Glimpses of Girton: In the Spring

In the spring

 

In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;

In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;

 

In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;

In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

 

Excerpt from Locksley Hall by Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Tennyson’s protagonist was unlucky in love, spurned by his childhood sweetheart, but Girton College Library is luckier in its holdings.

Among Jane Catherine Gamble’s bequest to the College (see https://old.girton.cam.ac.uk/news/1153-glimpses-of-girton-jane-catherine-gamble) was her father’s first edition of Thomas Bewick’s History of British birds, the first volume published in 1797 and the second in 1804.

Reference: Gamble 662A B46 (082153)

Reference: Gamble 662A B46 (082153)

Reference: Gamble 662A B46 (082154)

Reference: Gamble 662A B46 (082154)

Looking specifically for the three birds listed by Tennyson, we see:

The robin (now classified as Erithacus rubecula) is described by the RSPB as the UK's favourite bird and Bewick himself says "This general favorite is too well known to need a very minute deſcription" – volume 1, page 204.

The robin (now classified as Erithacus rubecula) is described by the RSPB as the UK’s favourite bird and Bewick himself says “This general favorite is too well known to need a very minute deſcription” – volume 1, page 204.

The lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) also known as the Peewit after the sound of its display call, is now on the RSPB's endangered list. Its distinctive crest described by Bewick as "a tuft of long narrow feathers iſſues from the back part of its head, ſome of which are four inches in length , and turn upwards at the end – volume 1, page 324.

The lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) also known as the Peewit after the sound of its display call, is now on the RSPB’s endangered list. Its distinctive crest described by Bewick as “a tuft of long narrow feathers iſſues from the back part of its head, ſome of which are four inches in length , and turn upwards at the end – volume 1, page 324.

It's not clear to which member of the Dove family Tennyson was referring, although I like to picture the iridescent green neck of the stock dove (Columba oenas), described by Bewick as "gloſſy green and gold" – volume 1, page 267.

It’s not clear to which member of the Dove family Tennyson was referring, although I like to picture the iridescent green neck of the stock dove (Columba oenas), described by Bewick as “gloſſy green and gold” – volume 1, page 267.

In contrast to the glorious colour illustrations in Audubon’s Birds of America 30 years later, which were printed from engravings on copper and coloured by hand, Bewick’s illustrations could seem small and plain. In fact, they are seen as the pinnacle of the art of wood engraving, as much admired today as they were then, and the books were deliberately designed to be affordable for all but the poor.

Reading A memoir of Thomas Bewick, by himself, it is clear that Bewick had had the habit from childhood of filling any available space (on slates or schoolbooks) with small illustrations. Among the books he credits for his interest and knowledge of natural history are the works of Thomas Pennant, Count de Buffon and Gilbert White, all of whom are represented in the Library’s holdings.  Also part of the Gamble bequest was Bewick’s first book, A general history of quadrupeds.

Reference: Gamble 662B B46 (082156)

Reference: Gamble 662B B46 (082156)

Bewick’s work was known to Tennyson, who wrote half a dozen lines of verse in the copy of History of British birds in Lord Ravenscroft’s Library.  Tennyson himself presented his complete works, in seven volumes, to Girton College Library in 1883. This was reported in the March 1883 edition of The Girton Review:

There have been one or two additions to our library, the most important being a large edition of Tennyson, presented by the poet himself. Unfortunately, the author’s autograph, instead of being written in the volumes themselves is only inscribed on the labels, which considerably damages the effect.

Reference: Gamble 826.0 T25 (097321-7)

Reference: Gamble 826.0 T25 (097321-7)

It is no surprise that Tennyson’s poetry was well-known and discussed by the early members of the College. Among the first donations to the Library when the College opened in 1869 were six volumes of his work, presented by the Mistress, Charlotte Manning. The Library also holds Emily Davies’ own copies of Enoch Arden, Idylls of the King, Maud and other poems, and The princess: a medley. It is equally no surprise that The princess, in particular, struck a chord.  First published in 1847, and the inspiration for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida, this narrative poem in blank verse tells of Princess Ida, who establishes a great college for women from which all men are barred on pain of death. The Archive contains letters to Barbara Bodichon from Bessie Rayner Parkes discussing the poem[1] as well as photographs of the students’ performance of The princess in 1891[2].

The Tennyson volumes are now also part of the Gamble collection, housed securely in the purpose-built environmentally-controlled Store in the Library & Archive’s Duke Building.

References and further reading


[1] Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Parkes 5/19, 5/20, 5/50

[2] Girton College Archive reference: GCPH 10/1/31-34