Tuesday, March 03, 2009

With dauntless feet and sound of silver bells

I'm getting a head start on National Poetry Month this year.

T.E. Lawrence, the famous soldier, motorcyclist, and author, was also a poetry lover. His large library contained 300 books of verse. Just after the First World War he wrote out his favorite poems in a commonplace book which he called Minorities, "since," as he said, "they are good poems by small poets, or small poems by good poets." He carried this notebook around with him during his travels over the next few years and, on being posted to India in 1927, gave it to George Bernard Shaw's wife Charlotte in exchange for her anthology of meditations.

The 112 poems were first published in 1971, edited by J.M. Wilson with a preface by C. Day Lewis.

Here is the first:
The Golden Journey To Samarkand, by James Elroy Flecker (1913)

We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage
And swear that Beauty lives though lilies die,
We Poets of the proud old lineage
Who sing to find your hearts, we know not why,

What shall we tell you? Tales, marvellous tales
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
Where nevermore the rose of sunset pales,
And winds and shadows fall towards the West:

And there the world's first huge white-bearded kings
In dim glades sleeping, murmur in their sleep,
And closer round their breasts the ivy clings,
Cutting its pathway slow and red and deep.

And how beguile you? Death has no repose
Warmer and deeper than the Orient sand
Which hides the beauty and bright faith of those
Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

And now they wait and whiten peaceably,
Those conquerors, those poets, those so fair:
They know time comes, not only you and I,
But the whole world shall whiten, here or there;

When those long caravans that cross the plain
With dauntless feet and sound of silver bells
Put forth no more for glory or for gain,
Take no more solace from the palm-girt wells.

When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that calm Sunday that goes on and on:
When even lovers find their peace at last,
And Earth is but a star, that once had shone.

Notes to the text:

Flecker also wrote a play: Hassan: The Story of Hassan of Baghdad and How He Came to Make the Golden Journey to Samarkand, posthumous publication, 1922. "Hassan is one of two plays written by James Elroy Flecker. Flecker received his education at Uppingham and Trinity College, Oxford. He then joined the Consular Service in 1908 and was posted to Constantinople in 1910 where he met and married Helle Skiadaressi. From 1911 to 1913 Flecker served as vice-consul at Beirut. Suffering from tuberculosis, he moved to Switzerland where he died. Influenced both by his classical education and by his experiences in the Orient, he published five books of poetry: The Bridge of Fire; Thirty-six Poems; Forty-two Poems; The Golden Journey to Samarkand; and The Old Ships. He also brought out a novel, The King of Alsander. Flecker's two successful plays, Hassan and Don Juan, came out posthumously."

Lawrence was a friend of Flecker's. They met in Beirut in 1911 during a time Flecker was Vice-Consul there. Here's an excerpt from an appreciation that Lawrence later drafted on him:
We were both living in the Deutscher Hof, that plain but clean German hotel on the east side of Beyrout harbour. Flecker stalked in, Mrs F. before him, protective. The vice-consuls, Russian, German, American, since for them cleanliness was good and plainness essential, lived there together and dined in its dining hall at mutually-repulsive tables. The Austrian one (just a functionary, who had married a ramrod), the Dane (who at least doesn't attempt not to look a spy) were easily dismissed. Flecker had been at fisticuffs with the German a little while before: had floored him in the hotel hall. Almost it had been a scandal... but the simoon was coming in sultry and damp, and the blue-bottle scandal-flies too limp to buzz through the heat. For England perhaps, for F. was furiously British: patriotic, 'God save King' exile, nostalgic, and knowing himself landless, clung desperately to [?fiction]. No. Some difference upon a point of taste, I believe. Was it Aristophanes? Flecker had just got the big Aldini Aristophanes from Orioli's, of Florence, and was spending hours and eyesight crawling about its convoluted type in hot chase of classical jests. Puns it was that he most wanted then. His passion for words extended even to the abuse of them. They had a monstrous beauty, like the hind-quarters of an elephant.

Slowly he and I made friends. This strange gawky figure felt the banishment of hot Beyrout, the steamy harbour, the formal consulate, the slow sourness of boiled cabbage which smelled through the hotel. He had shifted his quarters across the road to a kitchen-free annexe, where he had rooms, and a bit of roof, some Greek island embroideries, draperies to disguise irrepressibly German furniture... books, cascades of books. 'That's a lovely thing', said he. It was an Austrian printed cotton, too simple, one would have thought, for his grasp.

Flecker's gestures were personal things, sudden always, graceful as far as they went, but always unfinished... as though his mind was passing to another subject before the physical accompaniment was complete. They were too undisguised to be English - but what was English in this curious high-coloured sun-coloured man, with his gawky build and inquiring carriage of the head, his restless fingers smoothing the dark moustache which reduced, without wholly concealing, the sensuality of the mouth? The dark eyebrows, indeterminate nose. Not English, no: yet not Jewish either: like a sensitised edition of his young brother, who is the only living thing I have seen to remind me of him. Mrs F. Choiseul-Gouffier period - fifth century, and archaic fifth, when form still loomed bigger perhaps to the artist than meaning. Which F. was later: third century, Hellenistic.
— source: T. E. Lawrence, An Essay on Flecker

Some sources:

Minorities, by T E Lawrence; edited by Jeremy Wilson (London, Cape, 1971) ISBN: 022461942X

Golden Journey to Samarkand from wikisource

T. E. Lawrence, An Essay on Flecker

Hassan : the story of Hassan of Bagdad


Tess3 said...

May I give a link to your blog in my community (in Russian) dedicated to T.E. Lawrence?

Jeff said...

Yes. Please do.