Ballads in Imitation of the Antient
Ballads in Imitation of the Antient Ballads in Imitation of the Antient
London: Printed for T.N.Longman and O.Rees. 1801.

Only edition. Small 8vo. pp. [6], 201, [1bl]. Contemporary calf, double fillet borders to boards, rebacked to style with gilt decoration and black morocco label lettered in gilt. Edges and corners rubbed with a little wear to the latter. All edges speckled. Internally near fine. A very nice copy of the first book published by Ireland following his exposure as a forger. Rare in commerce, only two copies appearing at auction in the last fifty years.
William Henry Ireland was a type familiar in the world of letters and books - the clever but rackety fantasist. He absorbed from his father, a publisher, a fascination with Shakespeare and, perhaps more significantly, the forgers Chatterton and Macpherson. A spell working for a lawyer gave him access to old documents which he studied and copied before taking the plunge and forging a deed containing Shakespeare's signature. His father, thinking it real, was thrilled. Ireland began to produce more "Shakespearian" documents claiming that they were from an anonymous collector. When even a letter from Shakespeare to Elizabeth I was authenticated by contemporary experts, Ireland overreached himself and brought forth a "new" play, Vortigern and Rowena. Ireland's doubters, led by the Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone, began to circle and the first (and only) performance of the play was disrupted, in part by its leading actor John Philip Kemble who repeated a line including the words "solemn mockery". Although the young Ireland immediately confessed, both he and his father were disgraced, the latter dying in 1800 and William being forced to eke out a thin living as a poet, historian and satirist.
Ballads in Imitation of the Antient was a clever attempt at redemption. It was published in Ireland's name so no-one could accuse him of forgery or fakery but the book played into the contemporary taste for bogus antiquarianism which floated somewhere between historical truth and historically inspired fiction. And, of course, "Imitation", of which Ireland was clearly a master, can be both.