“excuse the scrawl”: literary letters from St. John’s special collections

Alongside collections of manuscripts and early printed books, St. John’s College’s Special Collections include personal papers of a number of well-known literary figures: Robert Graves, A.E. Housman, Jane Austen, Philip Larkin, Spike Milligan and Professor J.B. Leishman. Included in these papers is a great deal of correspondence, occasionally between other literary figures, or concerning literary topics.

The library’s current exhibition (Trinity Term – Summer Vacation 2017) displays the letters of twenty-two of these correspondents. All members of St. John’s College are welcome to attend the exhibition and to bring their guests. Non-members should contact the Librarian (library@sjc.ox.ac.uk) to arrange a viewing appointment.

Literary Societies

1) W.B. Yeats to Charlotte Shaw, 22nd September 1932

W.B. Yeats writes to Charlotte Shaw in 1932

While certain literary groupings such as the “war poets” and the Movement of the 1950s were never formally endorsed by its supposed members, the Irish Academy of Letters, discussed in this letter from W.B. Yeats to Charlotte Shaw, was different altogether. The Academy sought to organise Irish writers chiefly in order to counter censorship. By September 1932, when this letter was sent, James Joyce had refused an invitation to join the Academy, while authors such as Padraic Colum and James Stephens, the novelist Edith Somerville, the short story writer Frank O’Connor, and the dramatist Lennox Robinson, had all become members.

Charlotte Shaw (nee Payne-Townshend), her husband, George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats, were founding members of the Academy. Yeats’ letter to Charlotte discusses potential members including T.E. Lawrence, referred to here as “Aircraftsman Shaw” (he had changed his surname to Shaw in 1923 and was an Aircraftsman in the Royal Air Force) and St. John Ervine, her husband’s biographer. Yeats also comments on the negative publicity surrounding the Academy, particularly in the Irish Press, that he believes will backfire and ultimately ensure support for the Academy.

2) Siegfried Sassoon to Robert Graves, 7th December 1957

Pasted by Graves inside his own copy of the second edition of Goodbye to All That (1957), this letter concerns Sassoon’s conversion to Catholicism and touches on the pair’s rocky friendship. During the First World War, Graves and Sassoon had been in France together in the First Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, for which they have both been remembered as ‘War Poets’. Their relationship was relayed by Graves in Goodbye to All That (1929), in a manner which Sassoon had publicly railed against on its initial publication – presenting Sassoon in what he saw as an unfairly harsh light.

In this letter, four decades after their initial wartime friendship, and three after the memoir’s publication, Sassoon gives an explanation for his reaction to the first edition – “I was in a great deal of mental fatigue & worry” – and declares instead “all that you wrote about me was extremely generous – beyond my deserts”.

3) Noni Jabavu to Beryl Graves, 28th October 1989

Another consciously curated literary society was the Bloomsbury Group, growing out of the Thursday (writers) and Friday (artists) meetings at the home of sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. In their correspondence in the 1980s, Helen Nontando ‘Noni’ Jabavu often tells Beryl Graves, widow of Robert Graves, about what she’s currently reading. By the time of this letter, it is Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell. She writes:

“I personally am no V.W. admirer; her books are to me UNREADABLE!! Her “Bloomsbury circle” seem to have lived incredible incestuous lives – if one is to believe her nephew’s account. I met her friend Morgan E M Forster when I was 14yrs old”

In another letter she tells the story of this meeting with Forster in more detail:

“there was (in the family audience in the Drawing Room) a “BORING OLD MAN” called “Morgan” maybe all those “old” people were not so ancient as I took them to be! Anyway, I did as I was told, rattled away JS Bach fugues, Mozart pieces. And many, many years later, EMF read my books and wrote me a letter congratulating me!!! Isn’t life strange & complicated Beryl? Isn’t it wonderful?”

