Harold Monro’s contribution to twentieth century poetry cannot be under-estimated. In 1912 he founded the Poetry Bookshop. The Bookshop was more than just a shop it was a kind of mission station, dedicated to the making, reading and propagation of poetry, not just for poetry’s sake, but as part of Monro’s socialist, humanitarian Utopia. The aim was to provide a haven in London where poets could meet, where they could live for very little rent, and from which their poems could be published and sold. The Poetry Bookshop endured for twenty years as the leading home of the innovative poetry of the early twentieth century: poets, artists and writers associated with it included Wilfred Owen, Ezra Pound, Anna Wickham, Charlotte Mew, Osbert Sitwell, Alec Waugh, E. McKnight Kauffer (who painted the shop sign), and Eric Ravilious. It was in the heart of Bloomsbury, and certainly influenced the Bloomsbury Group in the 1920s and 1930s.
Monro’s Utopian views led to the founding of the Samurai Press in 1906, which published his own poetry. He was strictly neutral, favouring no clique or theory. The first result of opening the Bookshop in 1912 was the publication of an anthology of the best new verse by the younger poets. This was Georgian Poetry, which included works by Rupert Brooke, swiftly followed by starting The Poetry Review, the first magazine of its period to be devoted entirely to poetry. This was later followed by The Poetry Society Journal and the Chapbooks. Modernists such as T.S. Eliot, Flint and Aldington gathered there and the Bookshop became the meeting place for Eliot’s Criterion Club. Monro promoted the first public reading of T.S. Eliot at the Bookshop in 1915.
Harold Monro was born in 1879. He was part of a large, supportive family with wide-ranging interests in medicine, philanthropy, engineering and support for the arts, which included early patronage of the artist JMW Turner. Many members of his family had connections with Radley, including his uncle Russell, who became Senior Prefect, his father, who rowed for the VIII, and his elder brother Arthur. There were also numerous cousins, including TD Raikes, Tutor of D Social, and RT Raikes, the Sub-Warden who was an uncle. Harold entered Radley in 1892, as a member of D Social. He was expelled in 1896 at the age of 17, for involvement with a younger boy, described at the time as a “problem with drink”.
Radley in his time was far less brutal than the majority of contemporary public schools. The school’s ethos was described by a contemporary as “lanquidly aristocratic”. There was a strong aesthetic movement which fostered a number of writers, poets, artists and craftsmen: there was a famous incident when the boys emphasized the word “wild” at the end of a hymn in chapel to signify their sympathy for Oscar Wilde, then imprisoned in Reading Gaol. Harold has been described as unhappy at Radley, and that he was bullied. There is no evidence for this. He formed lasting friendships and connections whilst at the school, began his career as a poet whilst here, was a member of the choir, and as a sportsman, reached the boxing final, played for the 2nd XI and rowed for D Social. Long after he left the school he was welcomed back on at least two occasions to read poems and be introduced as a “real poet”.
After Harold Monro left Radley he travelled to France and whilst there began to think of himself as a poet: “I suddenly became conscious of myself as a solitary and wayward person and in the seclusion of my bedroom I wrote a dozen poems and the same number of stories, all about an individual too obviously myself and all of the crudest immaturity.” He returned to England in 1897 to study with a tutor in Suffolk, where he read Milton and Tennyson. In 1898 he went up to Caius College, Cambridge. At Cambridge he studied languages and enrolled as a member of Lincoln’s Inn. He retained his status as a lawyer all his life and used the training successfully as a businessman when running the Poetry Bookshop. His rooms in Caius “savoured chiefly of roulette, horses and prize poems”. His most serious public activity at this time was debating, and he considered politics as a career.
By 1901 he had become one of a group of four friends who met regularly to discuss one another’s poetry: the others were Maurice Browne, Leonard Pass and Guy Pocock. They met following a debate about the nature of modern poetry. Harold’s first published poem appeared in The Caian shortly afterwards. In November 1901 Harold read a paper on Swinburne to the Caius Science and Art Society. This was a milestone in his poetic career, in effect his first manifesto. He praised the championing of freedom in Swinburne’s Songs before sunrise, and made freedom his own most positive theme: freedom from God, from political oppression, from social, sexual and literary conventions. Harold later wrote in his diary that he wanted to become the Swinburne of his generation. This certainly informed his work as both poet and publisher of poets.
He wanted to be remembered above all as a poet, and he was indeed one of the first authentic poets of the twentieth century, giving voice to its hopes and despairs. TS Eliot said that the best of Monro’s poetry “gives him a place second only to Yeats in the older generation.”
The Archives contain first editions of all of Harold Monro’s own works, and is collecting copies of the journals and chapbooks. There is also a collection of letters about him assembled in the 1960s when the first academic study about him was written. The most recent, and best, biography is by Dominic Hibberd: Harold Monro: poet of the new age, Palgrave 2001.