Thursday, January 03, 2013

James Elroy Flecker, Lewisham-born Poet

On this day (January 3rd) in 1915, the poet James Elroy Flecker died at Davos in Switzerland from tuberculois. He was only thirty years old.

A plaque in Lewisham at 9 Gilmore Road SE13 commemorates his birthplace in 1884 (the plaque was placed there by the Greater London Council in 1986). According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: 'He was the elder son of the Revd William Herman Flecker DD (b. 1859), sometime headmaster of Dean Close School, Cheltenham, and his wife, Sarah Ducat. Both of his parents were of Jewish descent'. He doesn't seem to have stayed in Lewisham for long, as at the age of two his family moved to Cheltenham when his father became head of Dean Close School.

photo from London Remembers entry on this plaque
One of his poems, Ballad of the Londoner, deals with that age old London romantic problem - a lover on the other side of the river (from his collection Forty-Two Poems):


Evening falls on the smoky walls,
And the railings drip with rain,
And I will cross the old river
To see my girl again.

The great and solemn-gliding tram,
Love's still-mysterious car,
Has many a light of gold and white,
And a single dark red star.

I know a garden in a street
Which no one ever knew;
I know a rose beyond the Thames,
Where flowers are pale and few.

Much of his other work could be described as orientalist - an extract from his verse drama 'Hassan : the story of Hassan of Bagdad, and how he came to make the golden journey to Samarkand' features on the regimental clock at the headquarters of the SAS:

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea

Also sometimes remembered is his poem 'To a Poet A Thousand Years Hence':

I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along....


Tamsin said...

(sorry - cheating on you and doing this in two chunks as it is too long for one)

Well ahead of its time stylistically at the very beginning of the 20th Century and so left out of the Victorian/Edwardian anthologies and later anthologists do not look beyond his few well-known poems. But I and a school friend used to walk along the canal on Sundays and so I have loved the poem from the moment I first read it. (Interesting side-light, though, that I have only just noticed in typing it out now – “black monastic walls” obviously pre-dates the massive clean up of the college buildings after centuries of grime. I also hadn't previously appreciated the description of a steam train rushing by. Only something I have recently experienced waiting for a change of train in Swindon when a steam special roared through. The preserved lines do their best but they are mopeds to a Harley-Davidson when you see, feel and smell the real thing.)

Finally, one much more of the time it was written but it nevertheless appealed to me because I also have visited and loved Greece with all its associations of a classic past (sitting above Delphi and experiencing not a breeze as such but rather a movement of warm, pine-scented air) but hale from Gloucestershire and know London.

Oak and Olive
James Elroy Flecker

Though I was born a Londoner,
And bred in Gloucestershire,
I walked in Hellas years ago
With friends in white attire:
And I remember how my soul
Drank wine as pure as fire.

And when I stand by Charing Cross
I can forget to hear
The crash of all those smoking wheels,
When those cold flutes and clear
Pipe with such fury down the street,
My hands grow moist with fear.
And there's a hall in Bloomsbury
No more I dare to tread,
For all the stone men shout at me
And swear they are not dead;
And once I touched a broken girl
And knew that marble bled.

But when I walk in Athens town
That swims in dust and sun
Perverse, I think of London then
Where massive work is done,
And with what sweep at Westminster
The rayless waters run

I ponder how from Attic seed
There grew and English tree,
How Byron like his heroes fell,
Fighting a country free,
And Swinburne took from Shelley's lips
The kiss of Poetry.

And while our poets chanted Pan
Back to his pipes and power,
Great Verrall, bending at his desk,
And searching hour on hour
Found out old gardens, where the wise
May pluck a Spartan flower.

When I go down the Gloucester lanes
My friends are deaf and blind:
Fast as they turn their foolish eyes
The Maenads leap behind,
And when I hear the fire-winged feet,
They only hear the wind.