Noni Jabavu was one of the first black African women to form a career through writing, and the first black South African woman to publish autobiographical work – Drawn in Colour (1962) and The Ochre People (1963). Whilst writing her books, Jabavu would stay with the Graveses in Deya, as well as visiting St John’s College when Graves was giving his Professor of Poetry lectures.

Illustrations and Doodles

4) Spike Milligan to Robert Graves [1965]

The friendship between Spike Milligan, comic and author, and Robert Graves, established poet and classicist, a quarter of a century older than he, began when Graves appeared as a guest on Muses with Spike Milligan in the 1960s. Days after the show, Graves wrote his first letter to Milligan, and they began a correspondence that would last until Graves’s death twenty years later: Graves with his tiny scribbled handwriting, Milligan with his thick felt-tipped script.

In these two early letters, Milligan shares more than just his thoughts and feelings with Graves – and those thoughts are often unhappy ones – but elements of creative outburst including the sketch of “this enchanted lonely cottage – lost in the Surrey woods” and a doodle of his “Crossword for idiots”, which later appears in A Potboiling Dustbin Full of Bits (1984).

5) Edward Ardizzone to Robert Graves, 24th November 1959

Edward Ardizzone painted by Henry Carr in 1944, Wikimedia

In this letter, the illustrator Edward Ardizzone shares his creative talent as part of the letter form, but for professional rather than personal reasons. Ardizzone was to illustrate Robert Graves’s upcoming poetry collection The Penny Fiddle: Poems for Children (1960), and drew a sketch to show the style he hoped to use.

At this time of writing Ardizzone was writing and illustrating his own books, the Tim series, and providing illustrations for several other writers, including the food writer Cyril Ray, the children’s author Eleanor Farjeon and the poet John Betjeman. ‘James’, whom Ardizzone refers to in the letter sharing royalties with Ardizzone 50-50, is presumably James Reeves, a children’s author with whom he frequently collaborated.

In their own words…

6) Agatha Christie to Robert Graves, 30th December [1942], 31st January [1943]

Agatha Christie is still the best-selling author of all time and was highly successful during her lifetime, something which she seemed to struggle with, according to the self-deprecating tone she uses when writing about her work to Graves. On her latest book (presumably 1942’s The Moving Finger), she writes:

“It’s very bad. Clumsy technique – stupid & uninteresting people & singularly undistinguished writing. However I shall have to see it in print for about two years!”

Slightly more upbeat, is her opinion of “Pigs” (Five Little Pigs (1942)), although she confesses that she had been too embarrassed about possible mistakes in it to send a copy to Graves:

“it was fun to write technically – telling the same story 10 times & trying not to annoy readers to the point of throwing it out of windows.”

The second letter demonstrates Christie’s famous knowledge of poisons; during the First World War she worked in a dispensary and studied chemistry, and at the time of this letter, during the Second World War, she spent some time working at the University College Hospital in London in a similar job.

Christie and Graves were acquainted through being neighbours: between 1940 and 1946 Graves had lived in the village of Galmpton in South Devon, the closest settlement to Greenway, Christie’s winter retreat. When she was away, whether staying in Glamorgan in Wales to be near her daughter, or at her flat in London, she would write to Graves in Devon.

7) A.E. Housman to John Sparrow, 3rd October 1924

A.E Housman writes to John Sparrow in 1924
A.E. Housman writes to John Sparrow in 1924

Here we get another author’s opinion on their own work. This time, the age-old question of “what did the poet mean by ….” receives an answer, albeit a vague one.

In this case, A.E. Housman writes to a precocious seventeen-year-old: John Sparrow, future Warden of All Souls College, classical scholar and book collector. Housman seems to be replying to an enquiry from Sparrow concerning poem XIX of A Shropshire Lad (1896), ‘To An Athlete Dying Young’.

In his typically concise style, Housman directs Sparrow on how “the meaning” of his poem may be distilled:

“Judging from the context I should say that seeing the record cut is one of the unpleasant things which the athlete escapes by dying young; and this may help to determine the meaning.”

