It lies tantalisingly out of reach behind a pane of glass: a small, unassuming piece of paper bearing some familiar words in a dark and compact script.
At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
What say the reeds at Runnymede?
The lissom reeds that give and take,
That bend so far, but never break.
They keep the sleepy Thames awake
With tales of John at Runnymede.
I’m at the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition, captivated by a draft of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem. Seeing the original manuscript of any literary work, with the crossings out, the revisions and the notes in the margins, has an interesting effect. We are so used to seeing poems and novels in their finished form that it’s sometimes easy to forget there’s an arduous creative process behind them. The work-in-progress version of Kipling’s poem shows just how he laboured to create the polished version we know today. On previous visits to the British Library and other exhibitions I’ve come across original manuscripts from a number of classic authors, from Austen to Dickens, and the differences between them are fascinating. I like to think the way in which an author presents their writings tells us something about them; are they neat or messy? Orderly or chaotic? Do long sections of their work flow from the pen uninterrupted or are they constantly chopping, changing and reworking their ideas? There’s also an element of hero-worship of course (Jane Austen touched that piece of paper!) but more than anything else, seeing a manuscript turns something that has become another part of our popular literary culture back into the example of human inspiration and endeavour that was its genesis. I do wonder how subsequent generations are going to experience the artistic origins of works that will be the classics of the future. Somehow a USB stick containing the first draft of a literary masterpiece doesn’t have the same romance about it…
As a final note on today’s blog, if you’re a bookworm or history buff and haven’t yet been to the British Library, then go,go,go! An hour or so in a darkened room in the company of some of literature’s greatest figures is hard to beat.