Rare 'Prufrock' is sold

November 19, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

On his 21st birthday in August, aspiring poet Christopher Hogg thumbed through a box at a Bournemouth secondhand bookstore and pulled out a plum: "Prufrock and Other Observations," T. S. Eliot's slim first volume of verse and one of the very rare books of 20th century poetry.

Mr. Hogg, a literature student on leave from his university because he ran out of money, paid 1.50 pounds for the book (about $2.25) out of the 21 pounds his aunt had given him for his birthday.

Yesterday, "Prufrock and Other Observations" brought 1,600 pounds ($2,400) after spirited bidding at Christie's auction house. Christie's said "Prufrock" went to "a mystery British buyer."

Mr. Hogg watched with open-mouthed admiration as auctioneer Rupert Neelands completed the bidding in about a half-minute. He sat with his father and grandmother at the front of the auction room.

"I am utterly shocked," he said.

"Brilliant," said his father, who suggested bringing the book to Christie's after a Charing Cross book dealer offered 100 pounds.

Mr. Hogg will go back to school. He'll use some of the money to publish his poetry and his friends' work. He may take a trip to New York in the spring. And he wrote a poem:

I licked my lips and smiled the smile

of a rich man . . .

. . . Thank you, Mr. Eliot

come let's toast the dead but part of me won't raise its glass

because part of me knows

that if I was really lucky

I'd have found myself instead.

Not quite "Prufrock," but not bad.

"Prufrock," you may recall, begins:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky,

Like a patient [sic] etherised upon a table . . .

The soft-spoken Mr. Hogg works part time at a French school not far from Christie's. He also writes poetry, which he reads at tiny Soho cafes. His teachers at King's College London say he's very bright.

"I saw Prufrock and Eliot, and I said, 'Blimey,' and it was 1917, quite early as well, so I bought it," Mr. Hogg said. "I stuck it in my carrybag and went down to the beach."

He'd never read "Prufrock" (and still hasn't) nor any of Eliot's work, not even "The Waste Land," which has frequently been called the pivotal poem of the 20th century.

The "Prufrock and Other Observations" he found is an unprepossessing, buff-colored softback book with only the words "Prufrock" and "T. S. Eliot" on the cover. The title was published in a limited edition of 500 copies in 1917 by The Egoist Press in England. The book contains "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and 12 other poems including "Portrait of a Lady," "Preludes I-IV" and "Mr. Appollinax."

Eliot had finished writing the poem "Prufrock" in 1914 while he was traveling in Europe after graduating from Harvard University. He was 26.

Ezra Pound, the other great poet of this first generation of moderns, encouraged Eliot to publish "Prufrock" and raised the money to do it. Although "Prufrock" took three years to sell out, the poems were an immediate critical success and led Eliot to write and publish "The Waste Land."

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