Auctions | February 14, 2013

Rare A.E. Housman Manuscript Poem For Sale at Bonhams

A deeply personal and revealing handwritten poem in draft, by ‘Shropshire Lad’ poet A.E. Housman, which came close to being destroyed is to be sold on 10 April in Part I of the sale of The Roy Davids Collection Part III:  Poetry: Poetical Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets at Bonhams, New Bond Street.  


The work, “Oh were he and I together” was written, in pencil, in 1917 and never published during Housman’s lifetime. The text is very faint and a deliberate attempt has been made to erase it.  The manuscript was among papers preserved after the poet’s death by his brother, Laurence. Housman left strict instructions that his working drafts and unpublished poems should be destroyed but gave his brother discretion to retain documents that he felt would be worth keeping.

Manuscripts of Housman poems in draft form are very rare.  It is being sold with another handwritten work 'Epitaph on an army of mercenaries', written on the other side of the page, and is estimated at £20,000-25,000. 


The poem refers to Housman’s life-long, unrequited, passion for a fellow undergraduate at Oxford in 1877, Moses Jackson. After university, which Housman left without taking a degree, the two men worked together at the Patents Office in London.  Indeed, Housman deliberately chose to work there in order to be close to his friend.  In 1887, the newly married Jackson took up a post in India and lived the rest of his life abroad.  The poem makes reference to the physical and emotional distance between them.


Oh were he and I together

  Shipmates on the fleeted main,

Sailing through the summer weather

  To the spoil of France or Spain.


Oh were he and I together,

  Locking hands and taking leave,

Low upon the trampled heather

   In the battle lost at eve.


Now are he and I asunder

  And asunder to remain;

Kingdoms are for others' plunder,

  And content for other slain.


Housman considered including the work in his 1922 volume, ‘Last Poems’, but withdrew it at the proof stage.  It is not clear who started to erase the poem.  The most likely candidate are Housman himself or his brother, Laurence. Whichever one it was, he clearly changed his mind.


Housman’s intense feelings for Jackson were almost certainly known to his family and friends.  After the poet’s death, Laurence Housman consulted another of A.E.’s close Oxford friends, Alfred Pollard, about how to deal with the more intimate material in his brother’s papers.   Pollard recommended that he keep them which accounts for the fact that this very personal hand written work survived.


Poetry: Poetical Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets, is the fruit of 40 years of collecting by the poet and scholar Roy Davids and is the finest collection of poetry ever to come to auction.  In Mr David’s own words, “it would now be impossible for the present collection to be even approximately replicated.”