Have I not chased the fluting Pan
Through Cranham's sober trees?
Have I not sat on Painswick Hill
With a nymph upon my knees,
And she as rosy as the dawn,
And naked as the breeze?

But when I lie in Grecian fields,
Smothered in asphodel,
Or climb the blue and barren hills,
Or sing in woods that smell
With such hot spices of the South
As mariners might sell -

Then my heart turns where no sun burns,
To lands of glittering rain,
To fields beneath low-clouded skies
New-widowed of their grain,
And Autumn leaves like blood and gold
That strew a Gloucester lane.

O well I know sweet Hellas now,
And well I knew it then,
When I with starry lads walked out -
But ah, for home again!
Was I not bred in Gloucestershire,
One of the Englishmen!

Tamsin said...

Oh, dear. The first bit of my last comment did not make sense as it seems what I had sent before (and the poem it refers to) was not allowed through by the system.

It was to the effect that although I think Flecker wonderful and much underrated I never knew the connection with Lewisham and to share with you some of his poetry and commentary arising from a lenghty series of e-mails exchanged with friends and family.

The Old Ships
James Elroy Flecker

I have seen ships sail like swans asleep
Beyond the village which men still call Tyre,
With leaden age o'ercargoed, dipping deep
For Famagusta and the hidden sun
That rings black Cyprus with a lake of fire;
And all those ships were certainly so old
Who knows how oft with squat and noisy gun,
Questing brown slaves or Syrian oranges,
The pirate Genoese
Hell-raked them till they rolled
Blood, water, fruit and corpses up the hold.
But now through friendly seas they softly run,
Painted the mid-sea blue or shore-sea green,
Still patterned with the vine and grapes in gold.

But I have seen,
Pointing her shapely shadows from the dawn
An image tumbled on a rose-swept bay,
A drowsy ship of some yet older day;
And, wonder's breath indrawn,
Thought I - who knows - who knows - but in that same
(Fished up beyond Aeaea, patched up new
- Stern painted brighter blue - )
That talkative, bald-headed seaman came
(Twelve patient comrades sweating at the oar)
From Troy's doom-crimson shore,
And with great lies about his wooden horse
Set the crew laughing, and forgot his course.

It was so old a ship - who knows, who knows?
- And yet so beautiful, I watched in vain
To see the mast burst open with a rose,
And the whole deck put on its leaves again.

- much anthologised and therefore reassuringly familiar.

But also a less familiar one that always comes to mind when I look at still water

Oxford Canal
James Elroy Flecker

When you have wearied of the valiant spires of this County Town,
Of its wide white streets and glistening museums, and black monastic walls,
Of its red motors and lumbering trams, and self-sufficient people,
I will take you walking with me to a place you have not seen -
Half town and half country - the land of the Canal.
It is dearer to me than the antique town: I love it more than the rounded hills:
Straightest, sublimest of rivers is the long Canal.
I have observed great storms and trembled: I have wept for fear of the dark.
But nothing makes me so afraid as the clear water of this idle canal on a summer's noon.
Do you see the great telephone poles down in the water, how every wire is distinct?
If a body fell into the canal it would rest entangled in those wires for ever, between earth and air.
For the water is as deep as the stars are high.
One day I was thinking how if a man fell from that lofty pole
He would rush through the water toward me till his image was scattered by his splash,
When suddenly a train rushed by: the brazen dome of the engine flashed: the long white carriages roared;
The sun veiled himself for a moment, and the signals loomed in fog;
A savage woman screamed at me from a barge: little children began to cry;
The untidy landscape rose to life; a sawmill started;
A cart rattled down to the wharf, and workmen clanged over the iron footbridge;
A beautiful old man nodded from the first storey window of a square red house,
And a pretty girl came out to hang up clothes in a small delightful garden.
O strange motion in the suburb of a county town: slow regular movement of the dance of death!
Men and not phantoms are these that move in light.
Forgotten they live, and forgotten die.