Ernest Hilbert: The Muse and the Auctioneer’s Gavel: Learning About Poetry from First Editions

Ernest Hilbert: The Muse and the Auctioneer’s Gavel: Learning About Poetry from First Editions
December 16, 2016 Hilbert Ernest

The Muse and the Auctioneer’s Gavel: Learning About Poetry from First Editions


For a decade and a half I have worked more or less contentedly as a rare book dealer, roughly half the number of years I’ve devoted to being a poet, an equally eccentric pursuit. In that time I’ve had the pleasure of placing quite a number of extraordinary first editions of poetry into my clients’ collections. I am often asked what precisely makes a book “rare.” Why, for instance will one volume of poetry sell for $5 (a used copy of a recent title, something I would buy for myself), $50 (a first edition of Diane Wakoski’s 1966 Discrepencies and Apparitions signed by her along with a drawing in her hand), $500 (poet and translator Richmond Lattimore’s copy of the 1955 first edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s second book Poems: North & South and A Cold Spring), $5,000 (an inscribed 1926 first edition of Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues), while another might sell for $50,000 (a 1633 first edition of John Donne’s Poems by J.D. with Elegies on the Author’s Death), and yet another for well over $500,000 (Edgar Allan Poe’s impossibly rare 1827 first book of poetry, Tamerlane, authored by “A Bostonian,” which hammered at $662,500 at a 2009 Christie’s sale, a tattered and rather stained copy at that, but one of only 12 thought to remain from a print run of 50). While no easy answer concerning this sort of marketplace value will fully suffice, there are a few measures upon which one may fairly rely.

The historical significance of a book—which has much to do with cultural consensus and is subject to alteration—is perhaps the greatest determinant, as no other aspect will bear if the book is not thought important in the first place. The endless pull between a book’s desirability and its scarcity contributes enormously to its value as well. How many remain in the world, and how many in private hands? How many and what kind of collectors or institutions vigorously pursue it? Beyond these considerations one encounters bibliographical matters—state and issue points, most of which are imperceptible to the amateur, others scandalously contentious, others still evolving by comparison with newly discovered copies—and material attributes, such as overall condition, presence of original or early bindings, wide margins. There are also matters of provenance—copies that come down through libraries of famous scholars, collectors, or friends of the author, and much else besides. To read a poem in its first edition delivers an experience akin to the “aura” that Walter Benjamin insisted an original work of art possesses—“the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition”—and which is diluted through reproduction down the ages. It is quite something to read Paradise Lost in its first edition of heavy paper bound in centuries-old calfskin, quite another to do so with a footnoted, small-type, tissue-paper classroom doorstop. Whatever magic may have attached itself has flown.

When dealing with poetry, one commonly encounters first editions that appeared only after the poet’s death, were self-published, or which appeared in astonishingly small print runs. We do well to remember that it was only in the early nineteenth century that historian Sharon Turner translated passages of Beowulf into modern English, and the first publication of any sort came only in 1815. Chaucer penned The Canterbury Tales in the fourteenth century, well before the introduction of moveable type. His loquacious pilgrims were preserved in over eighty known manuscript versions before the first edition was published by William Caxton in 1478. Only ten copies of Caxton’s edition are known to have come down to us today, all now housed in permanent collections. Because the first edition is unobtainable, one might well settle for the 1550 fourth collected edition, in one of its four known variants (different publishers appear in the colophon) or perhaps acquire a 1602 second Speght edition, the earliest in which thorough punctuation was attempted.

Even if a coterie of friends and fellow poets exchange works in fair copy during a poet’s lifetime, official publication may come later. Shakespeare’s Poems: Written by Wil Shakespeare Gent appeared in 1640, fully 24 years after The Bard shuffled off his mortal coil. It contains the earliest obtainable appearance of the sonnets, preceded only by an unauthorized edition of 1609, of which no copy has appeared at auction since records were first kept in the nineteenth century. Likewise, although John Donne’s poems circulated among cultivated audiences in Elizabethan and Jacobean London, he strove to keep his verse out of print, fearing it could taint his reputation. The first publication of Poems, By J.D. With Elegies on the Authors Death came in 1633, two years after his death, in an edition that continues to be the basis for all scholarly editions.

