Only 33 first edition copies of William Wordsworth’s An Evening Walk – the first published collection of the famed poet’s works – are known to exist in libraries and museums around the world.
Yale, Harvard and Cambridge universities have a copy. Trinity College at the University of Dublin has one. The New York Public Library, among a handful of other public libraries, is also among the lucky lot. And now, thanks to a professor emeritus, Western, too, can boast ownership of this slight, first edition of Wordsworth’s poetry – the only copy that resides in Canada.
Born in England in 1770, William Wordsworth is among the most recognizable names in English poetry. Together with poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and their joint publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, Wordsworth helped launch the Romantic Age in English literature. While known for poems such as Tintern Abbey and I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, his best work is largely considered to be The Prelude, a semiautobiographical poem of his early years. It was posthumously titled and published, before which it was generally known as “the poem to Coleridge.” Wordsworth was Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850.
Stumbling upon the 1793 edition of An Evening Walk was a matter of happenstance for James Good. The former English professor and Dean of Arts at Western had already donated his personal collection of first editions, establishing the Dr. James M. Good William Wordsworth-Samuel Taylor Coleridge Collection at Western Libraries.
“That collection had started when I started working with Wordsworth in the 1960s. I was always on the lookout for books, but I didn’t have a lot of money as a student in New York,” said Good, who was working on his PhD at Columbia University when he found a first edition of Wordsworth’s The Prelude – the poet’s magnum opus – at Oxford University and bought it for $50.
Good’s collection, as well as his work on Wordsworth and Coleridge, grew from there. He remembers eyeing first editions he couldn’t afford at the Scribner Book Store on Fifth Avenue, ones he would later acquire for more money. His personal library grew to include a robust compilation of first editions and other rare editions of Wordsworth, Coleridge and their contemporaries.
Good continued collecting books after his retirement – and continues to do so today, periodically adding to the Wordsworth and Coleridge collection he donated to Western. That collection boasts mostly first editions of original works, alongside related materials and works from the poets’ contemporaries.
With a scholar’s eye, Good knows what he is looking for. He can (and has) spotted rare editions in sale bins in used bookstores. One rare first edition stuck out for him in a pile at the Strand Bookstore in New York. He bought it for 75 cents; it was appraised at $1,500.
“The (original donated Wordsworth and Coleridge) collection was 65 volumes, 39 titles, and included most of the first editions I have. There were a few gaps – (Wordsworth’s) 1805 Lyrical Ballads and 1815 Poems, In Two Volumes – but I ended up buying those subsequently and donating,” Good said. “It was sort of fun; I kept up the collecting and even got to add to the (Western) collection.”
When it came to filling one those gaps – the first edition of An Evening Walk – Good didn’t really consider it a possibility. In fact, he wasn’t even actively looking for the book. He knew the first edition copies that existed were either in private hands, or in libraries that will never part with them.
Last year, a chance popped up to snag a copy.
During his career, Good had worked with a fellow Wordsworth and Coleridge scholar named Don Hensley, who likewise collected the poets’ works. Following his death, Hensley entrusted Good with the distribution of his personal library, which was sold to a rare book dealer last year. Good knew a number of titles in Hensley’s collection would bolster the collection he donated to Western and he pledged to donate the funds necessary not only to purchase a number of these volumes, but also to catalogue and preserve them.
“I knew what ‘the good stuff’ was, and we fished that out of (Hensley’s collection),” Good said, noting the rare book dealer he was working with first gave him a lead on an 1828 rare edition of Coleridge’s Poetical Works, which he purchased in New York and has since donated to Western.
While in New York, Good heard of another volume coming up for sale: a first edition of Wordsworth’s An Evening Walk from 1793. The book’s provenance is strong, he said, as it was sold at auction a number of times in the past 100 years. It was offered recently by Sotheby’s, but did not reach the minimum bid, which was roughly $50,000 US.
Good contacted Western’s archivist Robin Keirstead, who enthusiastically encouraged him to pursue this edition. Through the Good Foundation, Good offered Western Libraries the funds to purchase this volume.
It’s not a cheap book, but determining its value with a price tag is missing the point somewhat, Good said.
“It’s sort of like a jigsaw puzzle – what’s the last piece worth? It’s not the cornerstone of the collection; it’s a very slight book – it doesn’t contain a wealth of Wordsworth material. But unless you have other Wordsworth material, it’s not that important. When you’ve got a whole stack of Wordsworth first editions, and that’s the very first, first edition, it assumes a much greater importance,” Good explained.
The addition of An Evening Walk puts Western among the top tier universities in the world when it comes to Wordsworth and Coleridge holdings.
Catherine Steeves, Vice Provost and Chief Librarian at Western, called the An Evening Walk “a rare jewel (that) marks the collection as one of North America’s finest.”
Keirstead concurred. “What makes the James M. Good Wordsworth-Coleridge Collection so valuable from a research perspective is not only that we have the major works of these two authors here at Western, but also, in many cases, we have successive editions of the same title, some of which are quite rare. This allows researchers to see if there are variations, subtle or otherwise, that can then be explored,” he said of Good’s donated collection as a whole.
Good echoed these sentiments with a laugh.
“Why is it significant? You don’t see the University of Toronto on that list (of libraries that have a copy of An Evening Walk). You don’t see Simon Fraser on that list and they have a good 19th Century collection. There’s that smile when you realize – we have something they don’t,” he said.
“These books are going out of private hands and they will never be back; we won’t have a chance to get them again. I never thought we’d get it in the first place. It wasn’t on my list to do it or get it – but when you’ve got a chance at it, you’ve got to jump. You have to look at the collection as a whole. Is this book expensive? Yes. I think it’s good value because there’s no chance you’ll get it again.”