Saturday, 7 December 2013

Douglas Goldring's 1922 biography of the poet James Elroy Flecker is an absolute delight

Douglas Goldring
I'm reading "The Golden Journey to Samarkand" (which I wrote about here) at a gathering
in Acton this evening. I've read two of his poems before at this sort of event - "The Old Ships" and "Oxford Canal" - so I was hunting for something new to say about him in my introduction when I came upon I was casting around the web for something new to say about the poet when I came across James Elroy Flecker: An Appreciation with Some Biographical Notes by the left-wing writer and journalist Douglas Goldring, the whole of which can be read here, thanks to the The Library of the University of California Los Angeles, who posted it.

I had meant to spend no more that ten minites or so looking for Flecker-related snippets, but became so enthralled by Goldring's fascinating account of intellectual life in England in the years preceding the First World War that I wound up reading the whole damned thing! I thought I'd share the first few pages of his terrific little book with you, plus a couple of pages from the end. There are no less than four separate paperback versions of the book available on Amazon, here.

A PECULIAR glamour surrounds, in retrospect, the fourteen and a half years which separated the end of the 'nineties from the outbreak of the Great War. Looking back, in 1922, those of us who are now in the middle 'thirties can see ourselves playing, all unmindful of our doom, in a world that then seemed almost shadowless. School days, undergraduate days, early manhood — life seemed to grow better and better as the years slipped away which divided us from the great catastrophe. 1913 and the summer of 1914 must always have that historic interest which the human imagination attaches to " last moments."

But if we like to dwell on this queer " pre-war " period, to think about it, to try to get
it in perspective and disentangle some of the main threads from its jumble of tendencies and ideas, and to keep green the memory of friends who died before the Great
Adventure had been revealed to stricken humanity as the Great Illusion, it is not
because we wish it back again or are mere praisers of time past. Let us admit that
if the present is a period of short commons, bewilderment, and suffering, there is no
time like it — except the future. We have struggled through our disasters to man's
estate ; we are — compared with those of our contemporaries whose lives ended before
the war — grown-up. We have gained much in the process, changed our sense of values,
become politically " responsible," realised, however dimly and imperfectly, the human
bonds which unite us with our fellow-men and women the world over.

In these circumstances it is only natural that our ideas of Beauty should have changed also. The artist of to-day— poet, painter, novelist, sculptor, musician — is dis-satisfied with much that might have given him pleasure a decade ago. He seeks more than what is at times contemptuously termed " Beautiful Beauty " ; and if he is taunted with accepting ugliness in its place, he can reply that what he seeks is significance — not the pretty Chinese lantern, but the naked light within. So it is that much of the art produced between 1900-14 has become almost unbearable with the passage of years. Reputations have flourished and withered, fashionable figures have had their day and night has covered them : even the war-poets have wilted. If the casualties in regard to reputation are un-expected, the survivors are equally so. Very few can claim to have foretold on the
publication of " The Golden Journey to Samarkand " that the status of James Elroy
James Elroy Flecker
Flecker would be as high as it is to-day. If it was the visible world which enthralled
Flecker, and if the beauty that he sought to create was an obvious, almost a tangible
beauty, he had at least the advantage of never being fashionable, and he had that quality of queerly detached effort which differentiates the " pains " taken by genius from those
which are taken by talent. He worked at his poems for his poems' sake ; was deliberately ascetic and austere in regard to his art ; deliberately objective. He suppressed ephemeral emotion, just as he suppressed the ephemeral " message," fashionable philosophy, or what-not. And so, with everything of a merely momentary significance expunged, the precious metal of his verse has survived, has held its own and will continue to be treasured perhaps as long as our language lasts.

Having said this much, it must be added that James Elroy Flecker was at the same time peculiarly the product of his age. He was definitely, entirely " pre-war." He died with the pre-war public schoolboy's idea of war undamaged, intact, and the dying embers of his life were waked into their final flame by its fierce breath. But if his work is (as I believe) of a lasting worth, then like some masterpiece of Greek sculpture, it will be found to epitomise its period and will give the historian of the future some valuable clues as to the nature and character of the age in which he lived.

