Saturday, August 23rd, 2014...3:43 pm
The Poet as Naturalist: Thomas Gray’s copy of Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae
Among the most precious books from the library of Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard’s first Professor of Art History, is the poet Thomas Gray’s copy of Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae. Gray’s youthful interest in natural history was fostered by his uncle Robert Antrobus, an Assistant Master at Eton; in his later years he cherished his uncle’s copy of Eleazar Albin’s A Natural History of English Insects (London, 1720), to which Antrobus was a subscriber and which featured one hundred finely executed hand-colored copper plate illustrations.
In 1759 Gray purchased his copy of Systema Naturae, a two-volume 10th edition printed in Stockholm; extensive interleaving later caused the set to be bound in three. On nearly every page Gray has written extensive notes, translations of terms into several languages, and verse renderings in Latin of Linnaeus’s prose. In addition, Gray has supplied numerous pen and ink drawings of local birds, insects, and shells. The set attracted the notice of several of the poet’s contemporaries. The antiquarian Horace Walpole remarked, “Mr. Gray vexed me by finding him heaping notes in the interleaved Linnaeus, instead of pranking on his lyre.”
Gray bequeathed his library to his friend and biographer William Mason; it later passed to their friend Richard Stonhewer, whose nephew Rev. Mr. Bright sold the books and manuscripts at an Evans auction in 1845. The annotated Linnaeus sold for £42 to the bibliophile Granville J. Penn; four lots later, the manuscript of Elegy in a Country Church Yard would fetch £100. James Russell Lowell, while serving as American Minister to England, recalled seeing the Linnaeus in Penn’s library at Stoke Poges: “Here is his copy of Linnaeus interleaved exceedingly full of minute & very clearly as well as neatly written annotations, with now and then a neat pen & ink sketch of the head of a bird. I had no conception of the excessive, minute & persevering industry of Gray till I saw these volumes.” (Norton’s daughter Sara quoted Lowell’s letter in her presentation letter to the Harvard College Library on November 16, 1908).
The Linnaeus next appears in an auction at Sotheby’s in 1851, with a fulsome description quoting Gray’s editor Thomas James Mathias: “If any person should hereafter peruse this interleaved edition of Systema Naturæ, and regard it with the eye, the mind, and the skill of a naturalist, he would probably join in the judgment given of it by this gentleman; (the gentleman alluded to by Mason) and it might also excite a wish that the whole of these remarks should be printed.”
Mathias’s wish was fulfilled by set’s last private owner, Charles Eliot Norton. Norton had received the Linnaeus as a gift from Joan Severn, the niece of Victorian art critic John Ruskin, who “kept it among his treasures.” Gray’s close observation of the natural world would have appealed to Ruskin as a practicing artist and instructor of art at Oxford. Three years after Ruskin’s death, Norton came out with The Poet Gray as a Naturalist. Designed by D. B. Updike at the Merrymount Press and published by Boston bookseller Charles E. Goodspeed, Norton’s edition featured an introductory essay and thirteen photogravure plates reproducing several pages of Gray’s notes and sketches; the original plates are now in the collection of the Department of Printing & Graphic Arts. Norton succeeded in heightening awareness of Gray’s accomplishments as a naturalist and draughtsman. Even Sir Joseph Hooker, the friend of Darwin and England’s greatest living botanist, read the book as a revelation. In a letter preserved in Norton’s own copy, Hooker wrote: “I had assumed from what I read or heard that he was an amateur pure & simple. This is all changed now, & I cannot but admire his devotion, grasp of botanical science, his literary powers & skill as a draughtsman.”
[Thanks to Peter X. Accardo, Coordinator of Programs, for contributing this post.]