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University Library’s free new app goes behind the scenes on the publishing of the Old English epic poem

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William Morris’s publication of a translation of Beowulf was arguably the most problematic book project he undertook. Only 300 paper copies were ever produced and it’s likely he lost money on it – critics were not impressed either. But taking a page-by-page look at Morris’ proof copy on the University Library’s new app gives us fascinating insights into the rigours of preparing a book for publication, the complex art of translation, and Morris’s painstaking quest for aesthetic perfection.

Beowulf is one of six remarkable texts included in this new interactive book app. On the app you can flick through digitised pages of some of the books that changed the course of history.

Published in 1895, just one year before his death, Morris’s version of Beowulf was based on a prose translation by a young Cambridge University scholar in Anglo-Saxon, A.J. Wyatt. But Morris reinterpreted this translation into verse format and favoured using deliberately archaic diction that often mirrored the original, perhaps attempting to evoke the strange ancient setting of the original.

In this proof version, we can see the tension resulting from the different approaches to translation of Morris and Wyatt, in the handwritten annotations to the text which form a heated conversation. Morris’s annotations also show his proofreading amendments and in particular his very strong attention to typography and how spacing should be used to present the text in its most engaging way.

The edition is an example of Morris’s very distinct approach to publishing, which reflected his reverence for traditional materials and craftsmanship as a way of fighting back against the forces of industrialisation and mass production. Its hand-made paper was made of linen rags and bound with vellum. He commissioned a new font for his edition of Beowulf called Troy, which was used in conjunction with another font called Chaucer. The ink, specially commissioned from a German manufacturer, was so thick on the page that the workers at the Kelmscott Press threatened to strike in protest.

The copies of Morris’s Beowulf that were eventually sold were immaculate, but what is unique about this particular copy is that, as a proof, it is very much a work in progress. It is a behind-the-scenes look at the printing process – complete with the publisher’s notes, smudges, thumb prints and even a ring of what appears to have been a tea cup.

When it was finished, the book was sold for around two guineas – roughly equivalent to £1,000-1,500 today. Alongside the 300 paper copies, eight luxury copies were also printed on vellum. Clearly not designed for a mass audience, Morris’ Beowulf was also regarded by many critics as an unsuccessful translation due to its arcane and sometimes obscure language. Nevertheless, this proof copy brings the process of book making and the art of translation vividly to life through the eyes of one of the most influential artistic thinkers of the 19th century.

Download the University Library’s free app and you can go through this working edition page by page. Additional features include:

  • Video introductions to Morris, his approach to printing and this edition of Beowulf from Dr Kathryn James, Curator at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University and Munby Fellow in Bibliography, University of Cambridge
  • Video introductions to Morris and Wyatt’s translation of Beowulf, the original text itself and the linguistic world of Old English by Dr Richard Dance from the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge
  • Readings of Beowulf both in the original Old English and from Morris and Wyatt’s translated version
  • A discussion on the influence of Beowulf on poets such as W.H. Auden and Seamus Heaney, and in particular the Anglo-Saxon scholar and novelist J.R.R. Tolkein
  • A facsimile copy of Cædmon’s Hymn, an eighth-century manuscript widely regarded as being the earliest surviving example of English poetry
  • More details about the Kelmscott Press and the philosophy that inspired Morris to found it
  • Examples of Kelmscott Press binding and the typefaces used by Morris.

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