One hundred years ago James Elroy Flecker published a slim volume of verse from the obscure imprint of Max Goschen. The title poem of “The Golden Journey to Samarkand” caught all the yearning for far-away adventure that so often comes to a people living on a grey island on the edge of the world. Flecker took a fabled city on the ancient Silk Road to the East and made it into a talisman for the wondrous and the exotic:
We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the golden journey to Samarkand.
Flecker also wrote a handful of other lyric poems that have survived well and are still quoted from time to time, including “Oak and Olive,” “The Old Ships” and “The Gates of Damascus”, but it is for the Golden Journey to Samarkand he will remain immortal. A good number of his other poems also have a fantastical theme. Serpents, sorcerers, viziers, legendary heroes, strange ships and marvellous lands abound: the very stuff of traditional poetry.
James Elroy Flecker achieved his renown in just thirty years, dying young of tuberculosis at a sanatorium in Switzerland. His reputation was already high during the last years of his life, especially among fellow literary men such as Rupert Brooke, Edward Marsh, editor of the Georgian Poetry volumes and Harold Monro of The Poetry Bookshop. Indeed he was regarded by some as second only to Yeats amongst poets writing in English. And after his death, interest in him soared. Both Collected and Selected Editions of his poetry were enormously popular. His verse play Hassan, which was only published and performed posthumously, also enjoyed a great success in the theatre.
The future poet was born in Lewisham on 5 November 1884, but grew up in Cheltenham where his father was the headmaster of Dean Close, a respected Evangelical school. Throughout his life he tended to react against the rather pious and conventional attitudes of his family and they in turn often failed to understand his high spirits, zealousness in the cause of literature and fascination with the passionate and strange.
Flecker only really began to break free as an individual, though, when he got to Oxford. The young men there had made something of a cult of the decadent Eighteen Nineties and wit, affectation, languor and luxuriance were prized. Flecker soon won a reputation as a master at all of these. Douglas Goldring, a fellow undergraduate, recalled in his 1922 memoir of the poet: “Flecker’s obscenity amounted to a gift, and many of his most famous witticisms and jeux d’esprit (written down and illustrated in a MS. volume bound in “art linen, ” called the “Yellow Book of Japes”)…are scarcely likely to find their way into print,” adding ruefully, “one may be forgiven, perhaps, for regretting this, for they were the outcome of enormous high spirits and of a wholly charming gusto for life.” The book in question has still never been published.
His first significant publication came in 1907 with his book of poems The Bridge of Fire. With typical insouciance, he chose the title for the slim volume first and then wrote a poem to go with it. The verses show the marked influence of the English Decadents and the French poets they revered - Baudelaire especially - and was even issued by a relic of the Nineties, the publisher Elkin Mathews, in his Vigo Cabinet series.
A more unusual item followed. Flecker wrote a vision of the future, The Last Generation, which marks his farewell to the Decadent pose, as it satirically depicts a coterie of enfeebled youths too weary to preserve the guttering flame of the human race. Published by the New Age Press in 1908, in fawn printed paper wrappers, Goldring described it as “extremely scarce” over eighty years ago.
His second poetry collection, the rather more soberly entitled Thirty-Six Poems was issued by a new publisher, The Adelphi Press, in 1910. Amongst the fine poems in this volume were “To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence”, “The Town Without a Market”, “The Masque of the Magi”, “War Song of the Saracens” and “I Rose from Dreamless Hours”.
Flecker entered the Consular Service in June 1910 but his career was brief and broken by periods of ill-health. He was sent first to Constantinople (now Istanbul) but within a few months fell ill, supposedly by catching a chill through bathing in the Black Sea. A doctor discovered traces of tuberculosis, then a deadly disease, and he went to recuperate in a hospital in the Cotswolds. He returned to Constantinople in 1911 and in May married Helle Skiadaressi, a Greek poet, whom he had met on board ship on his first voyage out. His family disapproved of the marriage.
After their honeymoon, Flecker was sent as Vice-Consul to Beirut, and was there intermittently for eighteen months, his longest period of duty. Despite celebrating it in verse, he appears not to have relished the modern Middle East, and was rather too volatile a character to make a good diplomat. He was caught up in several incidents while there, including an Italian bombardment of the city, which he wrote an essay about, and an uprising against the Druse, in which an enraged crowd turned on him and he had to be rescued by an Ottoman policeman. More usually, however, the life was routine and the climate inimical to his health.
It was while here that Flecker struck up a friendship with T.E. Lawrence, in December 1911. There are photographs of Flecker in Arab dress taken by T. E. Lawrence, and the Arabian hero had a selection of Flecker's works in his library at Clouds Hill cottage in Dorset. Lawrence called him “the sweetest singer of our generation” and wrote An Essay on Flecker, though it was not published until 1937, and then in an “unofficial” edition.
