English and Drama blog

4 posts from June 2013

26 June 2013

Newly acquired W.H. Auden Journal

WH Auden 1
Image © Peter Mitchell/Faber Archive

The English and Drama Department made an exciting new addition to the British Library’s literary collections last week. At the Christie’s auction on 12th June, we acquired a fascinating journal of W.H. Auden’s, which was kept by the poet during August to November 1939. The unpublished journal, one of only three he is known to have kept, has been in private hands since his death in 1973. Auden, whose influence on a generation of later poets is incalculable, has been described by his editor, Edward Mendelson, as “the first poet writing in English who felt at home in the twentieth century”.

In the January before the journal opens, Auden, along with Christopher Isherwood, had left England for the United States. This act -  portrayed in the British media as shamefully unpatriotic as the outbreak of war threatened national life - for a time made the writers deeply unpopular public figures. It caused a decline in both the critical reception and the sales of their books and even occasioned adverse comment in Parliament. Auden began the journal in August 1939, on his return from from California to New York in August 1939, after what he described as ‘the eleven happiest weeks of my life’ after the beginning of his relationship with the American poet Chester Kallman. Auden had met Kallman at a public poetry reading. The meeting proved to be instrumental in Auden’s subsequent decision to remain in the US and become an American citizen. A fascinating juxtaposition of personal and political preoccupations, the early pages of the journal are written in the light of the joyful intensity of his new relationship and in the shadow of the impending outbreak of war in Europe. The entry for 1st September 1939 comprises an extended narration on his activities and preoccupations on this date, which sheds light on his famous poem of the same name.

As well as diary entries, Auden used the journal to record his reflections and observations, along with snippets of overheard conversations. In its latter pages the journal becomes a commonplace book of poetry. He also notes his reading and his opinions on other writers (with John Steinbeck coming in for particular criticism). The manuscript also includes drafts of Auden’s own poems, the word-play and metrical games worked out in these pages offering interesting insights into his compositional methods.

The acquisition builds on the British Library’s existing Auden collections. Two Auden poetry notebooks were acquired by the Library in the 1960s under the auspices of the Arts Council’s National Manuscripts Collection of Contemporary Poets. The Library also holds further manuscript drafts of Auden’s poetry and prose, including from his long poem The Orators (1931) and from his late sequence About the House (1966), along with correspondence, including letters to John Betjeman. Rare live and studio recordings of Auden reading his own work are also held in the Library’s collection of drama and literature recordings.

We are going to display the journal in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library from August 2013. You can read a good piece on the acquisition on the Guardian newspaper website.

Auden’s collaborations with the composer Benjamin Britten feature in the Library’s new Folio Society Gallery exhibition, Poetry in Sound: The Music of Benjamin Britten. Among the items featured are a film extract from Night Mail (1936), a documentary for the General Post Office made in 1936, and a brochure relating to The Group Theatre, which produced the plays The Ascent of F6 and On the Frontier (written by Auden and Christopher Isherwood, with music by Britten, between 1935 and 1938). Sandra Tuppen, one of the exhibition curators, has written a blog post about the Auden-Britten collaboration, which you can read at  http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/music/2013/06/poetry-in-sound-exhibition-britten-and-auden-in-the-spotlight.html

24 June 2013

The 'Sacred' seasons of live art at the Chelsea Theatre

The 'Sacred' seasons of live art and experimental contemporary performance were started at Chelsea Theatre, London, seven years ago by Francis Alexander, the Theatre’s Artistic Director.

Located in front of the World’s End Estate on the King’s Road, the Chelsea Theatre presents itself as the only London theatre dedicated to the production and presentation of live art performance. Each year Sacred brings together performers and practitioners from all over the world for a programme which also supports early-career artists.

Action Hero_Front Man 2011
Frontman Action Hero, 2011

Over the years themes and formats have varied, from one-to-one encounters, late-night cabaret, dance, promenade performances and installations. The 2008 season even included shows taking place inside an old Routemaster bus parked in front of the theatre.

Sacred also provides a place for discussion and engagement in the form of keynote addresses, artist-led workshops, symposiums, talks, lecture demonstrations, post-show talks and interactive critical debates including researchers and members of the public alike, often with an impromptu element.

These events have touched so far on the subjects of socially engaged performance, participation, performing the real, the make-believe world of performance, and most recently, in the current season, on hopes, dreams and predictions for future practice through the Wishful Wednesdays series of artists’ talks.

