Philip Larkin touched on the irreducible iconic nature of a handwritten poem in describing a literary manuscript’s “magical value”—“This is the paper he wrote on, these are the words as he wrote them, emerging for the first time in this particular miraculous combination.” The poem as a holy object. But a poem in manuscript can also show us the sinew and bones beneath the polished object, giving us a peek into the creative interplay between poet and poem before the poem has crystallized into into its finished self—and this is also part of its magic.
This is one of the best reasons to visit the great libraries of the world in person: to see the handwritten manuscripts of poems up close.
- Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. is the place to see Walt Whitman’s handwritten notebooks.
- Emily Dickinson’s scribbled poems are at Amherst College.
- This year, to mark the 100th anniversary of their return to Scotland, the Glenriddell manuscripts, poems and letters by Robert Burns, went on public display at the National Library of Scotland, including his handwritten introduction and the first lines of his satire of religious hypocrisy, “Holy Willie’s Prayer.”
- The British Library has a handwritten manuscript copy of William Blake’s “The Tyger” in their online gallery.
Last year Bonham’s auctioned the poetry manuscripts collected by Roy Davids over the last 40 years—that collection including the only known manuscript of W.H. Auden’s “Stop All the Clocks,” Christina Rossetti’s sonnet “Remember Me,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Ballad of the Dark Ladie,” William Butler Yeats’ “Are You Content?,” Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” Thomas Hardy’s “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” and more.
from The Independent (UK):
“Rare unpublished A.E. Housman poem about unrequited love expected to fetch £25,000,” by Mathilda Battersby
“A Shropshire Lad poet A.E. Housman gave strict instructions upon his death that working drafts and unpublished poems should be destroyed. But a rare handwritten poem... was saved from destruction.... The work, titled ‘Oh were he and I together’ was written in pencil in 1917 and never published during Housman’s lifetime. The text is very faint and a deliberate attempt has been made to erase it....”