We may assume that Housman and Sparrow are focused on the fourth stanza of the seven-stanza poem:

Eyes the shady night has shut / Cannot see the record cut, / And silence sounds no worse than cheers / After earth has stopped the ears

Writing in a distinctive style

8) Jane Austen to Anna Austen, 28th September 1814

Jane Austen writes to her niece Anna in 1814

Letter writing often plays a major role in Jane Austen’s novels, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Austen’s ability as a letter writer is remembered as ‘much valued & thought so delightful amongst her own family circle’. Unfortunately, most of her letters were burnt or heavily censored after her death by her sister Cassandra. The remaining examples are often considered ‘unyielding’ due to their domestic content. However, Austen scholar R.W. Chapman believes that Austen’s letters to her nieces – of which St John’s holds five – ‘show more flow of fancy, less attention to the business of news’ than the censored remains of the letters to Cassandra.

In this letter to niece Anna, dated 28th September 1814 –between the publications of Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815) – Jane offers advice, criticism and encouragement on the novel writing efforts of her niece Anna, eldest daughter of James Austen (who was former Founder’s Kin Fellow of St John’s College).

Jane’s comments include wondering ‘whether L[ad]y Helena is not almost too foolish’, admiring the ‘matrimonial Dialogue’, and criticising Anna’s use of stereotypes:

“Henry Mellish I am afraid will be too much in the common novel style – a handsome, amiable, unexceptional Young Man (such as do not much abound in real Life) desperately in Love, & all in vain.” […]
“Devereux Forester’s being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a ‘vortex of Dissipation’. I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression; it is such thorough novel slang – and so old that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.”

After her analysis of Anna’s latest instalment to her novel – which Anna abandoned after her aunt’s death and never finished – Jane shares her thoughts on Sir Walter Scott’s recent novel Waverley (1814):

“Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must.”

Austen’s familiar wit and engaging style appearing in these letters may not be solely for Anna’s benefit, but partly due to the fact that these letters would most likely be read aloud to all members of the family.

9) Kingsley Amis to Robert Graves, 2nd and 25th October 1954

While letter writing is a more private enterprise than writing for publication, there is very often a certain level of artistic performance. This may be for the benefit of a particularly respected recipient, as may be the case in these two letters from Kingsley Amis (SJC 1941-2, 1945-7). In 1954 at the very beginning of his novel writing career, the same year Lucky Jim was published, he is writing to the esteemed poet Robert Graves (SJC 1919-1922).

In his letters to Graves, Amis maintains the wit he is known for in his novel-writing (“tell them what’s not what”), yet takes on a more formal, confessional tone when he explains the great admiration he holds for Graves’s work and introduces himself as a fellow alumnus of St John’s.

10) ee cummings to Robert Graves, 28th February, 13th and 26th March 1957

A postcard from e e cummings to Robert Graves, March 1951

Written in the latter years of cummings’ writing life, these three brief letters to Robert Graves in 1957 concern cummings requesting, expecting, and receiving copies of Graves’s works, King Jesus (1946) and The White Goddess (1948). Despite this relatively mundane content, cummings’ distinctive style – unorthodox or sparse grammar, parentheses, short lines – are used quite as heavily as they are in his published works.

Even the strange use of ‘our unhero’ in place of the first person, which is a frequent technique in his letters if not in his poetry, evokes the detached, nostalgic tone of his published work.

Writing in dead languages

11) Alexander Lenard to Robert Graves, 14th September 1965

Alexander Lenard, the Hungarian writer and physician, is best known today for translating A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh into Latin as Winnie Ille Pu. He and Robert Graves had a lengthy correspondence which is perhaps most notable for its eccentric use of language. As shown in this letter, Lenard had a tendency to write in both Latin and English: sometimes, as here, he switches from one to the other and back again.

