A Lock of Goethe’s Hair

A lock of hair framed with a portrait in an oval, gold frame.

Contributors: Nick Hearn and Susan Reynolds

Location: Taylor Institution Library, Oxford, UK

Description: The Taylor Institution Library has many treasures – chiefly books — but among the many rare and valuable items in the Rare Books Room one stands out. It is the item recorded in the catalogue with the shelfmark MS.8º.G.26. It is not a book or a manuscript as the shelf-mark would suggest but a lock of hair – supposedly a lock of Goethe’s hair! So it would seem that in the Taylor Institution Library, not only do we have an extensive collection of works by and about the greatest of all German poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), but in the depths of the library in our Rare Books Room, we have a lock of the great man’s hair! It is most likely the slip of paper with the portrait which has been classified. The little portrait, an oval piece of paper with a simple line drawing of Goethe added later is, however, an understated minimally delineated presence possibly sketched by the same person who put the sprig of hair in that gilded frame.

The star attraction – the main event — is that elongated wispy sprig of hair delicately piercing the backing paper below and itself framing a faded bloom. There are two inscriptions accompanying the lock of hair – one of them, the older one, mentions the time of year – March. It seems likely, as Professor Henrike Laehnemann notes, that the dried flower is a violet, given the time of year mentioned on the accompanying inscription. It is an intriguing ensemble – portrait, violet, lock of hair accompanied rather like some medieval relic by two inscriptions testifying to its authenticity like a secular equivalent of the medieval cedula where the name of a saint was noted and then tied to the relic.

What is the origin of these items? What do they mean? Can it really be true that this is a lock of Goethe’s hair? How did the Taylor Institution Library come by … a lock of Goethe’s hair? Is it authentic? To begin to answer these questions we must look at the inscriptions.

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Narcissa’s Tomb

Image of a stone plaque on Narcissa's tomb.

Contributor: Catriona Seth

Location: Jardin des Plantes, Montpellier, France

Description: The poet Edward Young’s The Complaint: or Night-Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality, published between 1742 and 1745 entranced readers throughout Europe. Whilst a fairly accurate German version was produced quite rapidly, the first French book-length translation only came out in 1769—it was a free adaptation by Le Tourneur and would be widely reprinted over the years. From Rousseau to Robespierre and Germaine de Staël to Bonaparte, whatever their social status or political sensibilities, the chattering classes read Les Nuits.

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Lord Byron’s Autograph at the Castle of Chillon

Byron's Autograph at Chillon Castle

Contributor: Patrick Vincent

Location: Chillon Castle, Avenue de Chillon 21 · CH 1820 Veytaux · Switzerland

Description: 

Au milieu de tous les noms obscurs qui égratignent et encombrent la pierre, il reluit seul en trait de feu. J’ai plus pensé à Byron qu’au prisonnier. [In the midst of all the obscure names which scar and clutter the stone, his alone glows with fire. I thought more of Byron than of the imprisoned.] Gustave Flaubert (1845)

As enthusiastic readers of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Hélöise (1761), Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley sailed around Lake Geneva from 22 to 30 June 1816, visiting settings made famous by the novel, including Chillon Castle at the eastern end of Lake Geneva (or Leman), on Tuesday, June 25, 1816. This first visit inspired Byron’s poem The Prisoner of Chillon, composed in Ouchy two days later on the subject of François Bonnivard (1493-1570), a famous political prisoner held there by the Duke of Savoy between 1530 and 1536. Byron returned to Chillon with his friend John Cam Hobhouse on 18 September 1816, on the first day of their Alpine tour. Louis Simond, who visited Chillon a full year after Byron, on 4 August 1817, was the first to record the presence of Byron’s autograph in the castle’s souterrain, or dungeon, carved into the southern side of the third column, 1.45 meters from the lower edge of the shaft.

The authenticity of this autograph has been a matter of controversy and criticism almost from the very beginning.

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