In 1913, Flecker’s health deteriorated and his wife took him to the first of several sanatoria in Switzerland: he was never to leave that country. “It was hard for him to have to spend those last months in such desolate places,” Helle later recalled, “out of touch with the world of letters that was just beginning to know his name; letters from friends or unknown admirers were the only bright moments.” His last years were marked, however, by a rapid rise in his reputation as a poet. His finest book of poems, The Golden Journey to Samarkand, was issued in the Summer of 1913.
It is this volume which, in Saki’s story “A Defensive Diamond”, the self-appointed “club liar”, Treddleford, is trying to enjoy while being constantly interrupted by the club bore. Saki skilfully sums up the potent attractions of the book: “It was an afternoon on which to be wafted away from one's climatic surroundings, and "The Golden journey to Samarkand" promised to bear Treddleford well and bravely into other lands and under other skies. He had already migrated from London the rain-swept to Bagdad [sic] the Beautiful, and stood by the Sun Gate "in the olden time".”
As well as the Samarkand poems, the book includes what Flecker believed to be his greatest poem, “The Gates of Damascus”, with its glittering and immortal line, often quoted, evoking “The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea”. Other notable pieces were “Oak and Olive”, contrasting England with Ancient Greece, and “Brumana”, a memory of a pine grove in England, while Lord Dunsany was a great admirer of the mermaid poem “Santorin, a legend of the Aegean.” Flecker hoped that Goschen might issue a selection of his poems to be illustrated by Dunsany’s artistic collaborator Sidney Sime. Nothing came of the idea, but in my story “Sime in Samarkand” I imagined what might have been.
Flecker’s poems do not at first glance seem to be particularly personal and this has often lead critics to regard him as somewhat limited, even merely a clever formalist. It is true that he paid careful attention to the “technical” qualities of poetry, the classical forms, the rhythm, rhyming schemes and buried rhymes, the shape of the work: and he sometimes took a delight in choosing consciously poetic, “elevated” language. But his work reflects his character too: consumed with visions of splendour, a wanderer among myths and dreams, true, but also a delicate, intimate observer of friendship and nature.
The same year saw the publication of Flecker’s longest prose work, the fantastical romance The King of Alsander, in which a shopkeeper’s son in the English shires, fond of reading Gothic tales and other outre books, is mysteriously whisked away to a realm where he becomes embroiled in a Ruritanian conspiracy involving a cross-dressing Princess. The book had been begun when Flecker was at Oxford and is usually seen as a whimsical jeu d’esprit by most commentators. The mingling of the fanciful with ironic commentary on modern affairs does not always work, but it is an enjoyable romp that might be worth a revival.
James Elroy Flecker died on 3 January 1915 at a sanatorium in Davos. He is buried in the cemetery at Cheltenham, and his gravestone bears a line from one of his poems, selected by his wife: “O Lord, restore his realm to the dreamer”. His obituary in The Times was written by Rupert Brooke, who was much moved by Flecker’s early death, and other writers paid tribute to his work. The Golden Journey to Samarkand had already gone through several editions, and interest in him now began to intensify .
A posthumous volume of unpublished verse, mostly written in his last two years, which had already been in preparation, was quickly brought out by The Poetry Bookshop. The Old Ships, in foolscap, with pictorial lavender covers, was notable for the title poem (“I have seen old ships sail like swans asleep/Beyond the village which men still call Tyre”) and “The Burial in England”, written at the outbreak of war.
But the greatest boost to Flecker’s reputation was still to come. In his last years he had been working on a verse play, Hassan, set in the milieu of the Arabian Nights, in which the pleasant young confectioner of the title is able, by a chance encounter, to save the life of the Caliph from a conspiracy led by the King of the Beggars. Richly rewarded, he does not, however, find happiness, for the Caliph’s revenge on his attackers is cruel and palace intrigue is troubling. At length, he sets out on a pilgrimage, poorer but wiser: to Samarkand. Some of the Samarkand poems published earlier had indeed been extracted from this longer work, and it offers all the same attractions of an exotic setting, brilliant images, and old-fashioned storytelling. After many vicissitudes, the play was eventually launched by Basil Dean at His Majesty’s Theatre in September 1923, in a colourful and vigorous production that was an immediate and enduring success.
Flecker will always be known as the immortal poet of the Golden Road. He was a remarkable individual, dedicated to his craft. The “lean and swarthy poet of despair”, as he once characterised himself, can still call to lovers of fine poetry everywhere, as he hoped in his “To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence”:
O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.