William H. Bond

Editor of Christopher Smart
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Wiliam Henry Bond, bibliographer, librarian and editor: born York, Pennsylvania 14 August 1915; Assistant to the Librarian, Houghton Library 1946-48, Curator of Manuscripts 1948-64, Librarian 1965-82 (Emeritus); Lecturer in Bibliography, Harvard University 1964-67, Professor of Bibliography 1967-86; President, Bibliographical Society of America 1974-76; married 1943 Helen Lynch (died 1999; two daughters); died Concord, Massachusetts 18 November 2005.

William H. Bond was responsible for solving an 18th-century literary puzzle and making sense of a poem that was thought to be as deranged as its creator.

Christopher Smart's A Song to David is one of the greatest poems of the 18th century, a hymn of strange but transcendent force and beauty. It was published in 1764, just after Smart emerged from seven years in the madhouse; and most of his friends (of whom he had many, including Dr Johnson) thought it proved him as mad as ever. It did, however, herald a brief period of prosperity, before the poet collapsed again, ending his life in a debtor's prison in 1771.

It was not until the turn of the 19th century that his genius was recognised. While in prison he had written another work, "Jubilate Agno", a long canticle resembling the Psalms. It remained unpublished until long after his death, the manuscript only preserved, as a case study of poetic mania, by the friends of William Cowper, another poet troubled with madness. It was finally published in 1939, and its apparently incoherent lines hardly changed Smart's reputation for fitful genius.

In 1941 the original manuscript was acquired by Harvard University, the year before the formal opening of its new treasure-house, the Houghton Library. There it came into the hands of William Bond, from 1948 the Curator of Manuscripts. Turning over the leaves, he realised that its apparent disorderly pages and lines had a pattern if rearranged in the right order. Some of the psalm-like verses began with "Let . . .", others with "For . . ." Bond saw that each of the "Let" verses had a matching "For" verse, and that the whole was conceived responsorially, like Hebrew poetry (the subject of a work by Bishop Robert Lowth that Smart read before he was shut up). By carefully piecing the sheets together and following the dates and catchwords on them, he was able to reconstruct the still incomplete poem as it was meant to be read. It now made sense, as great a hymn as A Song to David, and strangely anticipatory of William Blake.

Bond came to this remarkable discovery by an orthodox route. Born at York, Pennsylvania, in 1915, he went to William Penn Senior High School and then to Haverford, graduating in English in 1937. He took an MA and a PhD (in English philology) at Harvard and spent a year as a Research Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, before he was summoned to the US Navy Board. Just before he was commissioned in the navy, he married Helen Lynch, the lynchpin of his life for 56 years. Demobilised as a lieutenant in 1946, he returned to Harvard and there spent the rest of his working life.

His first job was as Assistant to the Librarian, William A. Jackson, with whom he made instant rapport. Both were tall men, Jackson's electric dynamism and command contrasting with Bond's imperturbable calm. Two years later he became Curator of Manuscripts, publishing his first article on his discovery in 1950. He pursued his work with a Senior Fulbright Fellowship in England in 1952-53 - as a temporary Assistant Keeper in the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum. Christopher Smart: Jubilate Agno re-edited from the original manuscript was published by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1954, and caused a sensation.

Among the articles on bibliographical and manuscript subjects that he published over the next decade one stood out, on "Arthur Amory Houghton, Jr" in The Book Collector's "Contemporary Collectors" series. Houghton, owner of Steuben Glass, was the founder of the Houghton Library. An imperious figure, he and Jackson, its first Librarian, regarded each other with wary respect. But much of the day-to-day business of dealing with the library's potential benefactor (for it was understood that Houghton's own collection would come to the library that bore his name) fell to Bond. It led to a friendship, not without ups and downs, that lasted until Houghton's death in 1990.

Jackson himself died suddenly in 1964, aged only 59. Bond was the obvious choice to take over, and he became Houghton Librarian the following year, and Professor of Bibliography in the university in 1967. He edited Jackson's collected papers, as well as the 1962 Supplement to the Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada. He failed, however, to get Houghton's collection. Lacking Jackson's force, he could not resist when the collector impetuously sold it at Christie's in 1979; making the best of a bad job, Bond wrote a graceful introduction to the catalogue.

Bond retired as Librarian in 1982. He continued to write, notably on Thomas Hollis, the great Republican and early benefactor of Harvard, on which subject he gave the Sandars Lectures at Cambridge in 1982, expanded as Thomas Hollis of Lincoln's Inn: a Whig and his books (1990).

Nicolas Barker