O.Wilde, Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. (...)
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. (...)

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. (...)
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself...

O. Wilde (1854-1900),
Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

Friday, January 07, 2011

William Caxton, life

                  William Caxton

                  c. 1422 - 1491

                          First English printer

·     William Caxton is the first English printer and the introducer of the art of printing into England.
·     He designed his mark in 1489. The symbol between W and C is usually interpreted as 74, probably referring to 1474, when printing was introduced into England.
·     He was born in Kent in the early 1420s (probably in 1422)  and died at Westminster in 1491. When he died he was in the midst of his work and his industry was very great. England’s first printer was more than a skilful master printer and publisher of books.  He was, to some extent, a man of letters, – an editor, author and translator – with a certain style of his own and a true enthusiasm for literature.  And, undoubtedly, his work as writer and translator helped to fix the  literary  language of England in the sixteenth century.
·     The exact place and date of Caxton’s birth are unrecorded, and nothing is known of his parentage. However, he himself wrote (mainly in the prefaces and epilogues to his printed books) that he was born in Kent and that his parents gave him an education that fitted him to earn a living (but nothing is said about the place where he had been educated). From the records of the Mercers' Company of London we learn that in 1438 (the first definite date of his life that is known) he was working as an apprentice for Robert Large,  a well-known and wealthy London mercer. [As for that kind of work the minimum age was 14, it is highly likely that he was born about 15 years earlier, in the early 1420s].
By 1446 he had become a merchant on his own account and, being a good man of business, soon became prosperous.  
The members of the Mercers’ Company were specialized in exporting woollen cloth and they also dealt in other textiles.  Much of this trade was with the Low Countries, and that’s why by 1449 Caxton was living in Bruges. There he became a leading member of the English merchant community. 
In 1453 he went to England for his formal admittance to the Mercers' Company and then he went back to Bruges again. Here, in 1465, he was appointed governor for Bruges of the Merchant Adventurers, an association of English merchants. This important position involved delicate and responsible commercial negotiations, and Caxton seems to have fulfilled his duties honourably and with success.
In particular he was involved in negotiating commercial treaties with the dukes of Burgundy, who then ruled this part of Europe.
·     About 1470 a change took place in his life.  
Already in 1469, just for recreation, Caxton had begun translating a French prose work on the history of Troy  and it is soon after this period that the direction of his career changed.
He gave up his post as governor of the English merchants as well as all his connections with commerce and  became  secretary  to (entered the service of)  Margaret of Burgundy  (the sister of Edward IV of England),  who had married Charles, Duke of Burgundy in 1468.  It is not known why he did this, but it may well be that he wished for greater  freedom  for literary  work. 
Margaret encouraged Caxton’s literary activities, and in 1471-1472 he spent about 18 months in Cologne, where he learned the still fairly new technique of printing.  While he was in Cologne, Caxton finished his translation (1471)  dedicating it to his patroness.
On his return to Bruges he printed the text, entitled Recuyell [= Compilation] of the Historyes of Troye”.   This,  the first printed book in English,  was published probably around 1474-75 at the press of Colard Mansion, an illuminator of manuscripts, who had set up a press in that city in 1473.  
It was this piece of work which led William Caxton  to turn his attention to the art of printing.  (= the book in manuscript was much sought after,  and the labour of copying was too heavy and too slow to meet the demand).
Later in the same year he issued (at the same press) his second book — another translation by himself from French, The Game and Playe of the Chesse, in which chess is treated as an allegory of life.
·     In 1476 Caxton returned to London, where he set up  a  printing  press  of his own in a shop that he rented near Westminster Abbey.
His first known publication in England was a single sheet — an indulgence dated December 13, 1476 (the only copy known to survive is in the Public Record Office, London).  
His first dated book, and the first book to be printed in England, was The Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophers” published in 1477.   
From this date (1477) to the end of his life Caxton printed about 100 books (ninety-six!)  from his Westminster press, including, amongst others, most of the works of Chaucer,   the Confessio Amantis  by Chaucer’s contemporary, John Gower, Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" (1485) (for this prose epic he wrote a very good and famous preface),  and various translations of more or less classical works from French, Latin, and Dutch,  together with a number of smaller books,  a good many of which are dealing with subjects such as religion (the lives of saints), history, geography, fables, and also instructional books (for example, on good manners and learning French).  
Caxton also wrote a lot of prefaces or epilogues to many of the works he published.  Most of Caxton’s books do not bear a date, but they can usually be given a fairly accurate place in his output by expert examination of the paper and typography.
·     In 1480 he began using woodcut illustrations in his books, the first dated example of which is The Myrrour of the Worlde (1481), a kind of popular science. At his death, probably late in 1491 or early in 1492, when he was aged about 70, his business was taken over by his assistant Wynkyn de Worde. [= Caxton's precise date of death is still uncertain. The records of his burial in St Margaret's, Westminster, show that he died or was buried in about March 1492].

Specimens of his printed books exist in various public and private libraries. The British Museum possesses eighty-three Caxton volumes, twenty-five of which are duplicates. Sixty-three of his publications survive, in single copies or in fragments, in the British Library.
Although Caxton’s books do not rank highly in terms of skill in typography or illustration, they firmly established the practice of printing in England. He also displayed a lively, humorous style that considerably influenced 15th & 16th-century English literature.
The English language was changing rapidly in Caxton's time and the works he was given to print were in a variety of styles and dialects.
Caxton was a technician rather than a writer and he often faced dilemmas concerning language standardisation in the books he printed. (He wrote about this subject in the preface to his Eneydos.) (His successor Wynkyn de Worde faced similar problems).
Caxton is credited with standardising the English language (that is, homogenising regional dialects) through printing. This was said to have led to the expansion of English vocabulary, the development of accidence and syntax and the ever-widening gap between the spoken and the written word.
              [ It is asserted that the spelling ghost with the unnecessary letter h was
             adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Dutch spelling habits].

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