Monro, Harold Edward (1879–1932), poet and bookseller
by Dominic Hibberd

Monro, Harold Edward (1879–1932), poet and bookseller, was born on 14 March 1879 at 137 chaussée de Charleroi, St Gilles, Brussels, the youngest of the three surviving children of Edward William Monro (1848–1889), civil engineer, and his wife and first cousin, Arabel Sophia (1849–1926), daughter of Peter John Margary, civil engineer, and his wife, Emma. Monro belonged to the Monros of Fyrish, a London-based branch of the clan Munro. He inherited a small income from a family-owned lunatic asylum, originally bought by his direct ancestor . He was first educated in Belgium, becoming bilingual; after his father's death from tuberculosis he attended prep schools in England before following his father, two uncles, and brother to Radley College in 1892. His brother died of tuberculosis in 1893.

Monro went up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1898. He became intimate with Maurice Browne, later well known as a theatre director, and they decided to become the poets of the new, post-Victorian age. After graduating with a third in French and German in 1901 Monro became a student at Lincoln's Inn, London, but soon left to write poetry in a remote Irish cottage. Browne arranged a walking tour in Germany for himself, his sister, and Monro, hoping a romance would ensue. On 2 December 1903 Monro duly married Dorothy Elizabeth Browne (1885–1960), daughter of the Revd Frederick H. Browne and Frances Anna, née Neligan; their only child, Nigel, was born a year later. In 1906 they moved from Ireland to Haslemere, Surrey.

The early deaths of his father and brother left Monro painfully aware of mortality; finding no comfort in religion, despite intensive questioning, he longed for a terrestrial state where human frailties could be overcome. He and Maurice Browne were inspired by H. G. Wells's A Modern Utopia (1905) to start an order of ‘Samurai’, Wells's voluntary ruling class. Browne also set up the Samurai Press (1907–9), a utopian venture which published work by himself, Monro, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, and others. The nascent order collapsed, as did Monro's marriage, early in 1908.

Monro then set out on the walk from Paris to Milan described in his Chronicle of a Pilgrimage (1909), the prelude to three years abroad, mostly spent in Florence and the freethinking community at Monte Verita, Ascona. Psychoanalysed in Zürich in 1908, he seems to have accepted that he was homosexual and that his marriage was beyond rescue. The separation became permanent, ending in divorce in 1916.

Few British people can have experienced so much of the alternative lifestyles that were being tried out on the continent. Monro's Before Dawn: Poems and Impressions (July 1911) declares boundless faith in the future, advocating sexual and social freedom, Wellsian socialism, and the Nietzschean ideal of the superman living at one with the earth. Armed with this manifesto Monro arrived in London in the autumn of 1911, determined to make a practical contribution to Utopia by finding the poets of the future. He launched the monthly Poetry Review for the Poetry Society in January 1912 and published work by many of the younger poets and critics, including Ezra Pound's manifesto, ‘Prolegomena’, and F. S. Flint's monumental study of recent French poetry, two contributions which gave rise to Pound's brief imagist movement. Monro was strictly neutral, to Pound's annoyance; the Poetry Review also published Rupert Brooke's ‘Grantchester’ and other work by the poets soon to be known as the Georgians.

The success of the Review led Monro to establish a ‘Poetry House’, containing a shop, a room for readings, an editorial office, and accommodation for himself and poets in need of cheap lodgings. He took a Queen Anne house at 35 Devonshire Street in a seedy area of Bloomsbury; in December 1912 the Poetry Bookshop received its first customers and published its first book, Georgian Poetry 1911–1912. This anthology, edited by Edward Marsh with advice from Monro, Brooke, Gibson, and Drinkwater, proved immensely successful. Yet Monro's efforts to unite poets contributed to a schism, by bringing out the differences between imagists and Georgians. He deplored such divisions, always striving to disprove the myth, still current, that the bookshop was a Georgian headquarters. The only group ever to meet there regularly was T. S. Eliot's Criterion Club in the twenties; Monro and Eliot became close friends.

The Poetry Bookshop remained in business until 1935, known throughout the English-speaking world. Readings were given regularly in winter, often by famous poets. Gibson was the first lodger, followed by two leading modernists, T. E. Hulme and Jacob Epstein. The shop published numerous rhyme sheets and nearly fifty books and pamphlets, including all five volumes of Georgian Poetry (1912–22), and first books by Richard Aldington, Robert Graves, and Charlotte Mew. Monro lost control of the Poetry Review at the end of 1912, the Poetry Society having taken fright at his support for innovation, so in March 1913 he started his own quarterly, Poetry and Drama (1913–14).