At present we are very much too near the decade in which Flecker grew to manhood, wrote and died, to be able to do more than speculate, very tentatively, as to what may subsequently appear to have been its salient features. It was a strange period. It saw the birth of the English Review, the rise to fame of John Masefield and Walter de la Mare, of Mr. Granville Barker and Joseph Conrad. George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells produced in it a good deal of their finest work ; it witnessed a cult of the open air and the open road ; of nut cutlets and no hats, and — at all events, at Oxford — a tremendous cult of the eighteen-'nineties, of Wilde, of Beardsley, of Verlaine, Baudelaire, and Ernest Dowson. Another dominating influence on English poetry during the period was A. E. Housman. Theatrical interest was divided between the imported musical comedies staged so superbly by the late Mr. George Edwardes (who that saw it will forget his production of Les Merveilleuses, at Daly's ?) ; and the activities on a different plane of Mr. Shaw and Mr. Granville Barker, the Stage Society, etc. Of the social gaieties of the period, culminating in the Bacchanalian crescendo which ended in July, 1914, it is scarcely necessary to speak. A generation hence, volumes of memoirs will pour from the press making a vain attempt to describe what those who never witnessed it will never be able to believe. Those radiant nights of dancing in travesti, those unceasing libations of dry monopole, that frenzied pursuit of pleasure careless of the morrow, have passed away as even the most brilliant night must yield before the grey and menacing dawn.

For the leisured classes, for people, that is to say, with incomes of about £800 a year and over, we can see now that the period was one of peculiar ease and comfort, eminently conducive to the pursuit of the most diverse, delightful, and completely useless branches of scholarship. Such hoary institutions as the public school, Oxford and Cambridge, the " English gentleman," and so forth, if they bore in them the seeds of decay or the indications of change, had not yet either decayed visibly, or changed in any manner that attracted notice. For public schoolboys and for undergraduates — and James Elroy Flecker was essentially of the fine fleur of our public school and University system — it was a time of unusual opportunity for intellectual flower-gathering. It provided a little of everything and nothing long. Perhaps, by giving adolescent boys and girls so many lovely things to think about, it helped to deprive them — in matters of which, after crossing an ocean of blood and tears, we can to-day so depressingly see the importance — of all capacity for thought. The world was so full of a number of things — who can blame them if they were happy ?

And, indeed, for the young things of the privileged classes, it was a happy time. In the world of art and letters the absinthe-sodden gloom of the 'nineties had disappeared, with much of the Victorian puritanism which had provoked it. The sun was shining again, the lark, etc., were functioning to perfection. Who can blame those young men and women for not troubling to investigate problems so banausic as those of foreign politics ? They had the world full of toys to play with, and for to admire they had " the flowers and men and mountains that decorate it so superbly."

Looking back, it is delightful to remember that stern moralists of the Kipling type found much to distress them in the pre-war public school. Bullying had to a large extent disappeared from the unofficial curriculum. The " treat-'em-rough " prefect, who was almost a subaltern and had almost a moustache, was beginning to make way for sixth-form boys with a real interest in the classics and some feeling for literature, who were almost undergraduates. It ceased to be altogether shameful to read the English poets in the school library on a Sunday afternoon. A wave of what our reactionaries would call " softness " and outside observers might have described as " civilisation " broke over our crusted institutions — those institutions in which normal intelligence has still to make such a desperate struggle for existence. The change in the public schools was reflected at Oxford. Instead of the fierce and violent reactions of the 'nineties, when those who could not bear the public school atmosphere signalised their escape from the prison-house by rushing to extremes of morbid decadence, there was a more widely diffused cultivation of the arts and less persecution of the poseur, with the result that young men became on the whole less closely wedded to their poses. To be a " decadong " was really more of a rag than anything else, and I don't suppose that any of the youths who in slightly intoxicated moments recited the " credo of a despairing decadent " would have gone to the stake for it, though one or two were induced (to their disgust), by a gloomy ass who controlled one of the smaller colleges, to take the train to Cambridge.