Franko B and Ron Athley 2009
Ron Athey and Franko B in discussion, 2009

Audience involvement is not excluded from the shows and it can take many forms too. For example as a part of a performance in 2008 the duo Leibniz invited spectators to donate a drop of blood to be used as ink in the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into a thick, leather-bound book. And in 2010, performer Sara Juli put $5000 into the hands of the audience for her show The Money Conversation.

Lois Weaver_What Tammy Needs to Know 2008
What Tammy Needs to Know
Lois Weaver, 2008

Since the beginning of the first Sacred, in autumn 2006, the British Library has been documenting all the shows and events. Seven seasons later this has resulted in a unique collection of over a hundred and forty video recordings. See BL reference C1214 in the Library’s online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

At the British Library we document performances from the audience point-of-view and we never see the shows in advance. Videoing under these conditions can sometimes be challenging. The results are made available for viewing, unedited, in the Reading Rooms.

Dickie Beau_Blackouts 2013
BLACKOUTS: Twilight of the Idols Dickie Beau, 2013

The collection is a comprehensive guide to the contemporary live art scene and its players and includes shows by Franko B, Goat Island, Ron Athey, Dominic Johnson, Kazuko Hokhi, Stacy Makishi, David Hoyle, Karen Christopher, Julia Bardsley, Helena Hunter, Sheila Ghelani, Action Hero, Dickie Beau, Peggy Shaw, Natasha Davis and Robin Deacon among many others.

The Chelsea Theatre’s partnerships with international venues such as brut from Viena in 2009 and PS122 from New York in 2010 brought to London the work of Jan Machacek (you delay), Richard Maxwell (ADS) and Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company (Pullman, Wa), to give just three examples.

The current season is about to end. You are still in time for the last two shows: The Red Album by Rubix Collective on 27 June 2013, and  Anarchitecture in the UK by Richard DeDomenici on 6 July 2013.



14 June 2013

Six golden rules for writers

Last weekend the Brontë Parsonage announced that it was successful in raising funds to acquire a previously unknown handwritten essay by Charlotte Brontë. Charlotte wrote the devoir, or homework assignment, for Constantin Heger, the married tutor whom she fell in love with whilst she and Emily Brontë were studying languages in Brussels.

The Parsonage’s new acquisition is not the only Brontë devoir to have survived— our Ashley Collection includes Charlotte’s essay on Pierre l’ermite (Peter the Hermit), the priest who according to legend—and in rather un-hermit-like fashion—led the People’s Crusade to the Holy Land in 1096.

Bronte devoir

Charlotte's Brontë's essay, 'Pierre l'ermite', 23 June [1842]

Peter, who Charlotte characterises as short and ugly, roused thousands of people to up and follow him with his passionate oratory and it’s easy to see why he appealed to Charlotte, who was determined to rise above her situation in life through the power of her pen, despite always being self-conscious about her physical appearance and tiny stature (she was less than five feet tall).

This essay, written in French, is an example of Monsieur Heger’s unconventional method of teaching whereby he encouraged Charlotte and Emily to adopt the style of other writers: in this case he used as a starting point a piece by Victor Hugo on the French revolutionary, Mirabeau. Charlotte responded enthusiastically to these assignments, and learnt much from Heger, who had six golden rules for his students. We know about these principles thanks to another student of Heger’s, Frederika Macdonald, who recorded her impressions of him in detail. I have attempted to paraphrase as follows:

 Monsieur Heger’s advice to his students

  1. Take off your shoes before entering the mosque (by which he meant, clear your mind of everyday cares before embarking on the ‘noble or high order of thoughts’)
  2. Absorb as many literary forms as possible (read widely, not just fiction)
  3. A literary image should NEVER be used as an argument: it should illuminate a vision, or interpret a parable
  4. Read aloud to detect defects in syntax
  5. Don’t fight with a difficult sentence: go for a walk, or sleep on it
  6. Don’t read before sitting down to write, unless the writer’s style is similar to your own

Heger’s advice on imagery and syntax seem to have been particularly helpful for Charlotte, whose later work is a huge improvement on the juvenilia she wrote before her time in Brussels (though greater maturity and experience gained through her unrequited love for Heger must have played a part). In the draft of the essay pictured below, Heger’s pencil delicately cancelled a heartfelt line about Peter’s capability to excite ‘the profoundest sentiments of the human heart’, replacing it with his own image of Peter uprooting nations with the power of thought.

