BROWSING bookstalls is one of life’s great pleasures. Like fishing, it remains a pleasure even if one brings nothing home; but today I had found a real treasure, and at a bargain price.
I stepped into the Eagle to order a celebratory pint and to leaf through my find at leisure. I was a little shocked at the price of the pint, but all that was set aside when I sat down to examine my new book. It was an odd volume from a little leather-bound set of the original Spectator, the collection of reflective essays which Joseph Addison and Richard Steele published as an ephemeral daily paper from 1711-12, but which proved to be so popular and ground-breaking that it was collected and reprinted many times over for the rest of that century and beyond.
Indeed, the volume I held in my hand was printed and bound in 1747, but the bookseller had pencilled in “odd volume — incomplete” and marked it down to £4! Of course, the fact that it was an odd volume made no odds at all, since each essay is complete in itself — it’s not as if one were missing the climax of a three-decker novel — but it meant that I had in my hand a beautiful book, its lovely old pages bound and printed two decades before America was even a country, its fine fount as elegant and readable now as then, and all for less than the price of my pint.
Compared with any other “antiques”, old books must be the best value of all.
As I turned the pages, I had another reason to be grateful for my find. My eye fell on “No. 453 Saturday August 9th 1712”, an essay by Addison which opens: “There is not a more pleasing exercise of the mind than gratitude.”
And soon the little essay flowers into verse:
When all thy mercies, O my God,
My rising soul surveys,
Transported with the view, I’m lost
In wonder, love, and praise.
So here was the source of a favourite hymn. That opening verse is especially dear to me, as it is the hymn that Maggie chose for her walk up the aisle on our wedding day, and those words were on my lips as I turned around to look at her.
And here, in their original context, were many other verses, more than those we sing: 13 in all. I had always liked the one about “the slippery paths of youth”, about Providence sustaining us even then, and how God’s tender care is bestowed upon the child through the mother. But now I saw that Addison traces that care even further upstream:
Thy Providence my life sustained,
And all my wants redressed,
While in the silent womb I lay,
And hung upon the breast.
Certainly something to ponder in our own times. I was absorbed for a good hour in perusing this and other essays, and closed the book knowing that one more gift had been added to Addison’s “ten thousand”:
Ten thousand thousand precious gifts
My daily thanks employ;
Nor is the least a cheerful heart,
That tastes those gifts with joy.
Love, Remember: Poems of loss, lament and hope by Malcolm Guite is out on 23 November. www.canterburypress.co.uk, or phone 0845 017 6965