The Poetry Bookshop
Harold Monro holding the sign outside his shop, London, c. 1920
by Amy Lowell
35 Devonshire Street, London
I well remember the first time I went to the Poetry Bookshop. It was in July, 1913. I had read of it in a stray number of The Poetry Review that had drifted my way. The idea attracted me at once, and I determined to have a look at it during the summer. There was something alluringly crazy about anyone’s starting a bookshop for the sale of poetry alone. Poetry is at once my trade and my religion. All decent poets worship their art and slave at it, and I am no exception to the rule. But I have my “afternoons out” with their temptations, and the greatest of these is a bookshop. Here was the combination: a poetry bookshop. I turned to it as inevitably as a magnet to the pole.
It was after a visit to one of those large and flourishing establishments where every sort of book is sold that you do not want to read; where rows and rows of the classics you wish you could read again for the first time flaunt from the shelves in gaudy leather bindings, and a whole counter labours to support the newest and dullest novels, and another is covered with monographs which instruct you minutely as to how to grow fruit-trees, catch salmon, handle golf clubs, or bicycle through the home counties. It was in one of these “emporiums,” after the usual “We can get it for you, Madam,” that I broke into open revolt and started off to The Poetry Bookshop.
I knew it was somewhere near the British Museum. “Off Theobald’s Road,” I told the taxi driver, and settled down to looking out of the window, for London, whether on foot or driving, is a never-ending interest to me. Theobald’s Road is one of those large, busy thoroughfares, which cut across London in all directions, and off it, to the left in my case, we turned into a quiet, rather run-down little street, Devonshire Street. A swinging sign about half-way down it attracted me. It was shaped like a shield and blue, if I remember rightly, and on it were painted three torches. All this was determined as the taxi approached. That must be my place, I thought, and it was.
We drew up at the door of a shop—unmistakably a shop, because it had a big shopwindow. It did not need the name, “The Poetry Bookshop” in excellently designed, big, black letters over the window, to tell me that I had arrived.
I did not go in at once. I like to take my temptations gradually, nibbling at them bit by bit and tasting, before gulping them down as full-fledged crimes. I nibbled at that window. It was broad and high, and the books were displayed in it in the singularly fascinating manner which American booksellers jeer at and call “English window dressing.” All these books were poetry, or about poetry; that is, of course, all the ones that were not plays. There were long strips of ballads hanging down, like 18th century broadsides, each one topped by a crude woodcut in glaring reds, and blues, and yellows. The nibbling was so delightful that I collected quite a crowd of street urchins about me, wondering what the lady was looking so long into the window for, before I had done.
Then I went in, but even the window had not prepared me for the shop inside. It was a room rather than a shop, for there was a smart fire burning in the grate, and there were chairs, and settles, and a big table covered with the latest publications. The walls were lined with shelves, and under the window was a little ledge entirely filled with reviews from all over the world. The familiar cover of Poetry made me feel quite at home, but the eclecticism of the proprietor was at once evidenced by the presence of The Poetry Journal and Poet Lore, periodicals of whose existence I should not have expected him to be aware. There was also The Poetry Review, from which I knew he had severed himself, so it was obvious that the proprietor cared very much to be fair.
I turned to the shelves, and my surprise was even greater. There were a lot of shelves, all round the room and even over the chimney-breast. Every volume of poetry recently published was there. That I had expected, but what I had not expected was that all the classics were there too. Not bound into mausoleums, “handsome editions in handsome bindings, which no gentleman’s library should be without,” but readable volumes, for the reader who wants to read.
There was not a bit of glass in the shop, all was open and touchable. Of course I touched, and opened, and browsed. There were French books, too, and Italian. It goes without saying that the book I wanted was there. I know I bought it, and others, and came out laden and happy.
I did not meet Mr. Monro on this first visit, and I do not now remember exactly when I did meet him. My sojourns in the shop were many, and at this distance have become confused. But I did meet him sometime, and found an earnest, quiet gentleman, the very opposite from the crank. But even at the first visit I had felt the bookshop to be not “crazy” at all, but an answer to a very real need.
It has been my experience that people who really do things (in contradistinction to talking about them) are very straightforward, sensible persons, without sentimentalism in the pursuit of their ideal. Mr. Monro was exactly this. He was spending his energy to give poetry the dignity and charm of presentation it had lost at the hands of the commercial booksellers; he was encouraging poets and allowing their books a chance; but he did not talk ideals, nor dress like a combination of a fool and a wild animal. He was too busy to pose, he was just “on the job.” And what “on the job” meant and means is best told by giving the history of his enterprise.
