Poetry got people excited in the 19th century. Some readers appreciated its literary value, and others enjoyed it as a fashionable pursuit. It could cross the line between highbrow intellectualism and pop culture. Poetry set a certain tone and created a mood. A love of literature, the allure of fantasy, the pleasures of the mind, or the swing of cultural zeitgeist—all of this and more informed society’s passion for poetry.
The firm of R. & W. A. Bartow eagerly jumped on the poetry bandwagon. The youthful brothers Robert (1792–1868) and William Augustus Bartow (1794–1869) had left the family farm in their early 20s to resell goods as commission merchants before joining the book trade—Robert in New York City and William in their Southern office in Richmond, Virginia. Reprint editions of British poetry were a safe bet in the American marketplace, and the siblings knew a good money-making opportunity when they saw it. (Foreign copyrights would not be protected under United States law until 1891.) In 1821, the Bartow firm published its most ambitious project—The British Poets, in Sixteen Volumes—which included works by Robert Burns, William Cowper, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Gray, and others in handsome leather-bound volumes with gilt stamping and marbled endpapers. The series—like other volumes of poetry produced by R. & W. A. Bartow—featured fine engraved frontispieces and portraits of the authors.
Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) produced some of the Bartows’ illustrated plates. These were mostly copies of British book illustrations, including many by the artist Richard Westall (1765–1836). But the frontispiece in Mark Akenside’s The Pleasures of the Imagination, published by R. & W. A. Bartow in 1819, was an original piece “drawn by Durand” and engraved by “P. Maverick, Durand & Co.” Durand began his artistic career as an engraver working first as an apprentice and later as a partner with Peter Maverick (1780–1831). After the pair parted ways in 1820, Durand continued to work under the Bartow imprint. Durand’s brother John (1792–1820), who died at age 28, also made some engravings for Bartow editions. Asher B. Durand, who switched to painting in the 1830s, has been named as the artist of a lost oil portrait of the Bartow brothers’ mother, Clarina Bartow, née Bartow (who married her second cousin Augustus), which once belonged to Robert, but this attribution is undocumented.
Durand’s friend Michele Pekenino engraved authors’ portraits for the Bartows’ British Poets series. In The Life and Times of A. B. Durand (1894), John Durand recounted the Italian’s lively interactions with his father and Robert Bartow:
One more correspondent . . . who annoyed and yet amused him [was] . . . an Italian named Michael Pekenino; he was a stipple engraver and had a table in the studio of my father, who harboured and helped him along mainly because he was a foreigner and unused to the ways of the country. “Pekenino,” said my father, “sharpened a graver in the most wonderful manner. He told me that if he could engrave like me, he would go to———with the greatest pleasure,” as he expressed it in his Dantean phraseology. Pekenino was often employed by New York publishers, and particularly by a Mr. Bartow, for whom he engraved the heads of certain English poets to illustrate editions of their works republished in this country at that time. How the Italian regarded his patron may be gathered from the following specimen of his English, taken from a letter dated May 22, 1822:
Intreating Heaven, threatening Hell, cannot induce that adamantean Bartow to send me some money, and what is most infernal to my circumstance, I cannot get an answer from that obstinate being—in better terms, mortal stone! That publisher of poets did not . . . soften his heart at all in reading them! . . . I will write to him once more yet. I will, and it will be the last he shall receive not arrainged [sic] in good English.
Durand and Pekenino also engraved each other’s portraits, “Pekenino making his engraving after a portrait by [William] Jewett, while my father made his after a portrait of Pekenino drawn by himself,” explained John Durand. When Pekenino needed money before his return to Italy, he unabashedly took advantage of the craze for Simón de Bolívar, and “the plate of my father’s head being in his possession, he erased the title of ‘A. B. Durand’ and . . . substituted the title of ‘Bolivar.’ Many were sold.”
