There is an enduring fascination with the creative process – no more so than with original manuscripts. Here, four distinguished critics reflect on some of the works in the Roy Davids Sale, and what rewrites may reveal
I've been wandering in the greenwoods
And mid flowery smiling plains
I've been listening to the dark floods
To the thrushes thrilling strains
It's a small sheet of manuscript in tiny writing, but the implications are large. The pioneer Brontë scholar, Clement Shorter, who alerted posterity to the sisters' achievement in verse, ascribed the poem to Emily in his edition of 1908. It is plausible attribution. Emily liked beginning poems with a defiant 'I', 'wandering' is one of her keywords, and the image of a lonely hiker hoofing up 'distant mountains' is more 'her' than her sisters.
Emily's ownership stood for decades. The next authoritative editor of Emily's poems, Charles W. Hatfield, recorded in his 'definitive' 1941 edition seeing a manuscript of I've been wandering in the greenwoods signed by Charlotte, and authorship was duly transferred (it wasn't necessarily the same manuscript as this which Hatfield saw – the sisters made fair copies).
The poem illustrates very clearly the influence that James Thomson's The Seasons had on the sisters' verse. The scenario of I've been wandering in the greenwoods is lifted, transparently, from the 'Summer' section of that poem and 'greenwood' (as one word) is an idiosyncratic Thomson usage.
But – and this is exciting – both under the Emily or Charlotte authorship, the date of composition appended is 14 December 1839, not 1829, which is the date written on the manuscript. In 1829, Charlotte (born April 1816) was 13 and Emily a year or so younger. In my past reading of the poem, I pictured a lonely Charlotte, in her early twenties, having just turned down her first proposal of marriage (the only one, she ruefully said, she would ever get) finding soothing consolation in nature. I now have to see a little diminutive girl – extraordinarily precocious – who really shouldn't be out playing alone in the 'greenwoods'.
One knows that there was an explosion of co-operative writing at the Haworth parsonage in 1829 between the three sisters and their brother Branwell. Now we shall have to weave this remarkable poem into their 'web of childhood'.
The moral is clear – if you want to know the facts, go back to the primary materials. There's no substitute.
In the last weeks of 1816, John Keats was busy. When he was not occupied on the wards at Guy's Hospital, he was helping his brothers move to lodgings in Cheapside. In what few moments he could find for himself, he was at work on two long couplet poems, I stood tiptoe upon a little hill and Sleep and Poetry. In both poems Keats was writing at full stretch, questioning his own abilities and the origins of myth and poetic imagination. In long hours of concentrated composition around Tuesday 17 December, he announced that he meant to finish I stood tiptoe in one more 'attack'.
Fortunately, Keats's friend Charles Cowden Clarke possessed the draft of I stood tiptoe. In later years he gave it away in fragments of a few lines, some of which, including the present manuscript, have survived. I stood tiptoe is, in part, a catalogue of observations recalled from Keats's childhood ventures around the villages of Enfield and Edmonton. As a boy, and now as a poet, Keats was fascinated by the paradoxical effects of motion – by the way a minnow can "stay against the stream", resisting the current so as to appear stationary amid moving water, or how on a breezy night the moon appears to glide across the sky,
lifting her silver rim
Above a cloud, and with a gradual swim
Coming into the blue with all her light ...
Keats's poetry has the freshness of actual observation – a sense of real things observed as a child, when such strange effects are noticed most strongly. Simultaneously still and in motion, these beautiful images represent the mysterious process through which a poem realises its own potential and comes into being, a process Keats will later identify as "diligent indolence". As he was gradually becoming aware, while Clarke had encouraged him to read poetry, the source of his imaginative power lay much earlier, in a child's delighted stare up at the night sky or down into the depths of the village brook. In I stood tiptoe, we meet young John Keats, ten years old, up early and away to the fields.
The fragment for sale was written at the Keats brothers' home in Cheapside, and dates from that final 'attack' of 17 December. It describes how mythical figures were created from imaginative responses to nature, and how "a Poet, sure a lover too" had invented the Endymion myth. As he wrote this passage, Keats was drawing his poem to a close, looking ahead to the ambitious poetic romance Endymion that he would begin in the following spring. "Was there a Poet born?" he asks at the close of I stood tiptoe, taking stock of all that he had achieved in this daring, restless survey of his hopes and ambitions.
Not surprisingly, Keats thought well of I stood tiptoe. It appears on the first page of his first book, Poems, by John Keats, published in March 1817.
Two weeks to the day before she committed suicide on 11 February 1963, the obsessively intense 33-year-old American poet, Sylvia Plath, as part of her last great creative surge, changed the final lines of her poem Sheep in Fog from (for her) the relatively positive conclusion she had written the previous December –
...Patriarchs till now immobile
In heavenly wools
Row off as stones or clouds with the faces of babies.
