O for a Booke and a shadie nooke,I came upon this poem earlier this month while compiling My Sentimental Library blog post about my Austin Dobson Collection. Austin Dobson (1840-1921) included the poem in his 1917 book, A Bookman's Budget. Researching the poem's authorship led me astray for more than a day!
eyther in-a-doore or out ;
With the greene leaves whisp'ring overhede,
or the Streete cryes all about.
Where I maie Reade all at my ease,
both of the Newe and Olde ;
For a jolie goode Booke whereon to looke,
is better to me than Golde.
Austin Dobson attributed the poem to the bookseller John Wilson, who died in 1889. Dobson said he repeated his story in print more than once prior to 1917. Here is his article in the Feb 12, 1898 issue of The Academy:
And the April 21, 1900 issue of the New York weekly The Outlook, noted in its own "Notes And Queries" section, that Dobson had previously attributed the poem to Wilson in the London Athenaeum.
In A Bookman's Budget, Austin Dobson noted that "as far as I know," the poem made its first appearance in Alexander Ireland's Book-Lover's Enchiridion in 1883.
But the poem, in fact, appeared twenty years earlier in the Oct 10, 1863 issues of the British periodical, Notes And Queries. It was in a "Quotations Wanted" query by "ABHBA."
Rev. Beaver Henry Blacker (1821-1890), using the initials ABHBA, was a familiar contributor to Notes And Queries from 1853 to 1890. At the time of his query in 1863, Blackwell was assigned to a vicarage in Dublin, Ireland. A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, Blacker was a a historian as well as priest, and wrote 60 articles for the Dictionary of National Biography under the initials of BHB. He later became editor of the Gloucestershire Notes And Queries. His Oct 1863 query in the London Notes And Queries, however, is his only recorded entry I could find regarding the authorship of O FOR A BOOKE.
Queries regarding the authorship of O FOR A BOOKE appeared in numerous other periodicals after its publication in The Book-Lover's Enchiridion in 1883. But the poem's next appearance in Notes And Queries was in the Dec 19, 1891 issue:
P. J. A. is Peter John Anderson (1853-1926), a noted philatelist who became Librarian of the University of Aberdeen in 1894. He was a contributor to the D. N. B. as well, under the initials P. J. A. And the query above is the only recorded entry of his I found regarding O FOR A BOOKE.
In the Jan 30, 1892 issue of Notes And Queries, Jonathan Bouchier, grandson of the American loyalist, Jonathan Bouchier, questioned whether the lines were as old as they were thought to be:
In the Mar 12, 1892 issue, Rev. Edward Marshall (1815-1899), another frequent contributor to Notes And Queries, suggested that the source of the poem may well be a quotation attributed to Thomas A. Kempis:
Translation: "I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not save in nooks and in books."
The mention of nooks and books is the only commonality between the Kempis quotation and O FOR A BOOKE.
On a sidenote, there was another poem published in The Book-Lover's Enchiridion that also mentioned a nook and a book, although the poem itself was shortened by four lines. And that is the poem, "A NOOK AND A BOOK," from William Freeland's 1882 book, A Birth Song And Other Poems."
In the Feb 22, 1908 issue of Notes And Queries, Charles Christopher Bell, a British Folklore specialist, asked when O FOR A BOOKE was published:
In the Mar 7, 1908 issue of Notes And Queries, Austin Dobson responded to Bell's post, and used the opportunity to reiterate that the bookseller, John Wilson, was the author of O FOR A BOOKE. But people still wanted to believe that O FOR A BOOKE was an old English song.
Bells' post also attracted the attention of two other readers, and their responses followed Dobson's remarks.
The printing firm of Mitchell, Hughes & Clarke attest that they too saw the lines to O FOR A BOOKE in an old book twenty years ago (late 1880s).
William Jaggard (1868-1947), a Stratford bookseller and noted Shakespearean bibliographer, referred to an earlier post of his about O FOR A BOOKE in Notes And Queries of Sept 16, 1905 (10 S. iv. 229).
