of Adventurers" and their rugged outpost. In this 1623 letter, Altham describes the plantation at Pautext: "It is well situated upon a high hill close unto the seaside ... In this plantation is about twenty houses, four or five of which are very fair and pleasant."

Coleridge reworks several poems in his 1796 notebook

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1796 notebook contains eight of his poems.

The opening lines of Coleridge’s “Lines on a Friend Who Died of a Frenzy Fever Induced by Calumnious Reports.” This is one of four extant manuscripts of the poem.

Extensive revisions and corrections throughout show that this was a working notebook, and Ernest Hartley Coleridge, the poet’s grandson, refers to it as the “MS quarto copy-book” in his 1912 The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The first portion of the copy-book contains two fragments and six complete poems, including “Songs of the Pixies,” “Lines to a Beautiful Spring in a Village,” and “Lines on a Friend Who Died of a Frenzy Fever Induced by Calumnious Reports.”

Marie Antoinette wishes to be back in the good graces of the French people

In this letter, dated September 28, 1791, Marie Antoinette writes to the Austrian diplomat Florimond Claude, comte de Mercy-Argenteau, about the need for the royal family to regain the trust of the French people. The comte de Mercy-Argenteau was instrumental in arranging the 1770 marriage of the young Marie Antoinette, then Archduchess of Austria, and Louis-Auguste, the Dauphin of France. When Louis became King Louis XVI in 1774, the comte de Mercy-Argenteau assumed a prominent role in the French court, and he was a frequent recipient of letters from Marie Antoinette.

"Nevermore – ah, nevermore!"

This letter contains the earliest surviving portion of "The Raven" in Edgar Allan Poe's hand, and it is the only surviving manuscript of the poem made for use of a printer.

"The Raven" was first published under the pseudonym Quarles in the New York Evening Mirror on 29 January 1845. Less than a week later, it appeared with significant changes in Horace Greeley’s New-York Daily Tribune -- amid advertisements for "cheap table cutlery" and "sheet rubber overshoes."

It was a dark and stormy night... and Arbaces cogs his dice with pleasure

His novels were Victorian best-sellers, but Edward Bulwer Lytton is not one of those authors you could say has aged very well.

Admired by King George IV (who, it is rumored, kept a Lytton novel at all of his residences), his popularity was on the same scale as that of Charles Dickens. Now, however, his name is used as a "byword for aesthetic embarrassment and incompetence," and he is perhaps best remembered for the opening line to Paul Clifford : "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals..."

Celebrating Banned Books Week with a look at Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass has been described as "shocking," "too sensual," and "trashy, profane and obscene." Yale University President Noah Porter compared it to "walking naked through the streets," and an early British reviewer suggested that one "throw it immediately behind the fire." First published in 1855, it was effectively banned in Boston nearly 30 years later, when district attorney Oliver Stevens demanded that some poems (such as "Song of Myself," "I Sing the Body Electric," and "To a Common Prostitute") be removed because of their pornographic nature. Whitman refused to alter his work and was forced to find a new publisher. When he did, the first printing of the new edition sold out in a single day.