– to the irredeemably bleak image around concepts absolutely central to her own psychic mythology:
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.
By making these changes and keeping all seven pages of the draughts and meticulously dating each of them, Sylvia Plath, in this poem alone of all her works, charted the course of "the calamitous change of mood, the sinister change of inspiration" that was twisting disastrously within her in the last 70 days of her short life. "The hope of rebirth" she had been struggling for in December 1962, had collapsed into a terrible ominous resignation. She thereby afforded an unparalled insight into her own creative processes and her shifting psychological state more penetrating than for any other poet, making the working papers for this poem the supreme example in literature of the nature and importance of poetical draughts. The seven pages of these draughts are lot 372 in my sale. They had been kept back from his mother's archive for their son Nicholas (who, sadly, later also committed suicide) and I had bought them through Ted Hughes at a time when Nicky needed some money.
I opened a discussion about poetical draughts with Sylvia's former husband, Ted Hughes – whose very close friendship I was privileged to have for the last 20 years of his life – during a summer's day drive in 1987. It was in anticipation of a lecture I was to give to the Wordsworth Trust, and Ted deflected my request with the throwaway remark, "I'll try to send you something you may be able to use." Little did I suspect that I had galvanised him into bringing together his thoughts on Sheep in Fog in the text he sent me the following week.
He later re-worked and published the piece (with a dedication to me) as The Evolution of Sheep in Fog in his collection of essays, Winter Pollen (1994). In a short commentary on his essay which I later wrote as its 'Onlie Begetter' for The Epic Poise: A Celebration of Ted Hughes (1999), I stated that "no one else has written so eloquently or so perceptively on the importance of draughts", or about the poetic impulse and the processes by which poems come or are dragged into being.
Ted's essay is also one of the best pieces he ever wrote about Sylvia's work and demonstrates his "own genius, the subtlety of his responses, the depth of his understanding, the generosity of his sympathies and of the thrill and powerful richness of his prose". The 60-pages of working papers for this essay are lot 371 in the present sale; Ted having given them to me as my Christmas present in 1991.
The description in her poem of the heaven towards she was being inexorably drawn as 'fatherless' strikes right to the very core of Sylvia Plath's being. When she was only eight years old, her father, Dr Otto Plath, a scientist, died, having failed to seek medical help for the gangrene in his leg. In her poems, Plath habitually interpreted this not only as him having committed suicide, but also as having deliberately abandoned her.
This same theme was to become the sub-text of Ted's remarkable commentary on Sylvia's life, Birthday Letters (1998), the most successful volume of poems of the last century, selling some 500,000 copies. There Ted reflected that in seeking to help Sylvia release her inner life for the benefit of her art, he inadvertently 'revealed a perfect landing pad / For your inspiration. I did not / Know I had made and fitted a door / Opening downwards into your Daddy's grave...' and her dream life became 'As if you descended in each night's sleep / Into your father's grave...' The word 'fatherless' Sylvia introduced into Sheep in Fog on 28 January 1963 plumbed her depths far deeper than any other she could have chosen.
John Betjeman was born in the 20th century, but spiritually he was of the 1890s. He breathed the decade's incense-laden, Arts and Crafts exoticism and seediness. The pivotal event of that decade, from many points of view, was the arrest of Oscar Wilde in the Cadogan Hotel. It represented a triumph of the Philistines over the Aesthetes. It revealed the brutality beneath the bourgeois surface of Victorian life.
Betjeman's poem of this name evokes all its pain and pathos, as well, of course, as its absurdity and comedy. It is a brilliantly compressed dramatic evocation of that event. The flickering image of the London sky – was it obscured by Wilde's "bees-winged eyes" or the Nottingham lace of the curtains? Pont Street, sedate to us in the 21st century, is still garishly, cruelly new. The latest edition of The Yellow Book, that Bible of the nineties, has been brought to Wilde by one of the few friends who was loyal to him before, during and, most importantly after the debacle: Robbie Ross. Even at this moment, when Wilde does not quite know that the game is up, we sense, and he senses, an Ending. "Is this the end or beginning?" The manly, middle-brow John Buchan's presence in The Yellow Book is a sign that the rule of the Aesthetes is over.
Wilde's silliness, his extravagance – keeping three London hotel rooms on the go at once, for presumably nefarious reasons – are all contained in the couplet beginning "One astrakhan coat is at Willis's". But the poem contains the profound tragedy of Wilde, and his vulnerability. Betjeman has made a hotel room, where two male lovers stare at the lace curtains, into a Garden of Gethsemane.
All Betjeman's originality of vision is contained in these wonderful quatrains. He wrote them before he had been tempted into self-parody, and before social success and television work diluted his pristine genius. The appearance in the salerooms of a manuscript version, with some variants from the printed text, is a great landmark for Betjeman lovers.