The 'nineties were cultivated with rapture in the nineteen-hundreds, and the extrava- gances and eccentricities of the earlier period were reproduced with painstaking zeal ; but, as I have suggested, the point of view was changed, the " ennui " was factitious. Of plutocratic Oxford in the pre-war period Mr. Compton Mackenzie, in the second volume of " Sinister Street " has proved a faithful recorder, endowed with a prodigious memory. Of conventional Oxford — which then as now, comprised such a large proportion of the undergraduates — no recorder is or ever will be necessary. " The system " took their money and at the end of three or four years produced them like rabbits from a conjuror's hat and distributed them among curacies and assistant-masterships and lawyers' offices, to continue the work of perpetuating " the system." The proportion of undergraduates, however, whose main interest was in literature, art, and scholarship — the aesthetes, in short — deserve some reminiscent pages. Poetry or, to be exact, shockingly bad verse, was written by the ream, and the fashionable thing was to be " wondrous," more wondrous than anyone had ever been before. One had also to be sensitive and rather frail, to cultivate " ennui," to be gnawed by secret despairs. How much of a camouflage was this frail and lily-like attitude was once agreeably displayed by a friend of Flecker's and of my own who, on being debagged at Merton, horrified the aghast rowing men by a boxing display which left quite a number of them prostrate. The outraged poet then resumed his trousers with a dignity which struck awe into all beholders. The despairs were the greatest possible fun.


When I look back on James Flecker and remember what he meant to his wide circle of friends, it is to feel much more than a sense of personal loss. It is to feel that something has gone out of life which the new generation does not know, perhaps cannot be expected to know, in view of the grisly shadow under which it has grown up : something rare and irrecoverable — a radiance, a generosity of heart and mind, a natural (not stimulated) ecstasy which the robust commercialism of the present day neither produces nor encourages. Flecker's attitude towards life was what that of the aristocrat is supposed to be, but usually is not. He had caught some of the spirit of the Italian renaissance ; and, in compensation for the shortness of his days, he was given the capacity to live them with the intensity of one of those figures whom Cellini has described for us, and to appreciate the earth's loveliness in a way which has been given to few men since that fierce sweet renewal of springtime in the Western world. He was, as far as I know, completely without ulterior motive or base ambitions. He never could have played the now too familiar game of literary and social intrigue by which verse-writers of only moderate talent inflate themselves into great figures. His conception of what is required of those who practise the art of poetry would have made any such proceeding simply unthinkable—a game for bagmen, not for kings. Even in his critical appreciations and denunciations, which I think often erred on the side of over-enthusiasm and were occasionally at fault, he was at all events never cheap. Nothing, in this connection, showed him in a more favourable light than his rage when some of the English vers librists and their associates were leading a hue-and- cry against the Victorians, damning Tennyson and Browning right and left in a noisy effort to call attention to their own not very successful experiments. Flecker 's sense of the continuity of the English poetic tradition made this kind of vulgarity unbearable ; a wanton breaking of the fourth commandment !

I have put down these odds and ends of recollections for whatever they may be worth, in the hope that by so doing I may encourage others who knew him better to search their memories before it is too late. For, if Flecker was not a " great genius," he was a man of great intellectual integrity and courage, a superb craftsman with a real devotion to his art. His work has certainly the qualities of permanence, and the interest which future generations are likely to take in his personality and in the details of his short life is very likely unrealised at present by many who were his contemporaries.

It's odd that a writer who went on to attack George Orwell for writing the truth about the   nastiness of the communists in Civil War Spain (he was one of the crypto-Communists Orwell loathed) should write so nostalgically, engagingly and generously about the privileged young aesthetes of the gilded Edwardian age.

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