Saturday, November 27, 2021

A Few "Regrets"

I pulled out this slender letterpress chapbook the other day when I was looking for something else. I had forgotten that I owned it. The cover reads Sonnets Translated from Les Regrets of Joachim du Bellay 1553, the publisher is "the Uphill Press, New York," and the translator (who is also the printer) is identified only as A. H. It bears a date of 1972, and the statement of limitations at the back indicates that one hundred and ten copies were printed. (My copy, number 38, is inscribed to a noted architect and his wife, "in old friendship," but that's a tale for another time.)
It didn't take much to identify the person responsible, an arts administrator and biographer of Woodrow Wilson named August Heckscher. But neither in his 1997 New York Times obituary nor in the Wikipedia article devoted to him is there any hint that he was also an avid amateur printer, translator, and poet (probably in that order of importance). For that information you have to refer to the likes of Joseph Blumenthal, the noted printer and author of Typographic Years: A Printer's Journey through a Half-Century 1925-1975 who has this to say:
Among his public activities, Heckscher was Consultant in the Arts for President Kennedy and a Commissioner of Parks who planted thousands of trees in New York City. In his living room in New York, he set type by hand and printed fine small books and ephemera, often with the help of his son Charles. More recently he has set up "The Printing Office at High Loft" at his summer home in Seal Harbor, Maine, where with young apprentices he prints and publishes modestly but with éclat.
A little more digging turned up this photo of Heckscher and his sons at work from a 1962 profile in Life magazine.
Letterpress printing was probably never a particularly common hobby, but it did have its aficionados in postwar America, many of whom had day jobs in unrelated fields and carried out a collegial kind of artistic underground in their off-hours. (Broadcaster Ben Grauer, proprietor of the Between Hours Press, was a notable example.) It was negligible from an economic standpoint (hobby printers were careful not to take business away from professionals, and generally their productions were simply given away to friends), but here and there, on presses tucked away in Manhattan apartments or the basements of suburban homes, some fine work was done — and no doubt there are still people doing it.

The brief "Note" attached to this chapbook sets the scene:
Joachim du Bellay journeyed to Rome in 1553 in the service of his uncle, Cardinal du Bellay. The young Renaissance poet and scholar might have been expected to find many rewards during his three years at the center of the classical world. On the contrary, he was extremely unhappy — though it must be remarked that like many who are unhappy when they travel, he was hardly less so when he returned home. In Les Regrets, published in 1558, he poured out in sonnet form the varied pains of exile.
Heckscher tells us that he was inspired to translate the selections while he himself was traveling, in his case in Morocco. Below is a sample; I've cropped the page for the sake of readability on the web. Heckscher's margins are more generous, and of course he would have taken pride in his page design.
The chapbook is rounded off with an Envoi "from a different hand," that is, from A. H. himself:
Sleep, du Bellay, sleep sound and do not fret.
Dislikes and troubles vanish with the past.
The stuffy Roman dames, the Latin cast,
Are one with centuries that rise and set.

The endless littleness of your regret,
The heart in servitude, the soul harassed,
Are eased by kindly death, which gives at last
The peace men seek in life, but do not get.

Your verses still are read: along the Quai
When earliest Paris spring was on its way
And pear-trees flower'd in your beloved Anjou

I bought your book. I heard from far away,
Above the crimes and passions of our day,
Your sad, so human accents speaking through.