Lenard’s painting at the top of his letter is in the same style as the pen-and-ink drawings for The Valley of the Latin Bear (1965), Lenard’s memoir for which Robert Graves wrote the foreword.

This letter was sent the same year as memoir’s publication, and in it, Lenard writes in Latin to advise Graves about ageing – reminding him of the poems he is yet to write – and becomes nostalgic for his homeland of Hungary.

12) C.S. Lewis to J.B. Leishman, 26th July 1940

In this letter, one Oxford scholar approaches another for advice about the origin of a number of Latin phrases. The people in question are Professor James Blair Leishman, teaching at St John’s, and C.S. Lewis, fellow and tutor of English at Magdalen.

Leishman’s enquiries relate to Pharsalia by Lucan, Tristia by Ovid and a description of the seven liberal arts “gram loquitur; dia verba colit; rhet verba colorat; mus canit; ar numerat; geo ponderat; as colit astra” or “grammar speaks, dialectics worship words, rhetoric colours words, music sings, arithmetic counts, geometry weighs, astronomy worships the stars”. This latter dictum was heavily associated with Lewis himself as he championed Martianus Capella – a Latin prose writer who first developed the system of the seven liberal arts – in his academic medievalist texts The Allegory of Love (1936) and The Discarded Image (1964).

13) Robert Bridges to A.E. Housman, 19th October 1922

Robert Bridges writes to A.E. Housman in 1922

On the verge of his 78th birthday, Robert Bridges (1844-1930), writes to the 63-year-old A.E. Housman (1859-1936) criticising the finality of the title of his most recent poetry collection. Bridges says he read and enjoyed Last Poems (1922) but demands of him “what can be the title of your next book?” He suggests that the Greek word Μετά may help him. This term can mean “after” or “next” as well as “superior”; it shows Bridges cheerfully encouraging Housman to keep writing, and publishing, poetry.

However, it is not just the brief dip into Greek which demonstrates Bridges’ classical influence, but his reference to the Muses giving him the inspiration to write again. In a similar vein of linguistic awareness, he jokes that Graves should “forgive the Arabic intrusion” when he writes that he was just under 77 years old when he suddenly found the will to write again.

14) Walter Headlam to A. E. Housman, 15th December 1905

Walter Headlam writes to A.E. Housman in 1905

Another letter between two classical scholars, Walter Headlam of King’s College Cambridge spends some time telling A.E. Housman (of Trinity College Cambridge) about the intricacies of campus life: the cost of teaching, elections for upcoming professorships, snubs received from academic journals, and their respective recent publications – Housman’s translation of Juvenal’s Satires and Headlam’s prose translation of Aeschylus’s Choephoroe.

Headlam, like Housman, was a Classical Scholar based in Cambridge. Unlike Housman, Headlam’s focus was on Greek literature. Housman, in these early years, held posts concerning both Latin and Greek; however, before too long he gave up working on both and settled on specialising in Latin verse. At the end of his letter, Headlam lapses into Greek – an original construction – part way through a sentence:

“I am taking Sir Aglavale away with me for Christmas: just when your change of address card came a friend was telling me that it is quite a work of genius, τὸ δὲ συγγενὲς οὐ κατελέγχει”

Headlam is admiring the work of Housman’s sister Clemence Housman (1861-1955) in her book The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis (1905). The Greek phrase may be interpreted as saying “the relative brings no dishonour”.

Publishers and their authors

15) T.S. Eliot to Robert Graves, [1946]

A Faber and Faber Christmas card from T.S. Eliot to Robert Graves

While Graves had a lengthy professional correspondence with Eliot in his position as editor at Faber and Faber, in this letter, Eliot is pushing a personal agenda by asking Graves to sign a petition to try and protect the poet Ezra Pound from the American justice system, currently under arrest for treason owing to his openly fascist sympathies, support for Mussolini in his adopted home in Italy, and anti-semitic broadcasts, Eliot asks Graves to sign

 “a statement affirming the importance of Pound’s services to literature, and a plea for clemency.”

