Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Remembering poems

From the Guardian, September 2005:

Lord Wavell was unlucky, a manager of retreat in the first years of the second world war and absent from its later victories. Lying didn't come easy to him and, unlike Montgomery or Mountbatten, his successor as viceroy of India, he cut no dash. His great love and solace was poetry, the reading and reciting and not the writing of it, and it's for one book of poetry that, outside the realm of military history, he will be mainly remembered.

In 1944 Jonathan Cape published an anthology of Wavell's favourite poems. It became a large and unlikely success: it has been rarely out of print since and by 1979 had sold almost 130,000 copies.

The idea for its publication came not so much from Wavell himself as from the traveller and writer Peter Fleming, who was on Wavell's staff in Delhi during his pre-viceregal days as the army's commander in chief in India. In the evening, under a fan and over a drink, Fleming would listen to his boss recite, and talk about Browning and Kipling, and eventually suggested that Wavell compile an anthology and send it to Cape, which had published Fleming's pre-war travel accounts. Cape wasn't impressed. Wavell, far from home and a good library, had quoted many of the poems from his formidable memory. There were frequent mistakes. Cape sent a humiliating letter of rejection in which the general's choice was described as "familiar school recitations advancing in close formation". The situation was retrieved only after Fleming lobbied a Cape director, Rupert Hart-Davis, who reproved the publisher by telling him his letter was "tantamount to a sock on the jaw" to a shy man who had delivered "the complete bones of a tremendously saleable book".

What accounted for its success? My guess is that it made poetry respectable for manly men—Wavell's section on war is called Good Fighting but his section on love is a tongue-tied Love and All That—in an age when reciteable poetry still had a popular appeal. He wrote in his introduction that while, nearing 60, he couldn't claim he could repeat by heart all the 260 or so poems in the the anthology, he thought he could safely claim that he once could.

He apologises for his notes on the poems, saying "'The Notes' are not altogether my fault, the publisher asked for them." But he was far from a bluff fool who kept himself going on the march with a few verses of Kipling. He knew that a key to poetry's success—you might say its departed success—was its memorability, but he also knew that that wasn't its only quality. In 1961, 11 years after his death, TS Eliot wrote, "I do not pretend to be a judge of Wavell as a soldier ... What I do know from personal acquaintance with the man, is that he was a great man. This is not a term I use easily ..."
Ian Jack

[For those who don't know the book, I should mention that Wavell called it Other Men's Flowers: "I have gathered a posie of other men's flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own"—Montaigne, 1533-1592]


Sal said...

have i said how tremendously i enjoy your blog?

i probably haven't. consider it formally on the record, sir.

Tony said...

Why, thank you, Sal. A pleasure to hear from you again.

Steph Saville said...

I live in South Africa and have been an Other Men's Flowers fan since I was a child. My mother used to read to us from the book and I have many copies I dip in to over and over again. A wonderful collection. So good to hear others' appreciation of it!