Wednesday, October 24, 2012


It’s about a young man who gets lost one night and ends up in a fancy dress party in a chateau and sees a beautiful woman and he spends the rest of the book looking for her. True enough, but not Le Grand Meaulnes. There are some books that paraphrase cannot capture. Readers know that they’ve been drawn into something strange and haunting, but they can’t say what: the grammarye can’t be conveyed. So, as to Under the Yew (1928) by Robert Nichols, a pleasing pocket-book in half-marbled boards and a buckram spine. It’s about a late 18th century rakehell who has a night of debauchery and gambling with cronies at a country house. There he meets a singular stranger, who wears a weird ring: they duel with the dice to the very end of their fortunes. Ruined, he has a single, shivering, uncanny experience beneath a yew tree, reforms, and rebuilds his fortune. Later he encounters the Faustian stranger again. All true, but yet not Under the Yew. It is a Gothick dream, a fantasia in firelight. It ought to be spoken about in whispers and passed by hand. Cabals should meet to discuss its meanings. And in certain wild, starlit nights, its characters might strut again, and dice, and laugh, and make the frightened candles gutter.

The author, Robert Nichols (1893-1944), wrote nothing else like it. He was known in his time as a poet of the Great War: his ‘The Burial in Flanders’ and others are still anthologised. He was a close friend of Philip Heseltine (who composed music as ‘Peter Warlock’). He did write a volume of Fantastica, including ‘The Smile of the Sphinx’: these are formalised tableaux, quite different to Under the Yew. The fine biography of him, Putting Poetry First (2003) by Anne and William Charlton, says that Nichols knew nothing of gambling, and he described the book as “a piece of imaginative virtuosity.” But, as his biographers note, it isn’t “about” gambling, but rather about anything “that can destroy its votaries, lyric poetry included.”

Mark Valentine


  1. Of course, it does beg the question: how do you get a copy?

  2. Only second hand, I'm afraid. But I'd encourage publishers to consider a new edition.