Poetry: 'Truth in its Sunday clothes'

A good book of poetry comes in handy in every room.

My love of antiques has been going on for years. So the other day when I drove past an old house in the country and saw a homemade sign (sometimes the best) that read, "ANTIQUES FOR SALE," I screeched to a halt. It was a cold, windy Iowa day, but I tied a scarf over my head and joined the other devoted antiquers.

A young man was in charge of the sale. "We're cleaning out Grandpa's house before we sell the farm," he said. "Getting rid of all this old stuff."

The "old stuff" was wonderful: several old chairs with cane seats, a walnut drop-leaf table, two weathered wooden stepladders, and an old hooked rug in excellent condition. I was tempted but then – hurrah! – in the corner of an upstairs bedroom, I found a small bookcase filled with old books.

Something about the sight of old books pulls me like a magnet, and old books of poetry are especially tantalizing. I love them. Around the turn of the last century, the most cherished gift one could give a friend was a book of poetry by Shelley or Shakespeare, Bryant or Burns. Sure enough, there was a lovely, old, published-in-London book with gold lettering on a deep-blue cover: "The Poetical Works of Robert Burns." The illustrations were quaint and charming. One of the poems was, of course, "Auld Lang Syne."

I would have paid much more, but the price was $1.

Back home, I put my purchase in the basket beside my favorite chair. I like to scatter a few old books of poetry around the house – one or two beside my chair, one on the kitchen counter to browse while I wait for something to cook, and one on my bedside table.

Old books of poetry are full of wisdom – the easy-to-digest kind. Some are like self-help books, but their advice is condensed – no wasted wordage. Some are tributes to dear friends, some describe the beauty in life with words that are beautiful to read. Joseph Roux, a 19th-century French clergyman, once said, "Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes."

There's often an inscription on the flyleaf: "To Emilie from Sarah, June 10, 1903." Or, "From John on Your Graduation Day." Or sometimes a bookplate that reads: "Ex Libris – Elizabeth Greene." There may be handwritten notes in the margins, meaningful reminders made by a long-ago reader.

Near the front of my new acquisition, there's a biography of Robert Burns written in old-fashioned, flowery language. I learned that he was born in "a hovel of clay and straw a Scotch mile from the town of Ayr," that "his black hair, slightly sprinkled with grey, was spread over his forehead and suited his large dark eyes," that he lived 37 somewhat scandalous years and died in 1796.

I love my lovely old book. It was cherished by someone long ago; now it's my turn to read and enjoy it.

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