The British Library’s Ritblat Gallery is a treasure trove of manuscripts. Andrew Motion, chairman of the Booker Committee, explains its magic …
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2010
Thanks to the rise of the literary festival, writers are now forced to get out and about, meeting readers, making new ones, fielding questions. There are two kinds of question you can rely on: about ideas—where do they come from?—and about method. Do you use a pen or pencil, do you write early or late in the day, do you change much as you go along or depend on revisions? It’s easy to sound blasé about this. When Philip Larkin was interviewed for the Paris Review, he was asked how he came up with the image of a toad to represent work, and he replied: “Sheer genius!” But the fact is that both readers and writers are intrigued by the most primitive details of how things get written. Readers because the mystery of being a writer is deepened by its close proximity to ordinary practice (writing everyday letters, writing memos at work, or, now, writing e-mails), and writers because most are narcissists to a greater or lesser degree, and they want to establish a dependable procedure which will produce the goods on a daily basis.
Manuscripts are the quiet theatres in which these dramas are performed and preserved. My own fascination with them began when I began writing myself, as a teenager, about 40 years ago. My mentor was Geoffrey Keynes, the surgeon and brother of Maynard, whose extraordinary library at his house near Cambridge included manuscripts that he would hand me with an impressive mixture of reverence and familiarity. I remember in particular the manuscript of Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill”, which her husband Leonard had given Geoffrey as a thank-you for helping her survive one of her bouts of self-destruction. The fluent script, the purple ink, the flying revisions: all these were absolutely compelling. But what struck me more powerfully than anything was the simple fact of the thing. It was irrefutable proof that something astonishing in its intelligence and association had been produced by a human being who sat down one day, unscrewed her pen-top, and simply went to work.
This was my first important lesson in the power of manuscripts—and in how their value depends on a mixture of things, what Larkin once called “the meaningful” and “the magical”. By meaningful, he meant the way manuscripts tell us about dating and timing and speed of production, and about the power of second thoughts (or tenth). All the things, in fact, that are indispensable to scholars, and compelling for fans. By magical, he meant the gut-amazement of thinking, wow, Keats (or Tennyson, or Wilde, or Hardy) had this piece of this paper when it was a blank sheet, their hand touched it, their breath swarmed all over it, and they made something immortal out of nothing.
My second lesson was more remote, yet even more decisive. As I began to write poems in my teens, I also began buying them. One of the first books I owned was the “Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen”, edited by Cecil Day Lewis, with a memoir of Owen by Edmund Blunden. I got it because we’d been doing Owen in English, and for the first time poetry had grabbed me. (My family were country people, not in the least bookish. My mum read a bit of Iris Murdoch, that sort of thing; my dad claimed to have read half a book in his life—“The Lonely Skier” by Hammond Innes.)
In an appendix to Owen’s poems was a photocopy of his great sonnet “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, showing not only the corrections that Owen himself had made to his first draft, but those added by his friend Siegfried Sassoon. (Owen had shown him the poem at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh in 1917, when they were both recovering from shellshock.) The lesson for a tyro poet was unmistakable: take advice from people who know more than you do, don’t trust the authority of first thoughts, mix inspiration with perspiration.
When I left school and went to read English at Oxford, the effect of these early encounters was continually reinforced, as the Bodleian Library put on regular shows of manuscripts in its collection. There was a draft of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, in which his spidery brownish script hurtled across the page as though the wind itself were sweeping it onwards—before ending with a date, October 25th, that rooted it in a very particular moment.
Later, when I stayed in Oxford to write a thesis on the poet Edward Thomas, killed at Arras in 1917, manuscripts became a part of my daily life. Later still, when I was appointed Poet Laureate in 1999, I made it my business to campaign on behalf of British libraries, and authors, in the hope that the flow of manuscripts from British hands into American holdings might be partly redirected towards British libraries. Nothing against America or its libraries: I just think there’s a value—academic, philosophical, emotional—in keeping things close to their point of origin.
The British Library has played a significant part in this campaign, which is appropriate, given that it hosts Britain’s most remarkable permanent display of manuscripts. This is thanks partly to the fact that it has an enormously rich collection (to which it continues to make bold additions—most recently the J.G. Ballard archive) and partly to John Ritblat, the property magnate, whose generosity enabled the gallery which bears his name to be built within the library when it moved to its present site in St Pancras in 1998.
The gallery is easy to take for granted. Compared with the visual arts, the thrill and beauty of manuscripts are not widely celebrated, but this single mid-sized room, with its black walls, lowered lights and atmosphere of something approaching reverence, is one of the world’s great treasure-troves. It is a place of delight as well as learning, and of astonishment as well as understanding. Whenever I have a group of students, I insist that they come here: it’s an Eng Lit version of the geography field trip.
Some parts of the collection are on permanent display—the material relating to Lewis Carroll and the “Alice” books, and the manuscripts of several songs by the Beatles. These songs are as good a place to start as any, as they abolish any idea that displays of this sort are somehow dusty, or of narrow academic interest. The Beatles’ music and words continue to live in the world as few other kinds of writing have ever managed to do. Yet their composition, judging by the evidence here, depended on a similar blend of luck and labour. Paul McCartney’s “Michelle” turns out to be based on a tune he first tried to get down when he was at school, “in an attempt”, the label says, “to write a French-sounding song at the time when the bohemian Parisian Left Bank was a fashionable influence on art students”. Several years later John Lennon suggested that if Paul wanted it to sound French, he’d better use some French words—hence “ma belle” and so on. It was hardly Proust, but it did the trick, and the song was included on “Rubber Soul”. It became the only Beatles track to be named Song of the Year at the Grammys.
