March 27, 2024

Found at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale: A Poet of Mountains and His Wife

By Stuart Mitchner

Twenty years ago, I wrote about “Billy Collins and the Homeless Poets of Bryn Mawr,” my first article on an event that I’ve covered ever since, including the 2020 sale that was canceled after two days because of the pandemic.

Two years ago, my title was “How I Spent $8 at the BMW Book Sale and Came Home Happy.” This year I showed up at 3 p.m. on opening day, spent $13, and came home with a Royal Shakespeare Company curiosity ($1); a paperback copy of the play In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer ($3); a Limited Edition of Daniel Defoe’s Diary of Moll Flanders, illustrated and signed by Reginald Marsh ($6); and a “homeless poet” named Michael Roberts ($3).

Twin Ghost Towns

By the time I arrived at Stuart Country Day School last Wednesday, both gyms were virtually deserted, twin ghost towns, except for volunteers restocking the plundered tables. In Collectors Corner, the rarities I’d noticed on my visit the previous Sunday had been snapped up. Gone (no surprise) was the first hardcover edition of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums in the original dust jacket, priced at a fraction of the $400 being asked online for copies in similar condition. Among the items buyers had passed over were Freddy Goes to the North Pole and three Signet paperback mysteries by Mickey Spillane — a quick study of my adolescent reading habits, from Freddy the Pig and Jinx the Cat to Mike Hammer.

Homeless No More

Last week’s column was headed “Making Connections,” a fact of life at book sales of this magnitude. What I found in the dead calm of an event adrift in the 3-4 p.m. doldrums was that the best connections are made for you: you don’t choose, you’re chosen. When you see a small hardbound volume of poetry from 1936 by an author whose name suggests a sight rhyme with Michael Robartes, it’s as if the spirit of W.B. Yeats laid it in the palm of your hand and said, “Here you are.”

I picked up the wastrel more than once before I adopted it, finally moved to action by the feel of the textured cloth cover and the thought that in 1921 a 19-year-old English poet named Michael Roberts might have been inspired by Yeats’s Michael Robartes and the Dancer, perhaps having already been drawn to “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes” in Yeats’s previous collection.

Esteeming Mountains

I began reading the 64-page book, simply titled Poems, soon after I got home. I read the first poem aloud to myself, then the second and the third, and on to the end, in two sittings. It was as if I were reading Michael Roberts to life. The book is dedicated to his wife of one year, Janet Adam Smith, a mountaineer like the poet, and to Ottone Bron, “Guide, of Courmayeur,” who had apparently accompanied them in an ascent of Mont Blanc de Courmayeur. Also on the dedication page is an epigraph from the Metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne: “That more esteemeth Mountains as they are / Than if they Gold and Silver were.”

As I read, I found echoes of Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins in “Black Funnel Spouting Black” and “Kangchenjunga.” Perhaps the fascination with mountains began with a youthful reading of Yeats’s “When You Are Old,” with its reference to “the pilgrim soul” and to “how Love fled / And paced upon the mountains overhead / And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

Books and Strangers

Imagine picking up a book by a stranger and reading it through aloud, carried along by the rhythm and cadence, forcefully voiced, and by insights that reflect the occasion (“Listen, there is a stranger / moving among the books”), from “Neither My Comrades nor My Brothers.” And the closing stanza of “Shining Dark”: “Beethoven deaf and Milton blind, / Melville, forsaken of the valiant mind, / Beyond the inhuman pattern, men, / Broken, ephemeral, undismayed.”

Waiting at the end of the path I’ve followed is “On Reading Some Neglected Poets,” a poem not included in the 1936 volume that begins, “This is a long road in a dubious mist” on which “We march, uncomprehending, not expecting Time to show us beacons.” In the second stanza, “When we have struggled on a little farther … a load will be set down.” The third and last stanza: “And maybe no one will ever come, / No other traveller passing that way. / Therefore the load we lifted will be left, / A milestone, insignificant.

Janet Adam Smith

This being the last column of Women’s History Month, it’s important to note that besides climbing mountains with her husband and bearing four children (the fourth a year before his death at 46 in 1948), Janet Adam Smith OBE (1905-1999) was a writer and editor for BBC’s The Listener and T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion, and literary editor of the New Statesman. Among her books are The Faber Book of Children’s Verse, Mountain Holidays, and biographies of Robert Louis Stevenson and John Buchan.

Smith also contributed the introduction to her husband’s Collected Poems (Faber 1958), writing, “mountains were the poetry of his life, for in them he found intelligible shapes for his deepest impulses and visions. Rock-ridge and ice-fall gave him exhilaration through effort and struggle; alp and mountain lake serenity through satisfied achievement; and the exhilaration and vitality, the satisfaction and serenity, were carried over into the journeys and resting-places of his life. I see it in terms of a journey to the very end, the last stage, in hospital, taking him to the limits of his body. It took him to a destination which was no more final than the dark hamlet we came down to one winter night with William Empson, or the Mountet hut after we had traversed the Zinalrothorn in a snowstorm.”

The cover of another volume, Selected Poems and Prose (Carcanet 1980) shows Roberts, pipe in hand, at a cafe in Val d’Isère circa 1935. From “Val d’Isère”:

“Here is the world made real, not vision only
Living at our full compass, we were one
With the four elements, and knew the rock,
And the sweet smell of earth,
And ice and fire….”

The Original Owner

Princeton area readers, collectors, dealers, and secondhand bookstore and book sale regulars over the years may recognize the name “Hamilton Cottier” neatly printed on the first page of Poems. Under his address, “192 Mercer Street, Princeton,” he has penned the date “Sep. 25, 1936.” He’s also noted the bookstore where he made the purchase: “Oxford: Blackwell,” and the fact that it received a “favorable review” in the Times Literary Supplement. 

According to Find a Grave, Hamilton Cottier (1900-1979) graduated from Princeton University in 1922, was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford, received his master’s degree from Princeton and was a professor of English at the University for decades, eventually becoming a dean. His first wife was the future bestselling novelist Anya Seton, with whom he had two children; his second wife was Janet Frantz.

Making connections, as I inevitably do when the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley book sale is the subject, I can’t resist pointing out that the owner and the poet both married Janets, and that Cottier was born on March 20, the first day of the sale where I found a “neglected poet” named Michael Roberts.   

The Other Three

As for the other three BMW foundlings I adopted: Heinar Kipphardt’s play based on the Oppenheimer hearings attracted my interest because of the Academy Award-winning film and its Princeton connections; Pleasure and Repentance (1976), the Royal Shakespeare Company jeu d’esprit by former RSC Director Terry Hands, is a feast of fantastical connections, from Sir Walter Raleigh and Oscar Wilde to Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury and the Rolling Stones’s “Satisfaction” (an in-your-face sketch of Mick Jagger fronts the cover); and the illustrated Limited Edition of Moll Flanders (1954) features  numerous colorful sketches of London low-life by Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), the master of New York low-life and life writ large.


Note: I found the text of Janet Adam Smith’s moving introduction to her husband’s book on To see a photo of Janet smiling and happy in her mountain element, go to