'Queen Of Poetry': Muriel Spark's Schooldays

4th October 2017

The joy of a favourite writer's juvenilia is surely in the glimpses it gives of the body of work yet to be assembled. The Cynic, a school magazine Evelyn Waugh founded in 1916, aged 13, promised on its cover to be "cynical without being cheaply so, piquant in moderation, racy in excess". And so it proved, as did Waugh. But to foreshadow, it has to exist, and much juvenilia - take Auden's first poem, a Wordsworthian sonnet about a Lake District tarn, has never been found and was not recorded beyond its initial composition.

Therefore to know that a great store of juvenilia does exist for a writer, and then to find it, feels a rather good day's work. This is the case with a set of James Gillespie's School Magazines from the 1930s which record the very early work of Muriel Spark (then Muriel Camberg). Though later known chiefly as a novelist, Spark always considered herself a poet, and these early poems - charting her development from the ages of twelve to sixteen - are a stockpile of her early influences, from Yeats to Masefield, and truly showcase her precocity. I have examined the poetic quality of this early work in an article in the Times Literary Supplement.


More than their poetic value, there is their ephemeral nature and biographical importance. In an essay in the New Yorker about the influence of her time at Gillespie's on her work, and particularly on how her teacher Miss Christina Kay was the basis for her later creation Miss Jean Brodie, Spark wrote "My poems in the school magazine were often influenced by Miss Kay's lessons on relativity. One of the library books recommended by her was "The Mysterious Universe," by Sir James Jeans, a famous popular astronomer. I wrote poems about the universe, such as one in which the inhabitants of other planets "Look up to the sky and say / 'The Earth twinkles clearly tonight.' Miss Kay predicted my future as a writer in the most emphatic terms." That poem, The Stars, appears in the first issue in this set, for 1930.


This volume, being the earliest volume, perhaps shows her early talent most explicitly. Indeed, her submissions are the only to be prefaced with an introduction: "It is very seldom that we print more than one contribution from any one author, by the work of Muriel Camberg, aged twelve (2 Sen. A) is so much out of the ordinary that we feel it worth while to give the following five of her poems".

Read more about this set


Tom Ayling

Read more about Muriel Spark and her work in our specialist author catalogue

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