Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Great Gift Book for Sensitive Plants and Children of All Ages

by Stephen J. Gertz

A Sensitive Plant in a garden grew,
And the young winds fed it with silver dew,
And it opened its fan-like leaves to the light.
And closed them beneath the kisses of Night.

But the Sensitive Plant which could give small fruit 
Of the love which it felt from the leaf to the root,
Received more than all, it loved more than ever,
Where none wanted but it, could belong to the giver...

"No more tastefully illustrated book of verse could be desired than the elaborately artistic edition of Shelley's 'Sensitive Plant,' edited by Mr. Edmund Gosse, illustrated with much richness of coloring and gracefulness of design by Mr. Charles Robinson, and imported by the Lippincott Co. Mr. Gosse's introduction throws new light on the 'Lady, the wonder of her kind,' who played the part of  'an Eve in this Eden,' where grew the sensitive plant.

A Lady, the wonder of her kind,                      
Whose form was upborne by a lovely mind
Which, dilating, had moulded her mien and motion
Like a sea-flower unfolded beneath the ocean...

"Drawing upon Medwin's notes to a never-published second edition of his life of the poet, [Gosse] tells us that this paragon of her sex was a certain Countess of Mountcashell, an Irish lady about fifty years of age, of sufficient unconventionality to be welcomed by Shelley and his company as a congenial spirit. The notes on this lady and the editor's gleaning of facts concerning the mimosa pudica, or sensitive plant, celebrated by the poet, are interesting.

She had no companion of mortal race,
But her tremulous breath and her flushing face
Told, whilst the morn kissed the sleep from her eyes,  
That her dreams were less slumber than Paradise...

"The illustrations, large and small, accompanying the slender thread of text, form the conspicuous feature of the book, and make it one of the most sumptuous gift volumes of the year. The cover design is a thing of beauty..."(The Dial, December 1911).

And on the fourth, the Sensitive Plant           

Felt the sound of the funeral chant,

And the steps of the bearers, heavy and slow,

And the sobs of the mourners, deep and low;

The Sensitive Plant, like one forbid,
Wept, and the tears within each lid
Of its folded leaves, which together grew,       
Were changed to a blight of frozen glue.

Whether the Sensitive Plant, or that

Which within its boughs like a Spirit sat,      
Ere its outward form had known decay,

Now felt this change, I cannot say.

Whether that Lady's gentle mind,

No longer with the form combined

Which scattered love, as stars do light,        

Found sadness, where it left delight,

I dare not guess; but in this life

Of error, ignorance, and strife,

Where nothing is, but all things seem,

And we the shadows of the dream,   
It is a modest creed, and yet

Pleasant if one considers it,

To own that death itself must be,

Like all the rest, a mockery. 

Thus, here excerpted, Shelley explores the distance between the ideal and the real, the  immortal natural beauty of the earth more satisfying than the promised immortal beauty of heaven, and the burden upon the sensitive soul to triumph over death by being wholly alive while living. The Garden of Eden is here, and now.

And in this edition of a poem originally written in 1820, publisher William Heinemann and illustrator Charles Robinson created one of the greatest illustrated gift books in an era rife with great, illustrated gift books.

"This book... with...  supplements in colour in addition to page designs by the artist is sumptuous in effect" (The International Studio, January 1912).

[ROBINSON, Charles]. SHELLEY, Percy Bysshe. The Sensitive Plant. Introduction by Edmund Gosse. Illustrations by Charles Robinson. London / Philadelphia: William Heinemann / J.B. Lippincott Co., 1911.

First U.K. Robinson-illustrated edition, a Heinemann "Xmas Art Book" that originally sold for 15 shillings. Quarto (10 3/8 x 7 1/2 in; 264 x 190 mm). xii, [4], 17-127, [1] pp. Eighteen full color tipped-in plates, including frontispiece, with captioned tissue guards. Small color, halftone, or black and white (some full page) illustrations to each leaf.

Publisher's original pictorial green cloth lavishly gilt-stamped. Top edge gilt. Illustrated endpapers. Dust jacket.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

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