Robert C. Bruen apprenticed with Peter Maverick along with Asher B. Durand and was also an engraver for R. & W. A. Bartow. Sadly, Bruen “became deranged, and in the winter walked upon the ice of the river into the water and was drowned,” according to William Dunlap in his 1834 book on American design.
Although the Bartows did not include Lord Byron (1788–1824) in their British Poets series, they did not overlook him. And why would they? Byron was yesterday’s bad boy rock star. As his paramour Lady Caroline Lamb famously put it, he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” His works were sure to sell. In 1819, at the suggestion of his Italian mistress Teresa Guiccioli, Byron wrote The Prophecy of Dante in Ravenna. It was first published in America in 1821, and that same year, R. & W. A. Bartow issued La Profezia di Dante, an Italian translation of Byron’s work by the colorful poet, librettist, and Italian émigré Lorenzo da Ponte (1749–1838).
It was rare for the Bartow firm to publish original material (in this case, the added translation into Italian). The risk-averse brothers ensured the book’s profitability through a number of subscribers, whose names are printed at the back of the volume along with the number of copies they ordered. The impressive list includes prominent New Yorkers with connections to Da Ponte, such as Clement C. Moore, William Harris (the president of Columbia College), and members of the Livingston family. Perhaps Da Ponte solicited many of the subscribers, and the Bartows served as what was later known as a “vanity” publisher. In any case, the book was clearly a success because it went into an enhanced second edition the following year that included a frontispiece engraved by Pekenino and an appendix with Da Ponte’s own verse.
In Europe, Da Ponte was known as Mozart’s librettist for Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosí fan tutte and was a friend of Casanova. Debts prompted his move to New York City in the early 19th century, where, like the engraver Michele Pekenino, he was part of the city’s community of Italian émigrés. One day in 1807, Da Ponte met the writer and scholar Clement C. Moore (1779–1863) in a New York City bookshop, and a friendship ensued. Moore’s father was president of Columbia College, and the connection eventually led to Da Ponte’s appointment as the college’s first professor of Italian. The irrepressible Da Ponte also brought Italian opera to New Yorkers and opened an Italian bookshop on Broadway. His collaboration with the Bartow brothers must have been a thrilling moment for the young publishers.
Da Ponte was inspired to translate Byron’s The Prophecy of Dante when a pupil gave him a copy after the death of a beloved son. This account is from Da Ponte’s memoirs:
I not so much read, as devoured, all four cantos, without once putting aside the book from my hands. A certain analogy . . . between Dante’s experiences and mine, inspired me with a will to translate that work into Italian verse, and I straightway applied myself to the task. But to escape a spot that reminded me at every instant of the causes of my grief, I suggested to my student-guests withdrawing with them to some country place. . . .The retreat of ours was situated on a country estate belonging to the illustrious and honorable family of the Livingstons. . . . I rose from bed in the morning at sunrise and spent an hour reading some Italian prose writer or poet, now with my pupils and now with my children. I made my rural breakfast in their company, and a half hour afterwards, I would find some spot, now under a peach, now under an apple tree, and still weeping, translate a portion of that poem which would ever add a touch of sweetness to my tears.
Da Ponte dedicated the translation to “Madamagella Giulia [Julia] Livingston,” who was one of his host’s daughters. In Lorenzo da Ponte: The Extraordinary Adventures of the Man Behind Mozart, Rodney Bolt writes that “Lorenzo sent La Profezia de Dante to Lord Byron with a letter begging forgiveness for his audacity, but confessing he had not been able to withstand the temptation to translate it. No reply from Byron exists, but Giacomo Ombrosi, the American Vice-Consul in Florence, wrote to Da Ponte praising the translation and saying that he had delivered a copy to the poet on encountering him in Livorno.” If they knew, the Bartows must have been delighted.
The firm of R. & W. A. Bartow was just one of many publishers of verse in a great age for poetry. Today, we remember their work as we celebrate National Poetry Month.
Margaret Highland, Historian