The volume of early English poems and ballads that Jaggard alleged was the source of O FOR A BOOKE was the "old book" referred to by Dobson in A Bookman's Budget "that has never been forthcoming."
Jaggard cited the earlier appearances of O FOR A BOOKE in Notes And Queries, particularly the 1863 article (3S iv 288), to substantiate his claim that the poem came from an old book he had seen, and also to disparage Dobson's claim that the poem was published in one of John Wilson's bookseller catalogue.
The British Museum, however, provided relevant biographical details about John Wilson, noting that Wilson had acquired the business of F. G. Tomlins "c1862."
John Wilson, as you will later see, was printing bookseller catalogues more than a year before the 1863 Notes And Queries article containing O FOR A BOOKE was printed.
John Wilson died on Aug 30, 1889 at the age of 70. Unfortunately, his obituary, published in the Oct 9, 1889 issue of The Bookseller provides no information to help resolve the authorship question.
Christopher Morley attempted to help the cause. In Notes and Queries in Sep 1919 (12 S V 237), he asked if anyone could find a copy of one of John Wilson's catalogues containing the poem:
The next month, Oscar Berry, of the accounting firm of Oscar Berry and Co., responded to Morley's query, and questioned Dobson's assertion that John Wilson was the author of the poem. Berry surmised that if Wilson was the author, Alexander Ireland would have heard about it and chronologically placed the poem in a later part of the book:
My copy of The Book-Lover's Enchiridion is dated 1890, and is a reprint of the 1888 5th edition. O FOR A BOOKE was still listed in chronological order with other pieces from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Both Dobson and Jaggard posted notes on the authorship of O FOR A BOOKE to Notes And Queries in November 1919.
Jaggard had a new story to tell about the authorship of O FOR A BOOKE.
Jaggard embellished his previous story adding that his friend Thomas Simmons said that he also had obtained the verse from an Elizabethan book he had purchased. Jaggard never publicly followed up on his claims regarding the authorship of the poem––at least not in Notes And Queries. But I researched further and discovered that the poem most likely appeared in at least one of John Wilson's early bookseller catalogues.
One of John Wilson's bookseller catalogues was advertised in the May 3, 1862 issue of The Saturday Review:
And another one of his catalogues was listed in the Aug 9, 1862 issue of Notes And Queries:
To date, no copy of one of John Wilson's bookseller catalogues containing the poem O FOR A BOOKE has appeared. And the authorship question of O FOR A BOOKE down through the years has never been fully resolved. In fact, as you will see, the attribution of the poem has gotten worse!
There is no attribution given in Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac (1899), leading some readers to believe that Eugene Field was the author.
The 1904 third edition of Thoughts For Book Lovers referred to the old attribution of the poem: an Old English Song.
Publishers' Weekly attributed the poem to John Wilson in its May 27, 1922 issue!
Hoyt's New Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations attributed the poem to John Wilson in its 1923 edition and cited the Nov 1919 Notes And Queries article for discussion of the poem's authorship.
In The Book About Books: The Anatomy of Bibliomania, first published in 1950, and reprinted in 1981, Holbrook Jackson cites John Wilson as the author of the poem.
By the late 1960s, however, O FOR A BOOKE had seen its last light of day in many reference books. It is not listed in The Oxford Book of English Verse (1972), the Dictionary of Quotations (1978), The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1999), or Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (2012).
O FOR A BOOKE is still listed on a number of websites, but the attribution is atrocious!
Quotes.net modernized the spelling of the poem, which is fine. But it attributed the poem to a John Skinner Wilson (1849-1926) who was an Anglican priest!
The Quotations Page isn't any better. It attributes the poem to the Scottish author, John Wilson (1785-1854)
Wikipedia credits the Scottish author John Wilson as well:
Goodreads attributes the poem to a John Wilson who is a contemporary Canadian author of historical fiction and nonfiction!
And Poem Hunter simply attributes it simply as "Anonymous British."
In closing, I will repeat Christopher Morley's Sept 1919 query.
Perhaps the British Library has copies of John Wilson's 1862 bookseller catalogues?