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Samuel Johnson, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Samuel Johnson, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

I know of two large Australian poetry anthologies that have been published with sponsorship assistance; that is, the authors or friends of the authors have given the publisher money to defray printing costs, either to ensure better quality binding and paper than the expected returns from the market would allow the publisher to employ, and so to bring the cost and therefore the price of the book to levels that the market might be expected to bear, or simply to encourage a reluctant publisher to publish. The market for poetry in Australia is very small, and is not likely to grow larger while modern toys, gadgets and entertainments clamour for the attention of the time-poor consumer.

For the fewer copies of a book you print, the more costly each copy becomes. Eventually the price you are forced to charge for each copy to recoup your costs makes the book too expensive for anyone to buy. People will gladly pay $40 for a public concert or a restaurant meal or a good bottle of wine, but not for a book. After all, modern poetry is of variable quality, reading takes time, and who has time to spare these days?

The Literature Board of the Australia Council sometimes assists publishers to publish works of literary merit. And I suspect that there are other books of poetry similarly assisted on their voyage from obscurity in the memory banks of the author’s word processor to public visibility.

Once sponsorship demanded encomiums that praised the sponsor. As the Cambridge Concise History of English Literature puts it, “A famous name in the dedication gave a book a greater chance of success; moreover the accepted dedication of a work often meant a substantial gift from a princely patron; hence the prevalence of fulsome dedications.” “Fulsome” here means “disgusting because overdone, excessive.”

Shakespeare is as guilty as anyone. Here’s his dedication of “The Rape of Lucrece”:

“To the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and Baron of Tichfield. The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety. The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater, my duty would show greater; meantime, as it is, it is bound to your lordship, to whom I wish long life, still lengthened with all happiness. / Your lordship’s in all duty, / WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.”

The economic structure of society has changed since those days, and public manners have changed too; overdone praise is now not the done thing. In fact the modern sponsorship of poetry is handled very discreetly, and sometimes is not mentioned at all, as it might be seen to diminish the reputation of the writer. The phrase “vanity publishing” is an easy stick to beat a writer’s pride with.

I am not sure that sponsorship of poetry is a bad thing. The market for poetry is so small that most publishers refuse to publish any poetry; the accountants who tell publishers what to do these days wouldn’t like it.

Those publishers who do have some sense of pride and responsibility to literature usually find they must print their poetry books on cheap paper with cheap binding, because the market is so unremunerative. And if the author has to dig into his pocket to ensure a durable and more attractive product, who benefits? The purchaser, of course, and posterity.

The history of patronage has its bright spots. When Samuel Johnson laboured on his great Dictionary, he hoped that the notable patron Lord Chesterfield might offer the project some assistance; the hope was in vain, and Johnson’s attempts to secure assistance were galling and fruitless. Eventually the book went to the printers, and Chesterfield praised it highly in the newspaper «The World». Johnson was enraged, and wrote him a letter. We have Chesterfield’s insolence and Johnson’s fury to thank for one of the most famous letters ever written.

7th February 1755

To The Right Honourable The Earl Of Chesterfield

My Lord,

I have been lately informed, by the proprietor of The World, that two papers, in which my Dictionary is recommended to the public, were written by your lordship. To be so distinguished is an honour which, being very little accustomed to favours from the great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.
      When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address, and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre;—that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending; but I found my attendance so little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in public, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly scholar can possess. I had done all that I could; and no man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.
      Seven years, my lord, have now passed, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before.
      The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks.
      Is not a patron my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it: till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as owing that to a patron, which providence has enabled me to do for myself.
      Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation,
      My Lord,
            Your lordship’s most humble,
            most obedient servant,
                  SAM. JOHNSON.