November 11

The dedication of the Public Library of Haverhill, Massachusetts on November 11, 1875 was the occasion for the writing of a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier in which the printers craft was noted, making it one of the very few such references in the works of any ranking poet. Entitled The Library, the poem first praised books, and then in the three middle stanzas it relates:

Age after age, like waves, o’erran
The earth, uplifting brute and man;
And mind, at length, in symbols dark
Its meaning traced on stone and bark.

On leaf and palm, on sedge-wrought roll
On plastic clay and leathern scroll,
Man wrought his thoughts, the ages passed,
And lo! the Press was found at last!

Then dead souls woke; the thoughts of men
Whose bones were dust revived again,
The cloister’s silence found a tongue,
Old prophets spake, old poets sung.

It is surprising that so little attention has been paid to the craft which has been after all responsible for the dissemination of the poets’ own endeavors. Perhaps the professionals were appalled by the amateur versifiers within the craft itself who filled the printing periodicals with their songs, and who were ever ready to put into rhyme the ordinary details of their lives as printers.

Even the great Walt Whitman, himself a journeyman compositor, waited until near the end of his life before he wrote into the thirty-fourth book of his Leaves of Grass a short poem which seemed out of place among those verses in which the poet seemed so preoccupied with death. Immediately preceding the poem which began, “as I sit writing here, sick and grown old,” appeared A Font of Type:

This latent mine—these unlaunch’d voices—
passionate powers,
Wrath, argument, or praise, or comic leer,
or prayer devout,
(Not nonpareil, brevier, bourgeois,
long primer merely,)
These ocean waves arousable to fury
and to death,
Or sooth’d to ease the sheeny sun and sleep,
Within the pallid slivers slumbering.

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