For some years Mr. Monro had lived abroad, in Switzerland and Italy. But the nostalgia of home took possession of him, and he returned to England. Shortly after his arrival The Poetry Society asked him to edit a magazine for them, and he consented, and The Poetry Review began in January, 1912. Mr. Monro not only edited the Review, but paid for it. Now the Poetry Society, like all such bodies, is conservative, and Mr. Monro is sown with the seeds of radicalism. So differences of policy began, and at the end of a year, Mr. Monro seceded from The Poetry Review and founded another review, Poetry and Drama, to be published quarterly.
But I am anticipating. While editing The Poetry Review Mr. Monro conceived the idea of having a bookshop, which should be at once the office of the review and its various publications, and a shop. An old house in Devonshire Street was leased and everything “en train,” when Mr. Monro found that the inevitable breach with The Poetry Society on matters of policy was imminent. He announced in The Poetry Review the foundation of a new magazine, a quarterly, and relinquished The Poetry Review into other hands after having founded it and edited it for twelve months.
On January 8th, 1913, The Poetry Bookshop opened its doors to the public, and the public, always caught by novelty, flocked in. Professor Henry Newbolt gave the opening address. The first publication of the Bookshop, Georgian Poets, an anthology of the work of Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, W. H. Davies, Walter de la Mare, James Elroy Flecker, Wilfred Wilson Gibson, D. H. Lawrence, John Masefield, James Stephens, Harold Monro himself, and others, had already appeared. This book has been extraordinarily successful, and, in two years, has gone through ten editions.
Of course the book helped the bookshop, and the bookshop helped the book. So delighted were the amusement hunters with the idea, that there was some danger of the venture being swamped in the tide of fashion. But Mr. Monro was too genuinely in earnest to be elated by his success, or depressed when it calmed down to a normal interest. The bookshop pegged away at its work and in March, 1913, the first number of Poetry and Drama appeared. This little quarterly is indispensable to anyone wishing to keep abreast with what is being done in poetry abroad. The articles on French poetry by F. S. Flint alone are worth the cost of subscription. But Poetry and Drama also publishes original poetry, critical reviews, and English, French, Italian, and American chronicles. It is an interesting paper, and if I easily see how it could be bettered, that only means that I am an enthusiastic reader. Was anyone ever sincerely devoted to a paper without feeling that with a grain of his advice it could still be improved?
Yet I have a sneaking feeling that Mr. Monro runs his paper better than I should, better than any of us would. It requires a singularly unselfish and dispassionate devotion to run a paper and have it favor all schools, and criticise all cliques, equally. Nobody is quite pleased by that method, but the public gets what it pays for, and I, for one, admire a man with this quality of justice in him. Poetry and Drama ran until December of this year, when it was suspended during the continuance of the war, and the lack of it is so noticeable that it shows very well what a position it had already achieved.
The Poetry Bookshop publishes as well as sells. Georgian Poetry was followed by Anthologie des Imagistes, Poems by John Alford, Anthology of Futurist Poetry, and various small ventures such as The Rhyme Sheet (the broadsides I have spoken of before), and a number of little chap books called Flying Fame Publications, of which one I have seen, Eve by Ralph Hodgson, is enchanting.
Many though Mr. Monro’s activities were, the house was too big for them. So Mr. Monro fitted up some of the attic rooms as bedrooms, and there his clientele of poets hailing from the country find a welcome and inexpensive lodgings. Other rooms are used as reading rooms, for readings are held every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 P. M. Sometimes the poets read their own poems, sometimes other people read them. Verhaeren and Marinetti have read there and many other poets, well-known and still unknown. Mr. Monro invites those he desires, and as he runs his readings as he runs his shop there is great and stimulating variety. The difficulty with this sort of thing is the hangers-on, the horde of the sentimental of both sexes who fasten upon an artistic endeavor and seriously hurt it. It is inevitable that some of these parasites should drift into the readings, as I noticed on one occasion that I was there. But time will weed them out, for such people can never bear to realize that art is as hardworking as, say, stonecutting.
Since the war The Poetry Bookshop has been printing chap books, published at sixpence. Among them are Maurice Hewlett’s Singsongs of the War, Antwerp by Ford Maddox Hueffer, The King’s Highway by Henry Newbolt, The Old Ships by James Elroy Flecker; and for unmartial relief, Spring Morning by Frances Cornford, Songs by Edward Shanks, The Contemplative Quarry by Anna Wickham, and Children of Love by Harold Monro.
Mr. Monro is so stern in his idealism that, although a poet of originality and feeling, he willingly minimizes his own production for the sake of advancing poetry “en masse.” That is remarkable, and his enterprise deserves all the success which the poets and the general public can give it.
About the Author
Amy Lowell was an American Imagist poet.
Essay first published in the May 1915 issue of The Little Review. Now in the public domain.
Detail from a photograph in Harold Monro’s Collected Poems (Cobden Sanderson, London 1933). Believed to be in the pubic domain. Photograph uploaded online by Jot101.