A “Book of Homage to Shakespeare” (with a Vancouver connection)

Many thanks to guest blogger Matt Warner, a graduate student in the Department of English at UBC, for contributing the below post!

The Book of Homage to Shakespeare is a strange book. The product of a very distinct moment of British imperial history, it paints a picture of its subject that is at once generously expansive and narrowly possessive. Comprising contributions from some hundred and fifty-odd critics and poets from around the world, the book fits neatly into the category of what George Bernard Shaw once termed “Bardolatry”—over-the-top and hard to justify celebration of Britain’s informal national poet.

Published on the occasion of the tricentenary of Shakespeare’s death in 1916, the Book of Homage is a polyglot compendium of scholarly essays, bad poetry and personal reflection. It shows a Shakespeare who is, the contributors claim, “for all time” as Ben Jonson put it in one of the commendatory poems attached to the First Folio of Shakespeare’s work. Like that earlier poem, much of the verse (and prose) in the Book of Homage is dedicated to Shakespeare’s allegedly unique ability to transcend time and place to move his readers, whatsoever their language and whatsoever their circumstances. Contributions to the Book of Homage include Armenian, Japanese, Persian, Chinese, French, Old Norse, Russian and dozens of other languages. Translations are far from universal—for any reader, some fairly significant portion of this book is guaranteed to be behind a language barrier of one kind or another. (And sometimes, as Gordon McMullen has noted in the case of the Gaelic contribution of Douglas Hyde, the English translation hides a politically subversive original). It is the existence of these encomia that mattered to the editors; what any of them actually says is far less important.

From its origins at the centre of British Empire, then, the Book of Homage took its collected praises and shipped them around the world. 1250 copies were produced; UBC now owns three. Our first copy entered the UBC library catalogue on March 19, 1958, and still circulates—it’s currently checked out right now—and, having changed its fancy buckram binding (complete with the embossed coat of arms of Shakespeare) for a simple library binding, it’s the least interesting, but most accessible, of UBC’s copies. Our second copy lives in RBSC, and came to UBC as a part of Norman Colbeck Collection of Nineteenth-Century and Edwardian Poetry and Belles Lettres. This copy, evidently acquired somewhere in England, has a bit of history to it. From the Colbeck Catalogue description:

Inserted is an ALS [Autograph Letter Signed] of the editor to W. W. Greg~”My dear Greg”-on his Shoot-Up-Hill notepaper dated 6 March 1916: “I’m preparing a rather elaborate Book of Homage to Shakespeare . . .,” some 17 lines, also an ALS from Morton Luce (another contributor), with one of his printed Christmas Greetings, containing an original sonnet.

It’s not clear how either of these letters relates to the copy of the book that UBC owns—given that they represent two different ends to two different lines of communication, but they give an intriguing glimpse into the cultural milieu that produced the Book of Homage (and some might find Morton Luce’s original sonnet to be quite amusingly bad).

Far more interesting, at least here in Vancouver, than Luce’s poetry and the editorial correspondence of the Colbeck Collection’s Book of Homage, however, are the inclusions in our third copy of the Book of Homage. This book, one of RBSC’s latest acquisitions, previously belonged to Mrs. Jonathan Rogers, a prominent member of the Vancouver Shakespeare Society (VSS) in 1916 when the Book of Homage was published. Pasted into the back of the book are a photograph and a letter. The photograph is of Mrs. Rogers and the Vancouver Shakespeare Society, at the ceremonial planting of the “Shakespeare Tercentenary Oak” in Stanley Park, and the letter is from the Vancouver Archives to Mrs. Rogers, January 4th, 1945, responding to her inquiry about the location of the tree—it can, we are informed, be readily located from the telephone poles in the background of the photo. (The tree still exists today).

More than just a strange piece of Vancouver history, the VSS and its tree-planting habits show the “other end” of the imperial Shakespeare project undertaken by the Book of Homage. In this photograph, and the ceremony it documents, international, connected, timeless Shakespeare is reflected locally: from metropolitan London came the Book of Homage, but Vancouver made the tercentenary its own, too, ceremonial silver spade and all.

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