Monday, March 26, 2018

Herbert Palmer, Bard of Apocalypse

Herbert Palmer is a largely forgotten poet of the mid 20th century. But his early books were published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at their Hogarth Press, his work was admired by Robert Graves, and his prophetic verse, concerned with the mythic forces of good and evil, was compared to that of William Blake. His publisher described Palmer as “the symbolist and apocalyptic bardic poet.”

Palmer was born in the little Lincolnshire town of Market Rasen on 10 February 1880. He went to university in Birmingham and Bonn, and made his living in his twenties and thirties by teaching, tutoring and lecturing, especially for the Workers' Educational Association. In 1921 he took up journalism and other writing full time: besides his poetry, he edited anthologies, published a book on teaching English, and undertook some translations.

He did not begin issuing books of poetry until he was in his forties, though there had been youthful ephemera in journals and newspapers. In 1931 he published a pungent parody of Eliot, Cinder Thursday, which has a fertility of allusion and restless energy which might have been better deployed. He befriended and encouraged the young poet, editor and bookman John Gawsworth, who included a bibliography of his work in his Ten Contemporaries (1932): through him he also met Arthur Machen. The copy illustrated here has a presentation inscription from Fytton Armstrong (ie John Gawsworth) to A E Coppard, noted “for an autograph.”

A Collected Poems was published in 1933 and a late blooming, The Ride from Hell, came out in 1958. Herbert Palmer died on 17 May 1961. His literary executor, Alan Denson, compiled Herbert Edward Palmer (1880-1961): a bio-bibliographical survey and calendar of recordings, with a foreword by Phoebe Hesketh (Oliver Alden, 1994).

Twenty-seven boxes of Palmer’s papers are in the archives of Senate House library, University of London, including correspondence with W. B. Yeats, Roy Campbell, Constance Sitwell, Walter de la Mare, John Middleton Murry, Muriel Spark, Robert Bridges, Lord Alfred Douglas and George Bernard Shaw.

Herbert Palmer’s verses are archaic, arcane and declamatory. Several have macabre themes, such as The Vampire (1936). His chief weaknesses to the modern reader are a fondness for antiquated wordage and a reliance on easy, obvious rhymes. But sometimes the fervour and fierce feeling in his poems transcends these traits and we get a real sense of a powerful imagination haunted, even harried, by the forms of gods and demons.

Edward Thompson, reviewing the Collected Poems for The Spectator (10 March, 1933) said: “the fire and swing of his best verses are unsurpassed. What I think his greatest poem, Song of Job and Solomon, is tremulous with ecstasy of both suffering and surrender… He is the most individual of living poets, and one of the noblest.”

A Checklist of Books by Herbert Edward Palmer

Two Foemen (Elkin Mathews, 1920)
Two Minstrels (Elkin Mathews, 1921)
The Unknown Warrior (Heinemann, 1924)
Songs of Salvation, Sin and Satire (L & V Woolf, 1925)
The Judgement of Francois Villion. A Pageant. (L & V Woolf, 1927)
The Armed Muse. Poems (L & V Woolf, 1930)
Jonah Comes to Nineveh. A Ballad (Mill House Press, 1930)
The Teaching of English (John Murray, 1930)
Cinder Thursday (Benn, 1931)
In Autumn. A Poem (privately printed, 1931).
The Roving Angler (Dent, 1931)
Thirty Poems. Herbert Edward Palmer (Benn, 1931)
What the Public Wants (Lahr, 1932)
Collected Poems (Benn, 1933)
Summit and Chasm (Dent, 1934)
The Mistletoe Child: An Autobiography of Childhood (1935)
The Vampire and Others (Dent, 1936)
Post-Victorian Poetry (Dent, 1938)
The Gallows-Cross (Dent, 1940)
Christmas Signs: St Albans, 1941 (W Cartmel & Sons: 1942?)
Season and Festival (Faber and Faber, 1943)
The Dragon of Tingalam. A Fairy Comedy (Nicholson and Watson, 1945)
A Sword in the Desert (Harrap, 1946)
The Old Knight (Dent, 1949)
The Ride from Hell (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1958)

1 comment:

  1. What a pleasant surprise, to see this column just as I was preparing to shut down the computer for the night. I"m to write about Herbert Palmer for the New York C. S. Lewis Society. There are letters to Palmer in at least one of the three volumes of Lewi's collected letters, and several of Palmer's books were in the catalogue of Lewis's library made a few years after his death. Palmer was a friend of Ruth Pitter, a very good poet indeed (a critical edition of whose poems should be out any day now). Her published letters include a number to Palmer. Palmer also comes in for a few very brief mentions in Stannard's biography of Muriel Spark, by the way.

    Dale Nelson