Poetry from Peter Harrington

- by Michael Stillman

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Poetry from Peter Harrington

Peter Harrington has released a catalogue devoted to Poetry. It is their first such specialized effort. The catalogue offers poetry from many ages and all sorts of topics. The names include most of the best known poets, often represented by the most special of copies. As the introduction notes, you will find items you like "Whether you favour the Renaissance, Restoration, Romantic, Victorian, Decadent, Modernist or Beat; whether you want war poetry or love poetry; whether you seek the austere, or the obscene; or just require a good anthology." It is all here. These are a few.

 

The Bronte sisters went from unknown to famed novelists virtually overnight. In 1847, Charlotte achieved success with Jane Eyre, Emily with Wuthering Heights, and Anne with Agnes Grey. Almost as quickly, their success turned to tragedy. Emily died in 1848, Anne in 1849, and Charlotte in 1855. However, these first novels were not the first books for the sisters. In 1846, before becoming successful novelists, they wrote a book of poetry, a combined effort entitled Poems. The authors are listed as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The sisters feared they would not be taken seriously if the public thought they were women, so they picked names that, though not entirely clear, sounded more like men. The ruse did not work. There poetry was still not taken seriously. Unable to find a publisher, they paid Aylott and Jones to print their book in 1846. The sisters evidently thought the poems were quite good as they ordered up 1,000 copies. They sold two. Another 37 were given away, to friends or other writers and critics they thought might discover their talents. It was all to no avail, so the remaining 961 copies were placed in storage. Two years later, with the sisters now highly regarded writers, their publisher, Smith, Elder, at Charlotte's suggestion, bought up the remaining copies and republished them with the addition of their own cancel title page. It eventually sold out, though even that took over a decade. Charlotte and Anne never warmed the hearts of critics with their poetry, though Emily's contribution has come to be regarded as some of the best poetry of the time. Item 23 is a copy of the rare first edition, first issue of Poems, without the Smith, Elder cancel page. Priced at £35,000 (British pounds, or approximately $45,157 in U.S. currency).

 

Geoffrey Chaucer is the most notable writer in the English language from the days predating printing. He wrote in the late 14th century, and his work would be among the first printed in English in the post-Gutenberg era. However, the first complete collections of his work would not be published until 1532, and this is that complete collected edition. Item 34 is The workes of Geffrey Chaucer, newlie printed, with dyvers workes whiche were never printed before. This edition was published by Thomas Godfray, and with 394 of the original 397 leaves, is one of the most complete copies you are likely to find. It is not only the first collected works of Chaucer, but also the first such collected works of any English author combined in a single volume. It's editor was Thomas Thynne, and his version of the Canterbury Tales was the standard for several centuries. Thynne held various posts in the court of Henry VIII and he must have found some favor with the King as he was never executed. £150,000 (US $193,550).

 

Oscar Wilde was both a poet and a playwright, perhaps best known today for his plays, but this poem is his most notable, as it comes from the darkest point in his life: The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Wilde had been involved in an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, and his attempt to sue Douglas' father for libel for publicizing that affair backfired, Wilde sentenced to two years in prison for gross indecency. It broke him and he died in exile in France two years after being released. Item 206 is a first edition, first issue, one of 30 numbered copies printed in Japon. It was also the copy of Wilde's friend George Ives. Ives was a supporter of homosexual rights and prison reform. He was also one of a very small number of people who remained loyal to Wilde through his imprisonment and exile, when most abandoned him. A minor poet himself, Ives wrote a 16-line poem by hand on the verso of the title page, "In Memoriam Oscar Wilde." It concludes, "Some day on history's page / Shall his mournful fate be told / Young eyes in a better age / Shall weep at this tale of old." Prophetic. £19,750 (US $25,496).

 

We have heard from some of the best poets, so in the interest of balance, it is time to look at the worst. This next poem comes from a man who earned the sobriquet "world's worst poet." William McGonagall quit his job and took up poetry writing when he was in his 50's. Convinced of his own genius, he began printing sheets with his verses which he generously shared with the public. A man not possessed with much of a sense of humor, he apparently did not realize that his followers were laughing at his efforts. Gord Bambrick, in his account of McGonagall, says, "His unique style of versification breaks the laws of rhythm, rhyme and common sense in a manner that has eluded his thousands of imitators for more than a century." McGonagall claimed Shakespeare as his greatest influence, though evidently Shakespeare did not influence him all that much. Item 123 is The Execution of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose. A New Historical Poem. Poor Montrose got butchered a second time. This copy is signed by "Sir Wm. Topaz McGonagall, Poet." That honorific was leveled in 1894, meaning this undated poem was published sometime between 1894 and his death in 1902. £1,500 (US $1,934).

 

If you prefer to avoid the laborious process of buying your poems one at a time, The Works of the British Poets, assembled by Thomas Park, is your answer. You won't find William McGonagall here, but that wasn't a snub. He wasn't yet born when this was published in 1805. I'm not sure whether Park managed to get every British poem written prior to the 19th century in this collection, but he must have made a great effort. The set contains 71 volumes. This series is also known as Sharpe's Edition for its publisher. Item 21 has an interesting, "who knew" provenance. It contains the loosely inserted bookplate of its previous owner, Sylvester Stallone. Who knew Rocky was into ancient British poetry? £3,750 (US $4,837).

 

Peter Harrington may be reached at 020 7591 0220 (USA 011 44 20 7591 0220) or mail@peterharrington.co.uk. Their website is www.peterharrington.co.uk.