Edwin Morgan: cutting up and scribbling in books

Although we don’t welcome new additions or deletions to the material in our care, existing annotations and interventions are often what make a book particularly interesting and unique. This might be as simple as a previous owner inscribing their name, or evidence of a more substantial engagement with the text. Anyone interested in the life and work of a writer might be particularly keen to know what books they kept on their shelves and to find out how they responded to them. In the case of the poet Edwin Morgan (1920-2010), you’ll find his extensive library of books and magazines in the Special Collections department of the Mitchell Library, Glasgow. Not surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between Morgan’s library in the Mitchell and his personal papers, held here in the University of Glasgow Library. In some cases, the connection is an intensely visual and physical one as Morgan’s interactions went beyond note-making in the margins, to cutting up books [shock, horror!], physically sampling material and pasting it into scrapbooks for reference and inspiration.

One of sixteen scrapbooks compiled by poet Edwin Morgan from the 1930s to the 1960s.

One of sixteen scrapbooks compiled by poet Edwin Morgan from the 1930s to the 1960s. Part of his personal papers. (MS Morgan C/1)

A cut-up book from Edwin Morgan's Library (Mitchell Library, EM SWE)

A cut-up book from Edwin Morgan’s Library (Mitchell Library, EM SWE)

Edwin Morgan's copy of Henry Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader (Mitchell Library, EM SWE)

Edwin Morgan’s copy of Henry Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader (Mitchell Library, EM SWE)

This connection has been highlighted by Dr Chris Jones from the University of St Andrews, who consulted the collections in the Mitchell Library and the University of Glasgow while researching the significance of Old English in Morgan’s poetry. (One of his earliest publications was a verse translation of Beowulf, first published in 1952 and Morgan’s last poetry collection included a translation of an Old English riddle.) In an article for the Scottish Literary Review (Volume 4 Number 2) Dr Jones discusses the importance of Henry Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse and Frederick Klaeber’s edition of Beowulf, both standard textbooks at the time Morgan was studying for his English degree in the 1930s and 1940s. As he points out, Morgan’s copies of these books in the Mitchell, contain evidence not only of his studies (extensive annotations elucidating the text) but also of
‘the work of Morgan’s scissors’!

In preparation for a talk I was giving on ‘Meaningful Mischief: a brief history of cutting up and scribbling in books‘ (Ingenious Impressions exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery), I went to the Mitchell to try and visually match up at least some of the many ‘cut-outs’ which Dr Jones had identified from Morgan’s copy of Sweet and compared with the contents of Morgan’s scrapbooks. Here are some of the results.

The first example is a line in Beowulf, ‘lagu drusade / waeter under wolcnum, waeldreore fag’, from an extract included in Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader. Morgan cut out line 380 from his textbook, wrote in the missing words and pasted the cutting into a scrapbook. In his biography of Morgan, James McGonigal writes that Morgan later translated this line as ‘The tarn lay still, / The water with death’s red stained under the sky’ (Beyond the Last Dragon, (2010) p.42)

EM_Sweet_Lagu

Cut-out of line 380 from an extract of Beowulf. Morgan has written in the missing words. (Mitchell Library EM SWE)

EM_Lagu_Scrapbook

Morgan pasted the cut-out of line 380 of Beowulf into the bottom right corner of this scrapbook page. (MS Morgan C/1 p216)

A second example is from another Old English poem, The Dream of the Rood. In this case, Morgan subsequently ‘patched’ the hole he had made in his copy of Sweet, from another copy, producing what Jones calls
‘a kind of Franken-text of two books glued together’.
For emotional and practical reasons Morgan may not have wanted to discard his annotated copy.

Lines 65b-69 of Dream of the Rood, cut out and subsequently 'patched'. (Mitchell EM SWE)

Lines 65b-69 of Dream of the Rood, cut out and subsequently ‘patched’. (Mitchell EM SWE)

Lines 65b-69 of Dream of the Rood, pasted vertically on scrapbook page (MS Morgan C/1 p324)

Lines 65b-69 of Dream of the Rood, pasted vertically on scrapbook page (MS Morgan C/1 p324)

The eclectic selection of material in the scrapbooks reflected Morgan’s fascination with all aspects of the world around him: art, literature, language, science, space exploration, the natural world, human culture, the humour and horror of everyday life. This in turn was reflected in the wide-ranging subject matter of his poetry and inventive use of language. His own sense of humour is perhaps evident in this last example – a line cut from an Old English riddle, (Riddle E, one of many texts preserved in the 1000 year old Exeter Book and known in some editions as Riddle 29.) The line selected by Morgan ‘lyftfæt leohtlic, listum gegierwed’ has been translated as ‘a bright air-vessel, adorned by crafts’. He pasted this line into his scrapbook immediately below a newspaper report about a cat which had apparently grown wings from mysterious lumps on its shoulders…!

Line cut from Riddle E in Morgan's copy of Sweet (Mitchell Library, EM SWE)

Line cut from Riddle E in Morgan’s copy of Sweet (Mitchell Library, EM SWE)

ine from Riddle E pasted into scrapbook (MS Morgan C/1 p346)

Line from Riddle E [possibly translated as a ‘flying creature’] pasted into scrapbook (MS Morgan C/1 p346)

You can read more about Morgan’s interest in bizarre news stories in a companion blog post by Kerry Patterson.

With thanks to Chris Jones and the staff at the Mitchell Library for their assistance with this fascinating investigation. No doubt there’s much more to be discovered in both Edwin Morgan’s Library and the Scrapbooks!



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