My soul sickens at the look of a quarto. I want a refined octavo

RLS was beginning to send home some of the MS of AChild’s Garden of Verses, the title of which had not yet been settled. The pieces as first numbered are in a different order from that afterwards adopted, but the reader will easily identify the references, here in the first illustrated edition, 1895.T he MS of the trial version of the book was printed in 1883 as Penny Whistles.

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1095.]

To W.E. Henley [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 121-125]

[Hyères, Early May 1883]

My dear lad,

This is to announce to you the MS of Nursery Verses, now numbering XLVIII pieces or 599 verses, which, of course, one might augment ad infinitum.

But here is my notion to make all clear.

I do not want a big ugly quarto; my soul sickens at the look of a quarto. I want a refined octavo, not large not larger than the Donkey Book, at any price.

RLS’s ‘Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes’, 1st edition of only 750 copies, 1879 (5.2 x 7.6 in.; 132 x 193 mm) []

I think the full page might hold four verses of four lines, that is to say, counting their blanks at two, of twenty-two lines in height. The first page of each number would only hold two verses or ten lines, the title being low down.

‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’, 1st illustrated (and postumous) edition, 1895, ill. Charles Robinson []

At this rate, we should have seventy-eight or eighty pages of letterpress.

The designs should not be in the text, but facing the poem; so that if the artist liked, he might give two pages of design to every poem that turned the leaf, i.e. longer then eight lines, i.e. to twenty-eight out of the forty-six. I should say he would not use this privilege (?) above five times, and some he might scorn to illustrate at all, so we may say fifty drawings. I shall come to the drawings next.

‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ , full page drawing by Charles Robinson, 1895 ed. []

But now you see my book of the thickness, since the drawings count two pages, of 180 pages; and since the paper will perhaps be thicker, of near two hundred by bulk. It is bound in a quiet green with the words in thin gilt. Its shape is a slender tall octavo.

First edition of ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’, Longmans & Co., London, 1885 []

First illustrated edition of ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’, Scribner’s & Sons, London-NY, 1895 []

And it sells for the publisher’s fancy, and it will be a darling to look at; in short, it would be like one of the original Heine books in type and spacing.

Heine’s Bokk of Songs, English transl., 1874 []

Heine’s Bokk of Songs, English transl., 1874 []

Now for the pictures. I take another sheet and begin to jot notes for them when my imagination serves: I will run through the book, writing when I have an idea.

There, I have jotted enough to give the artist a notion. Of course, I don’t do more than contribute ideas, but I will be happy to help in any and every way. I may as well add another idea; when the artist finds nothing much to illustrate, a good drawing of any object mentioned in the text, were it only a loaf of bread or a candlestick, is a most delightful thing to a young child. I remember this keenly.

“A good drawing of any object mentioned in the text, were it only a loaf of bread or a candlestick, is a most delightful thing to a young child” []

Of course, if the artist insists on a larger form, I must, I suppose, bow my head. But my idea I am convinced is the best, and would make the book truly, not fashionably pretty.

I forgot to mention that I shall have a dedication; I am going to dedicate ’em to Cummy; it will please her, and lighten a little my burthen of ingratitude. A low affair is the Muse business.

Dedication to his nurse, Cummy, 1895 edition []

I will add no more to this lest you should want to communicate with the artist; try another sheet. I wonder how many I’ll keep wandering to.

O I forgot. As for the title, I think Nursery Verses the best. Poetry is not the strong point of the text, and I shrink from any title that might seem to claim that quality; otherwise we might have Nursery Muses or New Songs of Innocence (but that were a blasphemy), or Rimes of Innocence: the last not bad,

Title page of W. Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’, 1789 []

or – an idea – The Jews’ Harp,


or – now I have it – The Penny Whistle.






And here we have an excellent frontispiece, of a party playing on a P. W. to a little ring of dancing children.


is the name for me.

Fool! this is all wrong, here is the true name:



The second title is queried, it is perhaps better, as simply


Nor you, O Penny Whistler, grudge

That I your instrument debase:

By worse performers still we judge,

And give that fife a second place!

Crossed penny whistles on the cover, or else a sheaf of ’em.



IV. The procession – the child running behind it. The procession tailing off through the gates of a cloudy city.

‘Young Night Thought’ []


IX. Foreign Lands. – This will, I think, want two plates – the child climbing, his first glimpse over the garden wall, with what he sees – the trees shooting higher and higher like the beanstalk, and the view widening. The river slipping in. The road arriving in Fairyland.



X. Windy Nights. – The child in bed listening – the horseman galloping.



XII. The child helplessly watching his ship – then he gets smaller, and the doll joyfully comes alive – the pair landing on the island – the ship’s deck with the doll steering and the child firing the penny cannon. Query two plates? The doll should never come properly alive.



XV. Building of the ship – storing her – Navigation – Tom’s accident, the other child paying no attention.



XXXI. The Wind. – I sent you my notion of already.




XXXVII. Foreign Children. – The foreign types dancing in a jing-a-ring, with the English child pushing in the middle. The foreign children looking at and showing each other marvels. The English child at the leeside of a roast of beef. The English child sitting thinking with his picture-books all round him, and the jing-a-ring of the foreign children in miniature dancing over the picture-books.



XXXIX. Dear artist, can you do me that?



XLII. The child being started off – the bed sailing, curtains and all, upon the sea – the child waking and finding himself at home; the corner of toilette might be worked in to look like the pier.



XLVII. The lighted part of the room, to be carefully distinguished from my child’s dark hunting grounds. A shaded lamp.



1944 edition illustrated by Roger Duvoisin []



Jessie Willcox Smith, iIllustration from ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’, 1905 []

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4 Responses to My soul sickens at the look of a quarto. I want a refined octavo

  1. Maria Finzi says:

    che bella puntata!

    Date: Wed, 14 Oct 2015 16:37:35 +0000 To:


  2. mafalda says:

    Thank you, Maria!


  3. rdury says:

    Lovely illustrations! For the original German edition of Heine’s _Buch der Lieder_ (1827), see


  4. mafalda says:

    Thanks, Richard!


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