17 September 2012

Tristram Shandy & the art of black mourning pages

Inventive visual design and typography have made Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy a canonical favorite among all sorts of "material book" types, with the black page after Yorick's death -- 

-- typically cited as one of the book's enduring innovations. In fact, the Laurence Sterne Trust hosted a quite lovely exhibit on the 250th anniversary of the black page, inviting 73 artists (note the page number) to reinterpret Sterne's "most famous experimental device."

The thing is, though: while Sterne's use of the black page in a literary story is innovative, the mourning page itself is not so much. In fact, Sterne is drawing on a (by then 150-year-old) tradition -- perhaps "seventeenth-century phenomenon" would be more accurate? -- of including mourning pages or all-black prints, sometimes with a coat of arms or other insignia etched out, in printed funeral sermons and memorial verse. 

Some of the earliest examples I've found come from elegies upon the death of Prince Henry, King James I's son. Henry was well loved, and his death at age 18 of typhoid fever inspired a national outpouring of grief in print. Sylvester's elegy (below) includes not only a mourning page on every verso, facing the lines, but heavy mourning borders with skeleton woodcuts framing each recto.

It's a bit hard to get the full impact of this printing style on the reader through grainy EEBO scans -- but I imagine the inky blackness getting on the reader's fingers, marring the margins. (Of course, ink didn't spread then like newspaper print does now; but that's what I imagine.) Because each page of text is backed by a mourning block, the verse would be dimmed; little light could filter through the page to bring the letters into relief. The entire effect is heavy with grief. Another elegy for Henry highlights the lachrymose intentions of the mourning page by including a pattern of tears:

In his elegy for Prince Henry, aptly titled Great Britaine, all in black, John Taylor incorporated not only a full mourning page, opposite a much lighter woodcut of Henry, but a kind of mourning title-page recto, backed by a second mourning block verso. To get the idea, you have to imagine how the pages are printed on a sheet, and pay close attention to the juxtapositions created by the openings. For instance, the white space in the title page was backed by another mourning page, dimming the contrast between text and border.

Upon the death of King James, Taylor produced another elegy; and while this one doesn't have a full-page mourning block, its heavy, blackened title page is part of the same tradition --

-- as is Robert Markham's elegy for Sir John Burgh, which ends with a small, heavily bordered epitaph, followed by a shortened mourning block:

The tradition seems to get some new steam with the beheading of Charles I. In his elegy for the martyred king -- which went through several printings -- John Quarles, like Sylvester before him, turns every verso into a mourning page. The repetition results in a kind of doleful deadening of the entire book, as the reader confronts a page black with grief at every opening.

While not all printed elegies or funeral sermons included mourning pages, many did include mourning borders, a variant in which heavy black blocks are used to frame title pages.

In some cases, bones, skulls and other memento mori break the black monotony of the mourning border --

-- while in other cases, thick black borders on every page recall full-page mourning blocks:

While Sterne's famous black page upon Yorick's death creatively pulls the mourning block tradition into a work of fiction, it was hardly an innovation of print in the eighteenth century. In fact, Sterne is recalling a way of making meaning through the visual design of books that flourished over one hundred years before Tristam Shandy was published. Did eighteenth-century readers recognize this move as retro, harkening back to the rhetoric of an earlier age? Why pull the elegiac print tradition into the novel? Is there an intentional linkage here to the flurry of mourning pages produced in elegies on the death of Prince Henry, then King James I, then the martyred King Charles I?

That last question is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but I'm just ignorant enough of eighteenth-century British novels to feel okay posing it. Regardless of Sterne's intentions, what seems innovative and experimental to us is less so within the context of early modern print culture, and in fact may have even seemed like a memorial to an earlier time -- as if a novelist today were to include a mezzotint engraved frontispiece covered with tissue paper.

As I was finishing up this post, I decided to check ECCO for any instances of mourning pages. The one hit for the term "mourning page" brought up this, from the second volume of William Coombe's The Philosopher in Bristol (1775) (pages 60-62):

I guess that about sums it up.