HENLEY, WILLIAM ERNEST (1849-1903)
AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT OF THE LAST 26 LINES OF HIS LAST POEM, 'A SONG OF SPEED', 26 LINES, signed with initials ('W.E.H') about a Mercedes Benz car, the printer's copy, numbered 11 at head, 2 pages, large oblong quarto, professionally repaired at central fold, dated '26/1/'03' and '17/2/ 3
Whatever its whereabouts:
Alike in the old lands
Enseamed with the wheelways
Of thousands of dusty
and dim generations...
The text as published in 1903 differs from the present manuscript slightly, indicating a final revision at the proof stage. The poem was dedicated to Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliff, in whose new Mercedes Henley had been given a ride ('This astonishing Device, This amazing Mercedes').
On the verso of the poem is an autograph letter in pencil signed with initials, to 'Dear Sydney'. The recipient has not been identified but is presumably connected with the World's Work in which magazine the poem first appeared, in April 1903. He mentions the Heinemann debacle -- 'Mene Muriel Magda Upharsin'-- doubtless a reference to the impending divorce of William Heinemann from Donna Magda Stuart Sindice, a young Italian novelist.
In a postscript Henley explains how the present single page of the poem became detached from the rest: 'I find I've writ this on the back of the missing sheet! Good God! Get it typed for the printer anyhow. H'.
The poem was the last of Henley's work published in his lifetime. He died a few months later. This 'missing sheet' evidently has the distinction of being the final page of manuscript to leave the poet's hand for the printer. On 13 March 1903 he wrote: 'Would you be surprised to hear that I've been safely delivered of a certain "Song of Speed", which they say is far and away better than the [Song of the] Sword/ You will read it shortly in the World's Work. It is dedicated to Alfred Harmsworth, and relates to motor-cars; with special reference to his incomparable Mercedes.' Ten days before his death he was delighted to note that there had been three parodies of it published. No manuscripts of the poem are listed in Location Register. The Morgan Library houses the main collection of Henley's papers.
PROVENANCE: Edward Spencer.
REFERENCES: John Connell, W.E. Henley, 1949; Location Register of Twentieth-Century Literary Manuscripts and Letters, 2 volumes, 1988.