Friday, September 23, 2011

`Savours It Slowly That Its Meaning and Relish May Stay'

In the foreword to his friend Roy Bedichek’s posthumously published The Sense of Smell (1960), J. Frank Dobie lauds Bedichek’s gift for preserving in memory whatever he had read:

“He could have produced a magnificent anthology of English poetry solely out of his memory—as rich as Lord Wavell drew from his memory in Other Men’s Flowers.”

The name stopped me. Who is Lord Wavell and what is Other Men’s Flowers? Looking for the answers confirmed my ignorance and the life of an extraordinarily accomplished Englishman. He was Field Marshal Archibald Percival Wavell, 1st Earl Wavell GCB, GCSI, GCIE, CMG, MC, PC (1883-1950), a veteran of the second Boer War and both World Wars (he lost an eye in the Second Battle of Ypres, 1915) and the penultimate viceroy of India (1943-1947). In his foreword, dated “New Delhi, April 1943”, Wavell writes:

“`I have gathered a posie of other men's flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.’ So wrote Montaigne [in “On Physiognomy”]; and I have borrowed his title, my memory being the binding thread.”

From the Greek (anthos, “flower” + legein, “to gather”), an anthology is a collection of flowers, a bouquet of poems. Jonathan Cape published Wavell’s in March 1944. The Fondren Library’s copy is the third edition, November 1945, published on thin, coarse paper to meet the “Book Production War Economy Standard,” as the copyright page explains. A book plate at the front notes the 432-page volume comes from “the library of Edgar Odell Lovett first president of the Rice Institute.”

An English major today could earn a Ph.D. while remaining blithely ignorant of most of the poems in Wavell’s collection. The poet most often represented is Kipling, with twenty-eight titles. Next, Browning with nineteen; Chesterton, ten; Masefield, eight. In his foreword Wavell explains:

“Browning and Kipling are the two poets whose work has stayed most in my memory, since I read them in impressionable youth. I have never regretted my choice. They have courage and humanity, and their feet are usually on the ground. G. K. Chesterton has the same qualities, with a more romantic and less practical strain; he has become my third favourite, and much of his verse is in my heart and my head; there also is much of Masefield, the poet of adventure and toil by land and sea.”

The selection is not only personal but personally felt. Wavell includes the warhorses, the poems we grew up reading and memorizing – “Annabel Lee,” “Invictus,” “If” (though “hackneyed,” he judges), “Lepanto,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He’s fond of Hilaire Belloc, including this epigram:

“When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

Wavell’s literary sensibility is indelibly nineteenth-century. From among the moderns he includes one poem by Frost and two by Yeats, and in the introduction to his first chapter he writes:

“Much of the work of T. S. Eliot has obvious dignity and beauty, and is a pleasure to read as long as one makes no effort to solve his cryptograms; but some of it seems deliberately ugly as well as cryptic. I look on him as one who has sinned against the light of poetry by wrapping his great talent in the napkin of obscurity.”

Most of Wavell’s anthology is a pleasure to read (except for Poe) as an idiosyncratic time capsule assembled by a dignified soldier-reader, a man whose life embodied the wracking continental drifts of the twentieth century. We no longer expect children to commit poems to memory, and little poetry is being written worth memorizing. As a result, we’ve lost a sense of communion and shared culture, not to mention the private solace we know when declaiming a poem aloud or in the cloister of our heads. Let me quote Lord Wavell at length on the virtues of declaiming poetry:

“Driving a motor car alone or riding a horse alone I often declaim out loud; but not when walking. Walking for me is somehow a more serious business and does not seem to loosen my memory to verse; perhaps pace is required as an incentive. I neither sing nor recite poetry in my bath. I have never piloted an aeroplane alone, but I feel it would move me to declaim in the skies. Practically all the verse in this collection is capable of being declaimed; it seems to me a function of poetry that it should be so. Poetry in its origins was certainly a declamatory art, usually post-prandial or post-proeliatory. It is one of my charges against modern poetry that it does not easily lend itself to memorizing or declamation. The Prime Minister, Mr. Winston Churchill, has stored in his prodigious memory much poetry which he declaims on apt occasion; I have had the pleasure of hearing some of the verses of this anthology repeated by him—with characteristic gusto. Lord Allenby was another under whom I served with a great store of poetry in his head and the ability to give it forth in season. My experience is that one can never properly appreciate a poem until one has got it by heart: memory stumbles over a word or a line and so wonders why the poet wrote it so, and then savours it slowly that its meaning and relish may stay.”

Other Men’s Flowers is at once a pleasure and a poignant reminder of how much has been lost:

“I sometimes fear that the stream of English poetry is running dry and turning muddy; but my son, for whose judgment I have very great respect, reads both the old and the new poets and on the whole prefers the latter, so perhaps it is just that I am growing old.”

1 comment:

George said...

In a book on Aristophanes, the writer remarked of Aristophanes's preference for Sophocles over Euripedes (roughly), Few men are likely to think as well of the poetry they first encounter at 40 as that they are taught to admire at 19.