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15 December 2014

A precious — mouldering pleasure — 'tis —

A precious — mouldering pleasure — 'tis —
To meet an Antique Book —
In just the Dress his Century wore —
A privilege — I think —

His venerable Hand to take —
And warming in our own —
A passage back — or two — to make —
To Times when he — was young —

His quaint opinions — to inspect —
His thought to ascertain
On Themes concern our mutual mind —
The Literature of Man —

What interested Scholars — most —
What Competitions ran —
When Plato — was a Certainty —
And Sophocles — a Man —

When Sappho — was a living Girl —
And Beatrice wore
The Gown that Dante — deified —
Facts Centuries before

He traverses — familiar —
As One should come to Town —
And tell you all your Dreams — were true —
He lived — where Dreams were born —

His presence is Enchantment —
You beg him not to go —
Old Volumes shake their Vellum Heads
And tantalize — just so —
                                       F569 (1863)  J371


In this charming ode to classical literature, Dickinson metaphorically meets the old vellum volumes as elderly gentlemen who enjoy being asked about their lives and times, whose "quaint opinions" are still of interest, and whose very presence is "Enchantment". Such encounters are a pleasure and a privilege, the pleasure being both "precious" and "mouldering". Antique books (and old gentlemen) can be a bit musty, but that is part of the precious pleasure, signaling a vantage of the storied past.
Some of the books Dickinson was
known to have read

        The extended book/man metaphor is introduced as we see the poet meet the Antique Book in the "Dress his Century wore".  We imagine seeing the ancient Greeks in draped tunics and cloaks, or Medieval gentlemen in doublets and hose.         Opening the book is like taking the gentleman's hand. It warms to the touch and, with this offered encouragement, he opens up and tells his tale. I like Dickinson's phrase, "To Times when he – was young", for it reminds me that old books may seem venerable now, but they were first being read in their youth, when what they said was fresh and new. 
        Dickinson wants to inspect his opinions, ascertain his views on such themes of interest as literature, scholarly work, and "What Competitions ran". That last one is a puzzlement. Perhaps she wonders if there were prizes for poetry reading or costume as well as, of course, for sport. No doubt the sort of competitions an era engages in provides some insights into its values. 
        She reveals her literary excursions through her examples. What literature, scholarly focus, and competitions were current when Plato "was a Certainty" (perhaps a droll reference to his contention that it is a changeable and deceptive world our senses perceive); when Sophocles was a living man and Sappho a living girl; and, delightfully, when Dante's Beatrice wore what must have been a very becoming gown.
        His knowledge is centuries old, and his stories tell you "all your Dreams – were true" for He lived – where Dreams were born." That's a lovely line and may refer to Western literature's heavy reliance on Greek myth and literature whose themes and icons echo even now. It is seducing to think that in the gentleman's youth those fabled stories were true. But the "Old Volumes" just shake their "Vellum Heads" the way an old grandfather would when asked for more tales from his impossible youth – half encouragement, half demurral.

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