In a subsequent letter from Eliot of 8th April 1946 we learn that Graves had not signed the petition, and seemingly told Eliot how little he cared for Pound’s contribution to literature:

“I am naturally very sorry not to have your name but of course the letter which I drafted does commit the signatories to an opinion of the value of Pound’s work.”

16) Kaye Webb to Robert Graves, 15th February 1961

This is another letter from a publisher (Kaye Webb of Puffin Books) to an author (Robert Graves), yet it treads the line between personal and professional. Webb had already been acquainted with Graves when she was working in journalism, and this letter is partly updating him on her new job, and partly an attempt to recruit him as one of her authors.

Despite Webb’s apparent anxiety about her new job

 “of course, everybody is waiting expectantly for me to produce something good and original which alarms me fearfully”

she needn’t have worried. Webb’s legacy included setting up and running the overwhelmingly successful Puffin Club and publishing her own compilations, such as I Like this Poem (1978).

It would seem that Graves was swayed by Webb, as, within a year, Puffin would publish his The Little Green Book (1962), illustrated by Maurice Sendak, who produced Where the Wild Things Are (1963).

17) Leonard Woolf to J.B. Leishman, 14th January 1935

Written from the Woolfs’ home and centre for their printing press, The Hogarth Press, in Bloomsbury, this letter to St John’s Professor Leishman is one of business. Requiem and Other Poems, Leishman’s translation of a selection of poems by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, was one of 24 titles published by the Press in 1935.

Woolf was strict as a publisher, beginning with a broad compliment to Leishman’s work, calling the translation “extraordinarily good”, before moving on to his qualms. His criticism ranges from the level of an individual word to calling for an extreme cut of Leishman’s lengthy introduction. This was something Leishman heartily disagreed with, and much of their later correspondence comprised arguments on this subject.

18) Philip Larkin to Charles Monteith, 13th March 1967

A card showing St John’s College in the 18th century from Philip Larkin to Charles Monteith

This letter, from Larkin to his publisher at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith, was written in March 1967, between the publications of The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974). 1967 saw Larkin write ‘Sympathy in White Major’, ‘The Trees’, ‘Annus Mirabilis’ and the title poem for the latter anthology.

As publisher-writer relationships go, Larkin and Monteith were close, and in these letters Larkin is often explicit about his fondness for Monteith: in the birthday card shown here he writes inside:

 “This is a picture of a publisher loved + admired by his authors – there’s only one I know!”

In the letter, Larkin expresses gratitude for hospitality at All Souls College, where Monteith was a fellow, and at the time also sub-warden. At a lunch party, Larkin mentions meeting Dame Helen Gardner – who was editing the New Oxford Book of English Verse (1972) and gave Larkin reassurance that he should take his time in editing the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973). He also mentions meeting Robert Lowell, arguably at the height of his fame, at the same party:

“I’m afraid I was a bit reserved with Lowell: famous poets bother me. It was very nice. If you see him, say I am renowned for my standoffishness.”

A study in handwriting

19) J.R.R. Tolkien to J.B. Leishman, 7th-9th November 1945

Although the handwriting of J.R.R. Tolkien is immediately reminiscent of his fantasy work – the elongated lettering reminds us of his elvish script – as with C.S. Lewis’s letter to Leishman, this letter is very much about issues concerning academic life in Oxford, with Tolkien having just moved from Pembroke to Merton.

Much of the letter involves Tolkien’s advice to Leishman, who is on the verge of having his lectureship at the University approved, on what he ought to expect financially in this new position, how many hours of work will be expected from him, and how much would be left free for research.

20) Anthony and Lily West to Robert Graves, 29th July 1965

This beautifully calligraphed letter sent to Robert Graves for his seventieth birthday is from Anthony West, the offspring of an affair between the authors H.G. Wells and Rebecca West.  Graves had kept up a relationship both with Anthony West and his mother Rebecca, between whom lay a tumultuous and publicly fought-out relationship (Anthony West’s semi-autobiographical novel Heritage (1955) painted his mother as neglectful and manipulative; threatening to sue, she blocked it from publication in Britain).

