I woke up thinking about a poem. For some reason, it isn’t well known, though I can’t think why not.
The author is J C Squire, Sir John Collings Squire, a trouble-maker of superior order in his day. An anti-modernist. A ‘Georgian’. A heavy drinker.
His own band of followers were known as 'the Squirearchy'. They sat, in metaphorical terms, on the opposite bank to the Bloomsbury group, although he certainly published some of them in The London Mercury, during his 15 years of editorship.
You can see some lovely photographs of him in the online collection of the National Portrait Gallery. He was clearly fond of stripey blazers. He was known for his antagonism towards current trends in poetry and he was enthusiastic about cricket.
His Wikipedia entry is dodgy. Obviously nobody has taken sufficient interest in him to do it well, though under ‘Reputation’ it does tell us 'he is generally credited with the one-liner I am not so think as you drunk I am'. It is all a long time ago. The literary squabbles of those days (in which JCS certainly played his role) are largely forgotten, just as the literary squabbles of today will be.
Knighted in 1933 (I don't know why -- perhaps services to literature?), he loved poetry and knew a lot about it. He wrote several volumes of poems himself, most of them forgettable, as is true for most of us. He also penned some extremely clever parodies – and given that he’s credited with being ‘Georgian’, he’s remarkably good at mocking some of the features of that period, and indeed the features of any period.
He was astute, witty and . . . wrote one poem at least I shan’t forget. Technically, this is in copyright but I feel the dead Sir John would sit up in his grave cheerfully at the thought of being read.
So what do you make of this? It is from Poems, First Series published by Martin Secker in 1918, when the author would have been only 34, but feeling much older. Thanks to his poor eye-sight, he had survived the Great War. Many of his contemporaries had not.
In this house, she said, in this high second storey,
In this room where we sit, over the midnight street,
There runs a rivulet, narrow but very rapid,
Under the still floor and your unconscious feet.
The lamp on the table made a cone of light
That spread to the base of the walls: above was in gloom.
I heard her words with surprise; had I worked here so long,
And never divined the secret of the room?
‘But how,’ I asked, ‘does the water climb so high?’
‘I do not know,’ she said, ‘but the thing is there;
Pull up the boards while I go and fetch you a rod.’
She passed, and I heard her creaking descend the stair.
And I rose and rolled the Turkey carpet back
From the two broad boards by the north wall she had named,
And, hearing already the crumple of water, I knelt
And lifted the first of them up; and the water gleamed,
Bordered with little frosted heaps of ice,
And, as she came back with a rod and a line that swung,
I moved the other board; in the yellow light
The water trickled frostily, slackly along.
I took the tackle, a stiff black rubber worm,
That stuck out its pointed tail from a cumbrous hook.
‘But there can’t be fishing in water like this,’ I said,
And she, with weariness, ‘There is no ice there. Look.’
And I stood there, gazing down at a stream in spate,
Holding the rod in my undecided hand . . .
Till it all in a moment grew smooth and still and clear,
And along its deep bottom of slaty grey sand
Three scattered little trout, as black as tadpoles,
Came waggling slowly along the glass-dark lake,
And I swung my arm to drop my pointing worm in,
And then I stopped again with a little shake.
For I heard the thin gnat-like voices of the trout
—My body felt woolly and sick and astray and cold—
Crying with mockery in them: ‘You are not allowed
To take us, you know, under ten years old.’
And the room swam, the calm woman and the yellow lamp,
The table, and the dim-glistering walls, and the floor
And the stream sank away, and all whirled dizzily,
And I moaned, and the pain at my heart grew more and more,
And I fainted away, utterly miserable,
Falling in a place where there was nothing to pass,
Knowing all sorrows and the mothers and sisters of sorrows,
And the pain of the darkness before anything ever was.