The value common to all eight Beatles documents on display here is their magical ordinariness—the way their instant recognisability and lasting fame sprang from the most modest origins. “A Hard Day’s Night” was written very fast, in biro and felt-tip, in response to a phrase Ringo Starr had used to describe the Beatles’ hectic life, on a birthday card which was intended for the infant Julian Lennon. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” has a similar air of speed—and at the end of it John Lennon has written, as if commenting on himself as a teacher: “3/10 See me”. The same sort of sublime ordinariness confronts us in the manuscript of “Yesterday”. This might be the most covered pop song in history, with over 3,000 versions recorded, but it started life as something very simple: everyday words on an everyday page.
The Beatles’ manuscripts are marvellous things—so fresh in their appeal, and so vulnerable in their lack of self-importance. And when we turn away from them, we find ourselves among texts that lie at the other end of the spectrum. These include what are probably the greatest treasures in the gallery: a fragment of the Psalms, dating from the third century AD and written on papyrus; the Codex Sinaiticus, which is the earliest complete New Testament to have been written in Greek, and the Codex Alexandrinus, dating from the first half of the fifth century, which is one of the most important manuscripts of the whole Bible to survive in Greek.
Here the notion of manuscript-as-revelation finds its highest as well as its most literal expression—as it also does in the immensely beautiful ancient and sacred texts relating to Jainism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. And in the Garland Sutra from Korea, one of the most important Mahoyan Buddhist scriptures, which was created on mulberry paper between 1390 and 1400, and is exquisitely illuminated with images of deer, rabbits, bears, birds and shaggy-furred human beings. In a sense that is strictly speaking unique, these objects are at once distillations (small enough to be contained in a single look, and to be absorbed by a single mind) and limitless eruptions of idea and feeling. To look at them is to contemplate nothing less than a large part of the history of the world. No picture, no piece of music, however lovely and celebrated, has had this effect on the same scale. The experience is like lying on our backs and looking at the stars: almost overwhelming.
So there is a kind of relief in turning to the remaining parts of the exhibition. Here too some elements are fixed: the Magna Carta material, which is very properly displayed, with the help of interactive gadgets and gizmos, to remind us all of our rights and obligations as citizens. The majority, however, are on a leisurely rotation which allows the library to demonstrate the depth of its holdings. When I last visited, in the early summer, the range of the literary material was as impressive as the depth. Among the earliest texts on view is a Beowulf manuscript—alongside some drafts of the great recent translation by Seamus Heaney, in which we can see him making shrewd adjustments to his own voice, in order to catch the voice of the poem. (In the opening line, “So the Spear Danes held sway once”, that “once” becomes “in days gone by”—apparently more archaic, but crucially more definite too, and so in keeping with the clashing actualities of the poem.)
A sequence of marvels follows: a manuscript of poems by Sir Philip Sidney; John Milton’s commonplace book; Jane Austen’s little portable writing desk, given to her by her father in 1794; and the first draft of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (1888), with its original chapter titles neatly crossed-out, so you can see how posterity was denied the very suggestive: “Her Education. The Maiden”.
These lead into the modern age, where we find an engrossing gathering of material by Isaac Rosenberg, one of the most heart-wringing of the war poets, and swiftly on to our own time: a manuscript by Ted Hughes of a poem that eventually made its way into “Birthday Letters” (then entitled “The Sorrows of the Deer”), a wonderfully complicated page of the novelist Angela Carter, and a sample from the Ballard archive: the opening page of “Crash”.
Listed end to end like this, things can lose their sense of uniqueness. But one of the great pleasures of the Ritblat Gallery lies in discovering how individual character asserts itself in order to achieve its ambitions. Rosenberg’s poem “Break of Day in the Trenches”, in which the famous phase “a queer sardonic rat” replaces “a queer uncanny rat”, is a little masterpiece of visual arrangement: the distinctly sculptural handwriting seems to hew the poem out of the air. Hughes’s poem is written in a script which looks like the prints of birds’ feet in wet concrete. And Ballard’s text, in which handwritten amendments swarm across the original typescript, is so piled-up and crossed-through, it becomes a kind of crash itself—from which flows prose of exceptional lucidity and directness.
“Infinite riches in a little room”: the Renaissance description of a sonnet could equally well apply to the Ritblat. It is a place where the traditional expectations of libraries are matched by those we associate with galleries—visual elements form a link with meaningful ones, to create an overall effect that is bigger than both. So the place creates in us a strange mixture of inwardness and outwardness—a self-scrutiny, whether we are writers or not, as well as a curiosity about others.
This in turn leads to a further paradox. We leave the collection thinking that we have made contact across the centuries with people whose work in one way or another has been vital to us, because they form a part of our religious faith, or they have brightened our imaginative lives, or we have been mesmerised by their authors. This breeds a sense of intimacy, consolidated by the sense that as we look at the literary documents (less so the religious texts) we are looking over the author’s shoulder. And yet at the same time the documents retain a bewitching otherness. They celebrate the difference of other minds, as well as their familiarity—and they raise questions. How do we make our mark by making marks? What is created by genius and what derives from work? What is the relationship between the two? And what is the relationship between the sublime and the everyday? The questions hang in the air long after we have returned to plain daylight.
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