West’s letter, while an example of how some letter writers would consider the appearance of their writing, and the letter as a physical object, is gentle and grateful in tone. West remembers his time spent with the Graveses in Deya, and is emotionally forthcoming with how he and his wife Lily look back on that “marvellous episode”.

21) Gertrude Stein to Robert Graves [1939-1945]

Gertrude Stein writes to Robert Graves [during World War Two]
This letter from Stein to Robert Graves is undated but its contents suggest that it was sent during the Second World War. As with the 1957 letter from Sassoon, it appears that Graves has chosen to paste a letter into a relevant book in his library, in this case, a copy of The World is Round (1939), Stein’s book for children. Interestingly, this early edition is illustrated by Sir Francis Rose, not, as all later editions are, by Clement Hurd (illustrator of Goodnight Moon). Rose was Stein’s first choice of illustrator, but her editors convinced her not to use his illustrations in further editions.

In her letter to Graves, Stein mentions her acquaintance with Hubert Von Ranke. Ranke was one of Graves’ German cousins, and an active member of the German and French Resistance, who by chance ended up in the same neighbourhood of Savoy as Stein. She describes this meeting as “a nice coincidence” in “a war of coincidences”.

22) Robert Graves to Robert Frost, 4th June 1962

Despite being a formidable letter writer, many of Robert Graves’s correspondents complain and tease him about his erratic handwriting. Spike Milligan especially makes light of the difficulty he has in reading it: “your letter to hand, which I will set about ‘decoding’ later”. In his first letter to Graves (not in this exhibition) Milligan began by writing “After consulting several volumes on microscopic writing we finally deciphered your letter”.

This letter, in which Graves fills the page by writing up the margins, concerns an upcoming collection of Frost’s poetry – Selected Poems (1963), for which he is writing the introduction. Here Graves is very complimentary about Frost’s poetry –

“It is remarkable what an enormous lot of poems you have written, ones that stand up, compared with the four or five which are most people’s limit”

Further, Graves conspiratorially writes to Frost in a postscript

“It is so good to have someone older and still active to admire; the younger ones have let us down.”


  • Burnett, Archie, The letters of A.E. Housman, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007)
  • Earle, Rebecca, Epistolary Selves: letters and letter-writers, 1600-1945, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999)
  • Favret, Mary A., Romantic correspondence: women, politics and the fiction of letters, (Cambridge: CUP, 1993)
  • Haughton, Hugh, ‘Just Letters: Corresponding Poets’, Letter writing among poets from William Wordsworth to Elizabeth Bishop, ed. Jonathan Ellis, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), pp. 57-78
  • Karlin, Daniel, ‘Editing poems in letters’, Letter writing among poets from William Wordsworth to Elizabeth Bishop, ed. Jonathan Ellis, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), pp. 31-46
  • Kent, Brad. “The Banning of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God’ and the Decline of the Irish Academy of Letters.” Irish University Review, vol. 38, no. 2, 2008, pp. 274–291.
  • Kukil, Karen V., ‘Teaching the Material Archive at Smith College’, The  boundaries of the literary archive: reclamation and representation edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), pp. 171-188
  • Le Faye, Deirdre, ‘Anne Lefroy’s original memories of Jane Austen’, The Review of English Studies, 39/155 (August 1988), pp. 417-421
  • _____ (ed.), Jane Austen’s Letters, third edition (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • Scudamore, Pauline, Dear Robert, Dear Spike: The Graves-Milligan Correspondence, (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton, 1991)
  • Whyman, Susan, The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers 1660-1800, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com
  • I also owe thanks to those who were willing to help me out in transcribing and interpreting text in Latin and Greek in certain letters.

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