Bronte devoir crop 2
Constantin Heger's pencil annotations in Charlotte Brontë's 'Pierre l'ermite'

Whilst Charlotte eagerly followed Heger’s method, Emily was resistant to writing in any style but her own. I can’t help but wonder whether it came as a bit of a snub when Emily, who was homesick and ill-at-ease in foreign surroundings, turned in a deliberately patriotic response to the Mirabeau piece in her devoir about King Harold’s resistance to the Norman invasion (one draft of which is held by the Parsonage, the other at John Rylands). To his credit Heger did not take offence at Emily’s obstinacy or her choice of subject matter. He recognised the talent of both sisters and wrote to Reverend Brontë praising them highly. Despite his special treatment of Charlotte, it seems that he regarded Emily as the greater genius of the two.

Now to return to the essay newly acquired by the Brontë Parsonage, which takes the topic of filial love as its theme. I have only seen a photograph of the manuscript on their website, so I eagerly await further details (and a translation – as my French isn’t up to much), but according to the Parsonage the essay, ‘L’Amour Filial’, deals with its subject in dramatic style, claiming that the child who treats a parent unlovingly is little more than a murderer in the eyes of God. What they don’t mention is that this is actually the companion piece to Emily Brontë’s essay on the same subject, which is already in the Parsonage collections.

Until now, scholars had guessed that Emily’s vehement treatise on the monstrous nature of filial ingratitude was a theme of her own choosing. Whilst it could be another example of an imitation prompted by one of Monsieur’s Heger’s dictations, no trace of the dictation survives, and there were no notes to suggest that Charlotte had written on the same theme. Now that Charlotte’s version has come to light, it will be interesting to compare the two. And, since it has been suggested that Emily may have had her brother Branwell’s behaviour towards their father in mind when writing her piece, the discovery of Charlotte’ essay may well fuel further speculation.



Fraser, Rebecca. Charlotte Brontë (London: Methuen, 1989).

Gordon, Lyndall. Charlotte Brontë: A passionate life (London: Virago, 2008).

Lonoff, Sue. The Belgian Essays (New Haven and London: Yale, 1996).

04 June 2013

The Keepsake Kiss

The Library has been very fortunate to acquire a copy of The Kiss, a poem by Paul Roche with a line drawing by Duncan Grant. The poem, published by the Keepsake Press in 1974, is part of the Keepsake Poems, a series published between 1972 and 1979.

The Keepsake Press was established by Roy Lewis and even though it published over a 100 books and pamphlets it is the Keepsake Poems for which it is chiefly remembered. The press was active up until the death of Roy Lewis in 1996. The Keepsake Poems include works by notable poets such as Vernon Scannell, Christopher Logue, Charles Causley and George Szirtes. The series numbered 39 in total, of which The Kiss is number 23. The final publication was Walking in the Harz Mountains by D J Enright, illustrated by Madeline Enright. The Kiss is elegantly produced with simple tan wrappers in crown quarto containing one folded sheet with the printed text of the poem offset to the top right and Grant’s oval illustration in the centre. The chapbook was published in an edition of 180 copies.

Duncan Grant first met Paul Roche in London in 1946. This was the start of a relationship which was to last over 32 years until the death of Grant in 1978. Roche began modelling for Grant and was used by Grant as his model for Christ in his murals for the Russell Chantry at Lincoln Cathedral. In later life Roche was to become a noted poet, novelist, and translator of classical texts. Duncan Grant provided illustrations for some of Paul Roche’s publications. Grant provided the illustration for the dust-jacket and the chapter decorations for Roche’s first novel O Pale Galilean (1954, British Library shelfmark NNN.5238). A portrait of Paul Roche by Grant was used for the dust-jacket of All Things Considered (1966, shelfmark X.908/7703) this portrait was additionally reproduced as the book’s frontispiece. Grant also provided the design for the dust-jacket of Roche’s collection of poetry Enigma Variations And (1974, shelfmark YA.1991.a.160054).

Duncan Grant died at Paul Roche’s home in Aldermaston on the 9 May 1978. A month later in June a memorial service was held for Grant at St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 2004 the Library was able to purchase a copy of the Order of Service (shelfmark RF.2004.a.131) in which is printed Roche’s poem ‘The Artist’ which he read at the service. This new acquisition is a fitting addition to the Library’s collections and complements delightfully our existing holdings of collaborations between Duncan Grant and Paul Roche.