James Elroy Flecker
( Originally Published 1919 )
JAMES ELROY FLECKER died in January 1915, having added at least one poem to the perfect anthology of English verse. Probably his work contains a good deal that is permanent besides this. But one is confident at least of the permanence of The Old Ships. Readers coming a thousand years hence upon the beauty, the romance and the colour of this poem will turn eagerly, one imagines, in search of other work from the same pen. This was the flower of the poet's genius. It was the exultant and original speech of one who was in a great measure the seer of other men's visions. Flecker was much given to the translation of other poets, and he did not stop at translating their words. He translated their imagination also into careful verse. He was one of those poets whose genius is founded in the love of literature more than in the love of life. He seems less an interpreter of the earth than one who sought after a fantastic world which had been created by Swinburne and the Parnassians and the old painters and the tellers of the Arabian Nights.
He began," Mr. J. C. Squire has said, by being more interested in his art than in himself." And all but a score or so of his poems suggest that this was his way to the last., He was one of those for whom the visible world exists. But it existed for him less in nature than in art. He does not give one the impression of a poet who observed minutely and delightedly as Mr. W. H . Davies observes. His was a painted world inhabited by, a number of chosen and exquisite images. He found the real world by conparison disappointing. He confessed," we are told, " that he had not greatly liked the East—always excepting, of course, Greece." This was almost a necessity of his, genius, and it is interesting to see how in some of his later work his imagination is feeling its way back from the world of illusion to the world of real things—from Bagdad and Babylon to England.
His poetry does not as a rule touch the heart ; but in Oak and Olive and Brumana his spectatorial sensuousness at last breaks down and the cry of the exile moves us as in an intimate letter from a friend since dead. Those are not mere rhetorical reproaches to the traitor pines which sang what life has found The falsest of fair tales ; which had murmured of older seas.That beat on vaster sands, and of lands. Where blaze the unimaginable flowers.
It was as though disillusion had given an artist a soul. And when the war came it found him, as he lay dying of consumption in Switzerland, a poet not merely of manly but of martial utterance. The Burial in England is perhaps too, much of an ad hoc call to be great poetry. But it has many noble and beautiful lines and is certainly of a different world from his mediocre version of God Save the King.
At the same time, I do not wish to suggest that his poetry of illusion is the less important part of his work. The perfection of his genius is to be sought, as a matter of fact, in his romantic eastern work, such as The Ballad of Iskander, A Miracle of Bethlehem,Gates of Damascus, and Bryan of Brittany. The false, fair tale of the East had, as it were, released him from mere flirtation with the senses into the world of the imagination. Of human passions he sang little. He wrote oftener of amorousness than of love, as in The Ballad of the Student of the South'. His passion for fairy tales, his amorousness of the East, stirred his imagination from idleness among superficial fancies into a brilliant ardour. It was these things that roused him to a nice extravagance with those favourite words and colours and images upon which Mr. Squire comments :
There are words, just as there are images, which he was especially fond of using. There are colours and metals, blue and red, silver and gold, which are present- everywhere in his work ; the progresses of the sun (he was always a poet of the sunlight rather than a poet of the moonlight) were a continual fascination to him ; the images of Fire, of a ship, and of an old white-bearded man recur frequently in his poems.
Mr. Squire contends justly enough that in spite of this Flecker is anything but a monotonous poet. But the image of a ship was almost an obsession with him'. It was his favourite toy. Often it is a silver ship., In the blind man's vision in the time of Christ even the Empires of the future are seen sailing like ships. The keeper of the West Gate of Damascus sings of the sea beyond the sea :
when no wind breathes or ripple stirs,
Those lines are worth noting for the! Way in which they suggest how much in the nature of toys were the images with which Flecker's imagination was haunted. His world was a world of nursery ships and nursery caravans.
"Haunted " is, perhaps, an exaggeration. His attitude is, too impassive for that. He works with the deliberateness of a prose-writer. He is occasionally, even prosaic in the bad sense, as when he uses the word " meticulously," or makes his lost mariners say :
How striking like that boat were we
That he was a poet of the fancy rather than of the imagination also tended to keep his poetry near the ground. His love of the ballad-design and the good coloured things of Earth " was tempered by a kind of infidel humour in his use of them. His ballads are the ballads of a brilliant dilettante, not of a man who is expressing his whole heart and soul and faith, as the old ballad-writers were. In the result he walked a golden pavement rather than mounted into the golden air. He was an artist in ornament, in decoration. Like the Queen in the, Queen's Song, he would immortalize the ornament at the cost of slaying the soul.
Of all recent poets of his kind, Flecker is the most successful. The classical tradition of poetry has been mocked and mutilated by many of the noisy young in the last few years. Flecker was a poet who preserved the ancient balance in days in which want of balance was looked on as a sign of genius. That he was what is called a minor poet cannot be denied, but he was the most beautiful of recent minor poets. His book, indeed, is a treasury of beauty rare in these days. Of that beauty, The Old Ships is, as I, have, said, the splendid example. And, as it is foolish to offer any-thing except a poet's best as a specimen of his work, one has no alternative but to turn again to those gorgeously-coloured verses which begin:
I have seen old ships sail like swans asleep
That is the summary and the summit of Flecker's genius. But the rest of his verse, too, is the work of a true and delightful poet, a faithful priest of literature, an honest craftsman with words.
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