Thursday, 6 October 2011

National Poetry Day: Have a Poet and a Poem

Aw hell, it's National Poetry Day today! Nobody tells me things. But anyway, in the spirit of this day I am going to do something I've been meaning to for a while, and introduce you to a very much forgotten poet, James Elroy Flecker.

I'm very fond of Flecker, partly because no one else seems to be interested in him at all. Here he, is in his Edwardian get-up, with a small and charming dog (I think it's a dog. Unless it's a very small sheep?). Note particularly his fabulous moustache. He wrote some poems, he wrote a play, he married a lady and then he died of TB when he was 30.

Flecker, bless him, was an Aesthete and very into saucy exoticism, and his poetry can be quite full of wafting roses and naked marble statues and ladies with naughty eyes. He's also apt to tip over into rather overblown teenage emotion, but at the same time I think there's something quite lovely about him. He tries, and though sometimes it all goes a bit wrong, sometimes he really does manage something pretty great. Career-wise, he seems to have come in at exactly the wrong time, when Tennyson, as A Thing, was way over and even Swinburne (who is like a later Tennyson but with added whips and chains) was a bit passe, and because of that he's very much ignored. I'm not saying he deserves a retrospective Laureateship, or anything, but there are plenty of far worse poets who have managed to stick around like mould and so I always feel a little sad about how very much Flecker doesn't get a look in.

I first came across Flecker in the epigraph to an Agatha Christie novel, Postern of Fate - which, it turns out, is a quotation from his poem 'The Gates of Damascus'. So off I went to find this unknown poem, and I found it on the internet, and then it blew my teenage mind.

What I thought at the time - and still think now - is that 'The Gates of Damascus' is an amazing fantasy novel that happens to have been written as a poem. It's just so weird and mad and full of things that you don't understand but want to. At times it tips over into complete fever-dream territory and you get lines like
Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?
I mean, what is that? That's terrifying! That's a Doctor Who episode in waiting, is what that is. Actually, the whole first section of the poem is like that, with mad stalking bird men and people dying of various inventive causes and awesome, gruesome lines like
The Sun who flashes through the head and paints the shadows green and red,
The Sun shall eat thy fleshless dead, O Caravan, O Caravan!
And then you get to the second section and things get even better, if possible, because we're off to sea for an adventure. At this point Flecker comes up with my all-time favourite description of the sea:
The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea,
The snow-besprinkled wine of earth, the white-and-blue-flower foaming sea.
Not only does it scan beautifully, but it's full of booze and sea monsters. And on these mythical-creature infested waves Flecker goes and makes up his own creepy, crazy version of the Odyssey, which features not only pterodactyls and bleeding rocks but also ROBOTS:
Beyond the sea are towns with towers, carved with lions and lily flowers,
And not a soul in all those lonely streets to while away the hours.

Beyond the towns, an isle where, bound, a naked giant bites the ground:
The shadow of a monstrous wing looms on his back: and still no sound.

Beyond the isle a rock that screams like madmen shouting in their dreams,
From whose dark issues night and day blood crashes in a thousand streams.

Beyond the rock is Restful Bay, where no wind breathes or ripple stirs,
And there on Roman ships, they say, stand rows of metal mariners.
Do you see yet why I think it's a fantasy novel in disguise? I had a year or so when got obsessed with it and made several awful and luckily abortive attempts to write the book hiding in it, because the book hiding in it would be amazing.

Things sort of tail off after the sea-shanty part, excitement-wise, and we get a bit about saucy Eastern commercialism and then another bit about emotive Eastern mysticism, but all the same, I love this poem. I love it ridiculously and unreservedly and despite the undeniable fact that it's bloody weird. Actually, that's why I love it. That, and it sounds really nice when you read it out loud.

So there you have it: 'The Gates of Damascus' by James Elroy Flecker, my favourite book-that-isn't.

And a happy National Poetry Day to you.


  1. Hi, Robin,
    This is a fantastic read, a fantasy in a few lines. And you're right. It would make a great book.

  2. Isn't it? I'm glad you liked it! Flecker needs more fans.