Impending conscription drove Monro to volunteer in June 1916. Commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery, he was posted to anti-aircraft stations in Manchester, London, and Coventry, hating his servitude. A desk job in the Ministry of Information in September 1918 came too late to save his health and ideals. The shop was kept going by Alida Klemantaski (1892–1969), the daughter of Sigismund Klemantaski, a Polish–Jewish trader, and his English wife, Lizzie, née Phillips. Alida had met Monro in 1913 and had fallen in love with him, sharing some of his ideals.

Against all his instincts, but out of a sense of obligation, Monro married Alida on 27 March 1920. She had by then discovered he was drinking heavily, a weakness exacerbated by the war, and she soon realized that he had male lovers. She never lived with him, but he took a house for her in Bloomsbury and they spent weekends together in the country; he always had a cottage somewhere, rural escapes being important to him.

Monro revived the shop after the war and relaunched his periodical as the (Monthly) Chapbook (1919–25). Bookshop parties became famous; despite his chronic melancholy, the reverse side of his idealism, he was a generous host and kindly listener, delighting in serious conversation. Some people thought him handsome, others said he looked like an intelligent horse; he was tall, lean, and upright, with sleek dark hair, thick moustache, long face, and sad eyes. His tactless survey, Some Contemporary Poets (1920), shows little critical insight; his greatest service to his fellow poets was as an enabler.

Monro published his own work from the shop in four small collections: Children of Love (1915), Strange Meetings (1917), Real Property (1922), and The Earth for Sale (1928). The first contains some of his most popular poems, including ‘Overheard on a Saltmarsh’ and ‘Milk for the Cat’, and the quartet ‘Youth in Arms’, which influenced Wilfred Owen (who stayed at the shop in 1916). The 1916–17 poems, notably ‘Strange Meetings’, ‘Trees’, and ‘Week-end’, explore the relationship between humans and the earth. The 1928 book is as pessimistic as Before Dawn had been optimistic, lamenting individual isolation and environmental destruction.

When the Devonshire Street lease ran out in 1926 the Poetry Bookshop moved to 38 Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. Financial troubles soon forced a further move to the rear of the building. By now Monro was a disappointed man, appalled at the state of Europe and feeling forgotten by the poets he had helped. He had used up most of his money in subsidizing the shop. His drinking bouts worsened. Early in 1932 an operation revealed advanced tuberculosis, and Monro died at the Cliff Combe Nursing Home in Broadstairs, Kent, on 16 March 1932, and was cremated at Golders Green crematorium, Middlesex, on 21 March. Perhaps no one did more for the advancement of twentieth-century British poetry.

DOMINIC HIBBERD

Sources  

BL, Monro and Poetry Bookshop MSS, Add. MSS 57734–57768 · U. Cal., Harold Monro MSS · H. Monro, letters, U. Mich., Van Volkenburg–Browne MSS (Monro) · Ransom HRC · State University of New York, Buffalo · NYPL, Berg collection · letters to Robert Bridges, Bodl. Oxf. · correspondence with S. Cockerell, BL, Add. MS 52737 · J. Grant, Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop (1967) · R. Tomalin, preface, in H. Monro, Collected poems, ed. A. Monro (1970) · J. H. Woolmer, The Poetry Bookshop, 1912–1935: a bibliography (1988) · D. Hibberd, Harold Monro: poet of the New Age (2001) · DNB · General Register Office for England

Archives  

Ransom HRC, letters · U. Cal., Los Angeles · U. Mich. |  BL, corresp. with Sydney Cockerell, Add. MS 52737 · BL, corresp. and papers, incl. material relating to Poetry Bookshop, Add. MSS 57734–57768 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Robert Bridges · NYPL, Berg collection


Likenesses  

J. Kramer, ink and chalk drawing, 1923, NPG · photograph, 1926, NPG [see illus.] · E. M. Kauffer, drawing, repro. in H. Monro, ed., The Chapbook (Oct 1924) · photograph (after drawing by P. W. Lewis, 1923), NPG · photographs, BL, Monro and Poetry Bookshop MSS, Add. MSS 57734–57768

Wealth at death  

£12,771 4s. 7d.: probate, 28 April 1932, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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Harold Edward Monro (1879–1932): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/35071