The Fascination of Manuscripts

‘[…] poetical manuscripts very often preserve reconsidered readings in the cancellations, deletions, corrections, rewritings, interlinear interpolations and the like at various stages of drafting.  These can catch the poet in the workshop, at the anvil; pause the sparks, so to speak, as in a photograph. […] Being able to observe these creative processes in progress put poetical drafts among the unclaimed wonders of the world – perhaps because they capture exceptional human beings in their most noble, most godlike, role […].  Such drafts are relics, sacred, holy in their way.’

So writes Roy Davids in his insightful introduction to the forthcoming major sale of poetical manuscripts at Bonhams in April and May; the sale of a major collection accumulated by Roy Davids.  (See the Bonhams website for details)

The scope and extent of Davids’ collection is extraordinary, with manuscripts the like of which one rarely, if ever, sees coming up for sale.  The catalogue has yet to be released, but the few tantalising details so far released include manuscripts by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, John Keats, Charlotte Bronte, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and John Betjeman.  The contents of one manuscript has been divulged in The Independent : a previously unpublished poem by A.E. Housman, for which see here.

As Davids tells us in his introduction, he began accumulating the material in the early 1970s, when poetry manuscripts were little regarded and available cheaply – a situation which accounts for the fact that so many manuscripts of major English poets are now in America, notably in the Berg Collection (New York Public Library) and in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.  The fact that large collections of work by twentieth century English poets have emigrated is a source of some sadness and frustation to myself and other scholars of the period – but at least they are preserved and in a place in which they will be cared for and are accessible.  I hope that as many as possible might stay in Britain, but know that the Americans in particular will be vying for these materials.  I hope that there will be archives and societies now clamouring to raise the funds to allow them to bid on these things and ensuring that they go to a safe and appreciative home.  How I should like to be able to afford a couple of the items myself!

Having worked closely with the manuscripts of Ivor Gurney (whose manuscripts do not appear in this sale) and others, I know only too well the frisson that an original manuscript can give you.  Joy Finzi likened such things to a piece of ‘the True Cross’ – echoing Davids’ view of these fragile items.  For those of us who believe in poetry and music, there are few objects quite so special.


2 thoughts on “The Fascination of Manuscripts

  1. The list of items going ‘under the hammer’ in the first sale is now online at the Bonhams website:
    I have a couple of favourites in this half, now that I’ve seen the full catalogue: A very nice Thomas Hardy thing, with his giving of the music of the old air to which he wrote a poem – something not given alongside the poem in the editions ( a David Jones poem (, and perhaps the bust of Matthew Arnold – just in case anyone wants ideas for an early birthday present!

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