Authors on Museums: Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate, on his favourite part of the British Library

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.)

British LibraryIn 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.