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Sue Gee on Joy Grant, Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop, SF Issue 72

In Pursuit of an Ideal

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On 1 January 1913 a new kind of bookshop opened in London. Located in a rundown street off Theobalds Road, it occupied three floors of a Georgian house, and was presided over by an idealist whose private income – largely derived from family-owned asylums – never quite met the shop’s expenses. This was Harold Monro, poet, publisher and editor of The Poetry Review, to whose subscribers he announced his intention of opening a bookshop ‘devoted to the sale of poetry, and of all books, pamphlets and periodicals connected with poetry’. For the next two decades he was to put the Poetry Bookshop at the heart of the London poetry scene. The other figure bestriding literary London at this time was Ezra Pound: in tempera­ment, taste and ambition the two men could not have been more different.

Devonshire Street (now Boswell Street) was dark and narrow, once described by Osbert Sitwell as ‘given over to screaming children, lusty small boys armed with catapults, and to leaping flights of eighteenth-century cats’. Alida Monro, Harold’s second wife and most assuredly his saviour, described ‘a slum street . . . the passerby in constant peril of being hit on the head by kipper bones and banana skins falling from upper windows’. There were three pubs, and the policemen patrolled in pairs.

Elegant though its proportions were, it was brave indeed for Harold Monro to take the lease of No. 35 and hang over the front door a swinging sign in bold black letters announcing THE POETRY BOOKSHOP. But he knew what he was doing.

‘The piquant idea of a poetry shop in a slum street took people’s fancy,’ writes Joy Grant, author of Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop (1967). I was led to this book by my interest in the poet Charlotte Mew, befriended to the end of her tragic life by Alida and Harold. Grant writes wonderfully well about the couple’s marriage, the bookshop and its times, and is an astute critic of Monro’s own poetry and o

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On 1 January 1913 a new kind of bookshop opened in London. Located in a rundown street off Theobalds Road, it occupied three floors of a Georgian house, and was presided over by an idealist whose private income – largely derived from family-owned asylums – never quite met the shop’s expenses. This was Harold Monro, poet, publisher and editor of The Poetry Review, to whose subscribers he announced his intention of opening a bookshop ‘devoted to the sale of poetry, and of all books, pamphlets and periodicals connected with poetry’. For the next two decades he was to put the Poetry Bookshop at the heart of the London poetry scene. The other figure bestriding literary London at this time was Ezra Pound: in tempera­ment, taste and ambition the two men could not have been more different.

