Wednesday, September 9, 2015
Lost Poets - 'Wine and Gall'
Some years ago I found a copy of a book of poems called Wine and Gall, whose authors were given only as ‘L’ and ‘R’: and each poem was attributed to one of these initials. It was published in 1918 by Basil Blackwell in Arts & Crafts style covers with a crimson pattern. This copy had been mutilated: some of the pages were cut out.
The book had interesting associations. On the inside cover was the bookplate of Vivian de Sola Pinto, friend and second-in-command to Siegfried Sassoon in the Great War, and himself a poet, essayist and literary critic. Pasted into the back was a card with a picture of a black cat, the handwritten message ‘Good Luck!’ and inside a manuscript verse sent for Christmas, written as if by a white cat called Kit, but signed ‘Christopher Hewitt’.
The poems are lovers’ verses to their amours, tinged with the imagery and fervour of the Neo-Decadents – those youthful writers who discovered and tried to emulate the fated figures of the Eighteen Nineties, in Edwardian times and after. The volume had a one line notice by John Rodker in the modernist magazine The Egoist No 4 Vol VI (September 1919): “relies on cheap antitheses rather mellifluous”. This was part of a column of reviews of a handful of the publisher’s recent issues, headed “Blackwelliana”, and generally scoffing in tone.
The reviewer ‘E.M.’ in The New Age (No 1443, New Series Vol XXVII, No 1, May 6, 1920) gave L and R more space, but was also unenthusiastic. He begins: “The authors would have been well advised not to mix their drinks. The wine is light and piquant, but the gall would not sell even in a prohibited country. “L” purveys the former, and “R” the latter.” The first, he says, is “obviously influenced by Heine” but the poignancy is “verbal, not real”; “one of the perils of mere cleverness, which has not its roots in reality”. However, it is grudgingly admitted that a few lines (of the loved one’s image stamped on the heart “As on a coin the conqueror’s head”), “have what appears to be an original image, and hence an original feeling”. “R” comes in for greater scorn: “why the verses of “R” should appear in the volume is a mystery”: “the thinnest of gall…in spite of its being copiously mingled with blood”.
There are very few clues as to the identity of authors. But one of the torn out poems in my copy, ‘Item Persicum’ by ‘R’, has the lines: ‘And the truest poet I ever knew, /Whose roses grew in the Syrian dew,/Lies dead at Davos Platz.’ This is a reference to James Elroy Flecker, who served as a Vice-Consul in Beirut (then in Ottoman Syria), and died in 1915 of consumption, in Davos. In this poem ‘R’ is himself marching “on the Persian road” in the army, one of the few specific personal details we are given.
‘R’ could have known Flecker as an undergraduate at Oxford, where he was notorious for his fervid verses and boisterous behaviour. Alternatively, he might have encountered him in the Middle East while both were stationed there, the one in the Levant Consular Service, the other in the forces. Another of the torn out poems, ‘Aegrotat’, by ‘L’, has a startling Great War metaphor: ‘It hurts my eyes to look in yours, /And like a splintered shell /Their dark beam in the brain endures,- /Ah how can I be well ?’, suggesting that this poet too was or had been away at war.
It is a curious volume, in which the verses are often forceful and ardent, as in ‘If there is any power above…’ by ‘R’, in which the poet has the role of Judith and his lover that of the tyrant Holofernes: ‘Haply you will rejoice one day/ To win me to your silken bed /But dawn shall see me bear away/The crimson trophy of your head.’ This violence of imagery and Babylonian allusion indeed suggests the influence of Flecker. The New Age review recoiled from this verse, with the prim remark, complete with italics: “One need quote no further.”
Who ‘L and ‘R’ were, and why they published together, which must surely imply some close friendship or affinity, remains a mystery. Their verses have a certain sardonic polish and, if they are not quite distinctive enough to really force the reader’s admiration, they are sufficiently odd and out of the usual run of things to merit some attention. Possibly their authorship was known amongst a certain circle of friends in Bloomsburyish and Oxford regions. The addressee and the author of the manuscript poem are likewise lost. But the final mystery is why certain poems were excised from the copy I found - were they kept when the book was discarded, or discarded while the book was kept?
(With thanks to R B Russell for the photographs).