Monday 15 April 2024

Daffodils, and the Walter Scott Publishing Company

 The daffodils are largely faded or gone, but there's still time for Robert Herrick's beautiful lyric, 'To Daffodils' – 

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain'd his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray'd together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew,
Ne'er to be found again.

My Herrick is an attractive little volume – date unknown, probably around 1900 – in the Canterbury Poets series, published by the Walter Scott Publishing Company at one shilling (5p in today's money) each. The company had nothing to do with the famous Walter Scott, but was founded by a Newcastle man of the same name, whose mission was to bring cheap but high-quality books – covering literature, ideas, history and much else – to the common man. The company was such a success that Scott, having started with nothing, died a millionaire.
The back pages of my Herrick volume give some idea of the range of the company's publications, and in doing so provide a fascinating snapshot of the mass-market end of the publishing industry at the turn of the last century. As well as the Canterbury Poets – over 100 volumes, each with an authoritative introduction (by Ernest Rhys in the case of Herrick) – the Scott Library (another hundred-plus volumes, slightly more expensively produced at one shilling and six pence) is also listed. This includes essays, letters, philosophy, and classics in translation. Anyone reading through both these libraries would end up well read indeed. And if they wanted to find out more about the lives of the authors, they could move on to the Great Writers series, each with a bibliography by J.P. Anderson of the British Museum. The life of Johnson, I notice, is by one Colonel F. Grant (who he?), but others are by more familiar names, including W.M. Rossetti, Edmund Gosse and Richard Garnett. Also advertised are 'Booklets by Count Tolstoy' (his sententious essays, attractively packaged) and, on a very different plane, The Useful Red Series, factual works on such topics as bridge, indigestion, consumption and choosing a piano. Finally, one volume gets a full-page announcement to itself: billed as 'A Book for Every Dinner Table', it is titled Musicians' Wit, Humour and Anecdote: Being On Dits of Composers, Singers and Instrumentalists of All Times, by Frederick J. Crowest, profusely illustrated with quaint drawings by J.P. Donne. 'Among the hundreds of stories abounding in wit and pointed repartee which the volume contains, will be found anecdotes of famous musicians of all countries and periods.' I think my own dinner table will get by perfectly well without this particular volume. 


  1. A precursor of the Everyman's Library, I take it. The goal of the EL publisher and editor (Dent and Rhys) was a thousand-volume library of literary classics, philosophy, history, travel, poetry, religion, even reference. There was also the Temple Classics, etc.

    Dale Nelson

    1. Thanks Dale. Yes, it was a golden age for the 'common reader' – and beautifully produced books they were, by and large. Macmillan too, in its early days, was driven by the same ambition.