The last two centuries have yielded remarkable moods and movements in English language poetry, some dislodging centuries-old traditions and producing masterpieces that would have been completely unimaginable even a generation before. In a little over a century—that separating Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations—the art form experienced fantastic advances or disfigurements, depending on one’s standpoint. Truly revolutionary books of poetry are rare, and few were seen as such at the time. Evidence for this can be found in the trifling print runs for what would become enormously famous books. Even very small print runs took years to sell out: Wallace Stevens griped to Harriet Monroe that Harmonium’s “royalties for the first half of 1924 amounted to $6.70.” These short runs guarantee a scarcity that only increases a book’s desirability among collectors in later years. Print runs of 500 or fewer are not at all unusual or unexpected for poetry, particularly given the untested or experimental nature of works we choose to remember.

On occasion, the first edition fails to be the most desirable. While the 1798 first edition of Lyrical Ballads is a prized part of any collection, it is the 1800 second edition that is most valued due to the presence of its famous preface, in which Wordsworth articulates his ideas that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” and should promote “the worth and dignity of individual man,” considered by many as the manifesto of the English Romantic movement. Considering the outsized influence it would have on poetry in English, it may surprise some to learn that even the important second edition appeared in a print run of only 500 copies. Likewise, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1844 Poems has been eclipsed by what is considered the preferred second edition of 1850, the first to contain her beloved sequence “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” a staple of wedding ceremonies to this day, with its affectionate query, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” While the print run of the second edition was likely larger than the 1,500 of the first, only four copies of the second edition are known to exist in the first state, with the publisher’s address incorrectly given as “193, Piccadilly” on title the page: a true rarity for serious collectors.

Unpublished poets today are reminded by sympathetic friends that even Walt Whitman was obliged to self-publish, financing, overseeing, even typesetting parts of Leaves of Grass himself. The book that would come to define to a large degree the American style would never have existed had it been left up to the publishing concerns of the time, attracted as they were to the morally sound verses of the Fireside Poets, the circle of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The hugely influential 1855 first edition of Leaves of Grass ran to the odd number of 795 copies, only 337 in the preferred first state binding.

When Emily Dickinson died at “The Homestead” in Amherst in 1886, she had published almost no poems at all, and those to no public acclaim. However, she left behind no fewer than 1,775 hand-written poems, an astounding achievement simply in terms of sheer numbers. Many of these were stitched into fascicles or home-made books, which she secreted in a locked chest. Although Emily’s younger sister Lavinia carried out her sister’s request to burn her correspondence, Emily left no specific instructions regarding the poems. Despite family disputes that resulted in the original manuscripts being divided for decades, Lavinia’s exertions on her late sister’s behalf finally led to the publication of Emily’s poems. Boston publishers Roberts Brothers brought out three volumes of her poems between 1890 and 1896. In these posthumous volumes, one finds poems that neither look nor sound like the poems with which we are familiar. Her mysterious trademark M-dashes were removed, as were uncommon capitalizations. Bobs were added for trimeter lines, and punctuation was added. An army of semicolons was dragooned into service to mimic the grammatical suspensions made possible by the dashes:

I meant to find her when I came;
Death had the same design;
But the success was his, it seems,
And the discomfit mine.


In short, the spectacularly innovative poetry was normalized, and utterly dulled, until Thomas H. Johnson’s momentous 1955 scholarly edition, which returned the poems to their original forms, as found in Dickinson’s manuscripts:

I meant to find Her when I came—
Death—had the same design—
But the Success—was His—it seems—
And the Surrender—Mine—


It took over sixty years for The Belle of Amherst’s readers to discover what James Hart rather memorably described as “tiny ecstasies set in motion.” One shudders to imagine how close to oblivion her poems came. A first edition in first state binding of Leaves of Grass can fetch as much as $175,000, while Dickinson’s three series in first edition top out at $25,000, combined. This might come as a shock, but by no means does it reflect the relative achievement or popularity of the two poets. All it means is that the 1855 Whitman, in which the poet was personally involved at every step, reflects the author’s intentions and retains the “aura,” while the posthumous publication of Dickinson does no such thing, demonstrating rather a defacement of the poet’s work.

