Happy 400th Birthday, Shakespeare's Sonnets

I got a startling invitation recently from the Folger Library: Come see the first edition of Shakespeare's "Sonnets" on the 400th anniversary of the book's publication.

"My stay, my guide and lantern to my feet" was Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, the Folger's head reference librarian. Her office is just off the two-story oak-paneled reading room where a sprinkling of silent scholars sat glancing back and forth from Renaissance books to iBooks. After replacing my red pen with a sharpened #2 pencil, she led me to the elevator that took us one story underground. An antechamber displays a selection of ceramic figures of Shakespeare and his characters. At the other end is the brightly polished floor-to-ceiling lock, like something from the opening of "Get Smart." We step into what's called the STC Vault, two rooms containing about 20,000 titles listed in the "Short Title Catalogue: 1475-1640." It's the largest STC collection outside England, and the third largest in the world. The public is never allowed in, though Dr. Ziegler notes without a flutter that she's given tours to Vannessa Redgrave, Salman Rushie, and various donors.

We walk past several metal bookcases and there on a little tray, as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world, is the 400-year-old first edition of "Shake-Speares Sonnets." SonnetsQuarto001356.jpg

The quarto's binding was replaced by the Folger forty years ago. The pages are yellowed -- some well-meaning but misguided restorer "washed" them in the 19th century -- but the rag paper has held up well, and the text, handset in metal type, is clear and dark. Nobody knows how many copies were originally printed (maybe 500), but that's just the beginning of the mysteries. Scholars know some of the sonnets were in circulation before this collection was published, but why did Shakespeare write them? For whom? In what order? And when? Are they addressed to a gay lover? Was the Dark Lady a notorious black prostitute in London?

Dr. Ziegler then showed me some other famous editions. In 1640, the sonnets appeared with titles -- e.g. "Injurious Time" -- and they ran together in groups of four or five to make longer poems.

" 'The Sonnets' have often lent themselves to beautiful book-making," she notes. Editions from the 20th century are gorgeously printed and bound. Walter Feldman's 1987 edition (limited to 35 copies) contains 14 of the sonnets on Japanese paper, illustrated with abstract woodcuts. The title pages are made from World War II army fatigues. A 1991 edition from Prague (200 copies) contains surreal engravings that recast the sonnets in an entirely atmosphere.

But the piece d'resistance is the Alberto Sangorski edition: Sangorskititlepage.jpga one-of-a-kind treasure made for Mr. Folger in 1926. Clad in leather and studded with sapphires and 18-carat gold, it sits snug in a blue velvet box. When Dr. Ziegler opens it, I expect our faces to melt off like the climax of "Indian Jones." The pages are velum, with silk sheets between each one. The intricately painted scenes radiate off the pages, bright and rich.

"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ So long lives this."

-- Ron Charles

Twitter: roncharles

By Ron Charles |  April 22, 2009; 4:41 AM ET Ron Charles
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