Devonshire Street (now Boswell Street) was dark and narrow, once described by Osbert Sitwell as ‘given over to screaming children, lusty small boys armed with catapults, and to leaping flights of eighteenth-century cats’. Alida Monro, Harold’s second wife and most assuredly his saviour, described ‘a slum street . . . the passerby in constant peril of being hit on the head by kipper bones and banana skins falling from upper windows’. There were three pubs, and the policemen patrolled in pairs. Elegant though its proportions were, it was brave indeed for Harold Monro to take the lease of No. 35 and hang over the front door a swinging sign in bold black letters announcing THE POETRY BOOKSHOP. But he knew what he was doing. ‘The piquant idea of a poetry shop in a slum street took people’s fancy,’ writes Joy Grant, author of Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop (1967). I was led to this book by my interest in the poet Charlotte Mew, befriended to the end of her tragic life by Alida and Harold. Grant writes wonderfully well about the couple’s marriage, the bookshop and its times, and is an astute critic of Monro’s own poetry and of the many poets he published and encouraged. She is also pleasingly dry – ‘Miss Webster wrote soft female poetry of the heart’ – and often made me laugh. The book has a few fine photo­graphs and is altogether a delight. Who was Harold Monro? Tall, dark, and described by Grant as ‘very faintly saturnine’, he was born in Brussels in 1879, the son of a civil engineer, and came to England when he was 6. At 16 he was expelled from Radley for sneaking a bottle of something into his study. ‘By a stroke of good fortune I left school young,’ is how he put it in an unpublished memoir. He retreated to his bedroom, writing poems and stories ‘all about an individual too obviously myself . . . By the time I went to Cambridge poetry had become an obsession.’ There, he read everything from Virgil to Keats, via Goethe, Molière and Milton, and began to take his own poetry seriously. By the time he founded the Poetry Bookshop at the age of 34, he had dropped out of law school, travelled extensively in Europe, come under the influence of Edward Carpenter, Walt Whitman’s English heir, married his best friend’s sister, had a son, taken them to Ireland and returned, finding it very wet. It seems this first marriage found-ered on his need simply to go his own way. Monro was a complex individual. A romantic idealist inspired by Shelley, he was part of that early to mid-twentieth century strand of thinking, secular and uto­pian, which looked back to Tolstoy, Ruskin and William Morris, and forward to a society rid of industrial capitalism. He searched all his life for the poetic language in which to express himself, often failing. His love of dogs, the seasons, the earth, the English countryside and domestic life put him in the camp of what Grant describes as ‘the pleasant inanities’ of much Georgian poetry, yet he was also aware that by the turn of the century he and those like him were ‘at the end of an outworn tradition’. ‘Oh, this fearful minor key!’ he wrote once. ‘This is an age of clipped wings and misty intelligences!’ He struggled with Modernism, and as a publisher turned down both Edward Thomas and T. S. Eliot. In turn, Ezra Pound rejected one of Monro’s own poems for an Imagist collection because ‘he clung to an adjective’. ‘His tragedy’, writes Grant, ‘was not that he liked what was bad, but that he failed to respond sufficiently to what was good.’ There were other tragedies. He suffered from ill health, and he drank too much, perhaps to drown a fundamental loneliness: since Radley, he had known that he was homosexual. He had a serious, lifelong struggle with the idea of God. It was the Poetry Bookshop, and his marriage to the much younger woman who came to work there, that gave him purpose and fulfilment. Alida Klemantski became Monro’s secretary late in 1913. Of Polish descent, gifted, beautiful and well-read, she had intended to become a doc­tor, and rescue prostitutes. Instead, she rescued him, bringing her own sensitive literary judgement to publications, and a calm efficiency to book-keeping and the dispatch of orders. ‘Miss Klemantski is just splendid, and understands everything,’ he told a friend. It was she who kept the shop running all through the war, while he was working in the Intelligence Department of the War Office. They were married in 1920, by then well established as an appealing and immensely hospitable couple. With its custom-made oak bookshelves and settles, literary reviews spread on the tables, a coal fire in winter and Harold’s beloved cat before it, the bookshop was a perfect place for browsing and conver­sation. A huge amount went on there, Harold directing operations from his office on the first floor. Between 1911 and 1922 he published seven volumes of Georgian poetry (it was he who coined the term) edited by Edward Marsh, which at their best brought Robert Bridges, Edward Thomas, Walter de la Mare, Siegfried Sassoon and D. H. Lawrence to a newly eager readership. For a long time, it was the sale of these volumes that kept the bookshop afloat. There were also individual collections, often by women, including Frances Cornford, Eleanor Farjeon and Charlotte Mew, as well as chapbooks – economically priced miniature paper-bound volumes with strong, simple cover designs. These were intended, wrote Monro, ‘to be sold anywhere and everywhere, carried in the pocket, read at any spare moment, left in the train’. This is how Robert Graves’s first collection was published. Monro also published delightful rhyme sheets – individual poems (from Dryden to de la Mare) typeset on long thin strips of paper and decorated by artists: Paul Nash, James Guthrie, David Jones. The novelist Penelope Fitzgerald cherished the ones she had as a child, pinning them up on her bedroom wall. And then there were the readings. These were held in an old outhouse; occasionally rain blew in. They were not advertised: you picked up who was reading next week from chat in the shop. ‘Anyone who wishes to stroll in may do so,’ Monro had airily announced, though he admitted that this sometimes meant ‘the most extra-ordinary people’. Once inside, paying threepence to sixpence, the audience was seated in rows before a green-shaded lamp on a reading desk. Monro stepped out from behind a curtain with what one man recalled as ‘a stiff little soldierly bow, and the suspicion of a smile’, and introduced the evening’s poets. Both he and Alida were tremendous readers; Monro believed that poetry could be properly understood only by being read aloud, and he gathered here everyone from Yeats and Edith Sitwell to Joyce, Pound and Eliot, via many a keen but lesser voice. Rupert Brooke read several times to a packed house, once before the war, looking like ‘an annun­ciating angel’, and once in July 1914, with a streaming cold. ‘Speak up, young man,’ came a stern female voice. By the autumn he was in uniform, drawn and disheartened, talking only of the war. Not everyone wanted to read their own work, and Alida was happy to step in for the shy and hesitant. One such was Charlotte Mew. Alida found her, Harold published her, and in so doing showed his judgement at its best, for Mew was writing anything but ‘soft female poetry of the heart’. His yardstick was ‘Did this poem have to be written?’ Could there be a better? Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother in 1916 of Monro’s skilful editing of his work. ‘He went over the things in detail and he told me what was fresh and clever, and what was second-hand and banal, and what Keatsian and what “modern” . . . I need not say that he is a peculiar being . . .’ In truth, through this enriching book, I rather fell for Monro. In 1926, with failing health and eyesight, and the lease on Devonshire Street at an end, he moved the bookshop to Great Russell Street, a much better location but without the same atmosphere. No matter. By the time of his death in 1932 he had created a marvellously wel­coming and convivial place, published some of the most important poets in the English language, and worked tirelessly in pursuit of an ideal: poetry at the very heart of life. Through it all he was, writes Grant, ‘an unhappy human being groping nervously towards the expression of his inner life’. Though Joy Grant’s inclusion and analysis of Monro’s poetry is much too long, he did leave some work of considerable merit. Philip Larkin recognized this, including in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973) ‘Thistledown’, much more subtle than it seems on first reading, and ‘Midnight Lamentation’, a poem to break your heart.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 72 © Sue Gee 2021


About the contributor

Sue Gee collection of essays, Just You and the Page: Encounters with Twelve Writers, is published by Seren Books. She can also be heard discussing the art of editing on our podcast, Episode 3, ‘Stet’.

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