For the past few weeks I’ve been in Melbourne, on research leave, working on two novels (the endgame of one, the beginnings of another), attending conferences and so on. One of the most excellent things I’ve been doing is messing about in the Monash University’s Rare Books Collection, most specifically having a wonderful time with their impressive collection of fairy tale and related publications.
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share a few little treasures I’ve discovered in the collection, and I thought I’d start with a beautiful little chapbook first published in 1807.
As the cover page tells us, this tiny booklet is ‘said to be written for the Use of his Children by Mr. Roscoe‘, and was printed at the ‘Original Juvenile Library, the Corner of St. Paul’s Church-Yard’.
Mr John Roscoe wrote the poem, probably in around 1802, for his children. He and his wife Jane (nee Griffies) were the parents of 7 sons and 3 daughters. Roscoe was an abolitionist (he wrote a long narrative poem, The Wrongs of Africa, published in two parts in 1787 and 1788) and a keen amateur naturalist. In the early 1800s, he was involved in a group project to create a Botanic Garden in his home town of Liverpool. Perhaps his time in the gardens gave him the idea of writing about an insect ball for his children’s entertainment! In November, 1806, The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine and the Lady’s Monthly Museum. Roscoe’s little poem was, as much as anything was in the Regency period, an overnight sensation. Everybody read it. Even the royal family. King George III and Queen Charlotte requested a copy of the verse be set to music by George Thomas Smart. The resulting glee was performed by the Royal Princesses Mary, Elizabeth and Augusta, for their parents, during a visit to the seaside resort of Weymouth.
I’d like to do a little more digging, but found this little snippet about Mr John Harris and his ‘Original Juvenile Library’:
“John Harris, a London bookseller and publisher of children’s books. He took over the firm of Newbery in 1801 and several years later broke from the tradition of that firm and began to publish books that were purely for amusement. This proved highly successful for him, and he continued to publish this type of entertaining story alongside the more conventional and sober books of the period. He also published board games and with these and his books catered to the more affluent end of the market. His company continued to market its publications successfully for several decades until the early 1840s.”
The copy in the Monash collection is a facsimile of the 1807 original.
The text is accompanied by delightful black-and-white illustrations, copperplate engravings by William Mulready. Some very witty or fey. Would you like to see them? I’m sure you would. Well, here’s the text of the little poem, with some of the gorgeous illustrations for your amusement.
Come take up your Hats, and away let us haste,
To the Butterfly’s Ball, and the Grashopper’s feast.
The Trumpeter Gad-Fly has summon’d the crew,
And the Revels are now only waiting for you.
On the smooth-shaven Grass by the side of a Wood,
Beneath a broad Oak which for ages had stood,
See the Children of earth, and the tenants of Air,
To an evening’s amusement together repair.
And there came the Beetle, so blind and so black,
Who carried the Emmet, his friend on his back.
And there came the Gnat, and the Dragon-Fly too,
And all their relations, Green, Orange, and Blue.
And there came the Moth, with her plumage of down,
And the Hornet, with Jacket of Yellow and Brown.
Who with him the Wasp, his companion did bring,
But they promised that ev’ning, to lay by their sting.
And the sly little Dormouse crept out of his Hole,
And brought to the Feast his blind Brother, the Mole.
And the Snail, with his Horns peeping out of his Shell,
Came from a great Distance, the Length of an Ell.
A mushroom the table, and on it was spread,
A water-dock leaf, which their table cloth made.
The viands were various to each of their taste,
And the Bee brought the honey to sweeten the feast.
With steps most majestic the Snail did advance,
And he promised the gazers a minuet to dance:
But they laugh’d so loud that he drew in his head,
And went in his own little chamber to bed.
Then as ev’ning gave way, to the shadows of night
Their watchman, the Glow-worm, came out with his light.
So home let us hasten, while yet we can see:
For no watchman is waiting for you or for me.
[Roscoe’s poem was later expanded into a much longer than the version in this little chapbook of the first edition: you can read the full 1808 version of the poem online here.]
Oh, and just in case it sounds a little familiar, the tale was resurrected into the popular imagination in 1973, when Alan Aldridge created a new set of illustrations for the poem and published his own, modern version of the book. His technicolour, detailed Butterfly won the 1973 Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year Award. Aldridge’s book in turn inspired the former Deep Purple band member, Roger Glover, to produce an album of the same name. Glover’s concept album became the basis of a rock opera staged at Albert Hall, London, in 1975. The lead single from the album (Love Is All), sung by Ronnie James Dio (of Black Sabbath) was a big hit in The Netherlands: you might even remember hearing it yourself.