Gerard Manley Hopkins is another major nineteenth-century poet in English whose first book appears posthumously. His sprung-rhythm technique and habit of alliterative pileups would have sat uneasily in his own era alongside the stately measures of Tennyson’s Arthurian retellings, but they stand fittingly alongside the techniques of such modernists as Pound and Eliot. Hopkins, who wrote most of his poems in the two decades before his death in 1889, wouldn’t have a collection published until 1918, when his friend and then-poet laureate Robert Bridges brought out Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Now First Published. Edited with Notes by Robert Bridges, an unprepossessing small octavo bound in half raw linen with pale blue boards, containing superbly daring poems as “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”:


As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name


Only 750 copies appeared in the Bridges edition of Hopkins’ poems, but they had enormous influence on poets in the 1930s. In his landmark study The Modern Movement, Cyril Connolly went so far as to declare “Hopkins’s poetry with its religious faith, his experiments in versification, his ‘dark night of the soul’ would have reduced all his Victorian contemporaries to immediate insignificance.” Perhaps it’s best for everyone it didn’t appear earlier.

One year before the publication of Hopkins, a volume of greater importance appeared in an edition of even fewer copies. T.S. Eliot’s groundbreaking Prufrock and Other Observations appeared in buff paper wrappers (what we’d call a softcover) from the Egoist Press. The fact that the Times Literary Supplement greeted the book rather rudely, claiming “the fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself . . . they certainly have no relation to poetry,” is not entirely unexpected. The poems were impossible to understand according the verse culture of the time. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a shot across the bow of then-fashionable Georgian verse. The poems in the volume—which included “Portrait of a Lady” and “Preludes”—epitomize as radical a break with poetic tradition as did Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads over a century earlier. One is almost amused to think that each of these epochal books appeared in print runs of merely 500 copies each.

We round out our brief study with one last publication that arrived with a whimper only to echo down the years into a bang. W.H. Auden’s first publication is the incredibly scarce 1928 edition of Poems, privately printed by his friend and fellow Oxford undergraduate Stephen Spender. Without access to a professional press, Spender relied on a machine designed to manufacture chemistry labels. Poems was allegedly printed in an edition of “about 45 copies” (bibliographic records from their Christ Church College rooms are hazy, at best), though Edward Mendelson and B.C. Bloomfield have clarified in their indispensable bibliography that “Spender has no . . . exact memory of the number of copies printed . . . but it appears that no more than thirty were produced instead of the ‘about 45 copies’ noted within the volume.” Further, the two record a scant 12 known copies, making it one of the great rarities of twentieth century literature, riddled with typos. Copies appear at auction with as many as 25 changes in Auden’s hand, as one finds in a copy that once belonged to J.R.R. Tolkien; one imagines Auden frantically marking up a copy for presentation to an admired recipient. Two years later, Faber & Faber, under the august editorship of T.S. Eliot, would issue Auden’s first commercial book, Poems, a mere 79 poems in light blue paper wrappers. Auden would have to wait until his 1933 Poems (also Faber & Faber) before his first appearance in hardcover.

In the rare book trade, one is forever reminded that great careers can begin humbly. In fact, they most often do. Indispensable poetry will fail to be recognized in a poet’s lifetime or misunderstood for generations due to editorial interference or critical insensitivity. Of the selection of poets considered here, it is worth noting that all had small print runs, even by today’s standards. Many failed to make their biggest impression in the first edition, including their most significant material only in the second. Some had to pay to be published. Others could never have imagined that they would be published at all, less that they would become objects of veneration and study around the world. These lessons should give courage to any poet, particularly a poet of genuinely, rather than simply declared, innovative sensibilities. History is a frightening jumble, it is true. It is hard to see what is in front of us. Most lives are writ in water. But take heart: with the devotion of fellow poets and patient work of scholars, grudging regard of critics and genuine love on the part of readers, significant poetry can and does endure despite the vagaries and frustrations that attend the poet’s life.





Ernest Hilbert’s book Caligulan was selected as winner of the 2017 Poets’ Prize. His two previous books of poetry are Sixty Sonnets and All of You on the Good Earth.  He founded the Oxford Quarterly and E-Verse Radio. He has also served as editor of both the Contemporary Poetry Review and Random House’s magazine Bold Type. Hilbert’s work has been included in The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (2009), and he has collaborated with composers such as Daniel Felsenfeld, Stella Sung, and Christopher LaRosa. His spoken word album, Elegies & Laments (2013), includes tracks of Hilbert’s poems backed by his band, Legendary Misbehavior.

Ernest Hilbert is an American poet, critic, opera librettist, and editor born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1970.