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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence, An Essay on Flecker


Note: drafted at Clouds Hill in 1925, but never completed. Reprinted here from a facsimile of the manuscript published as an appendix to the first thirty copies of Men in Print (London, Golden Cockerel Press, 1940)

'Let Miss Davis wait meanwhile in your room,' said the Consul... as I passed out under escort of the long-legged, short-bodied young Vice-Consul to a side room of the British Vice-Consulate at Beyrout. A wooden chair, obviously for the desk: a cane chair - that should do for me. The Vice-Consul slid uneasily into his place. 'Sorry, not much to read', said he, pushing dossiers over the file of La Vie to the right of his blotter, and La Rire to the left, the only papers on the table. I stared at three fine framed photographs of Greek temples. My second yawn stirred him to confidence. 'Beyrout's a hole... but this Consulate! My God how I hate respectable people.' I said something about the importance of being a Consul, here in Turkey with extra-territorial privileges like a diplomat. 'They rate us pretty cheap, all the same', replied he. 'A riot here in Beyrout that time when the ice-cream fellows bombarded the port. I was driving down to the Hotel with K. the Finnish Vice. The mob took us for Italians, and would have lynched us, but for the driver who stuck to his box, and a splendid police fellow, who came across to our rescue. The Russians rewarded him with fifty pounds. Our Embassy sent him a silver cigarette case.' Flecker sniffed sharply... for he valued himself well: by inner conviction, not panache.

'What's this Georgian Poetry book?' asked I once, disparaging in my innocence. 'Oh,' said he, 'a collection of all our stuffs – jolly useful. Shows how much better a poet I am than my contemporaries.' This was not panache on Flecker's part: he was wrapped up in poetics, making a wide, exact, skilful study of how other men had written. He left untouched no one of the sources of European verse. His education had given him scholarship to master ancient Greece and Rome. His profession had taught him some classical Arabic, some Turkish. His practise made him acquainted with modern Greek. French was a daily language to him: and his inherited Jewish aptitude for languages made it not arduous to keep abreast of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese. Only Russian, I think, remained deliberately strange. It was too northly for this Mediterranean Semite.

We were both living in the Deutscher Hof, that plain but clean German hotel on the east side of Beyrout harbour. Flecker stalked in, Mrs F. before him, protective. The vice-consuls, Russian, German, American, since for them cleanliness was good and plainness essential, lived there together and dined in its dining hall at mutually-repulsive tables. The Austrian one (just a functionary, who had married a ramrod), the Dane (who at least doesn't attempt not to look a spy) were easily dismissed. Flecker had been at fisticuffs with the German a little while before: had floored him in the hotel hall. Almost it had been a scandal... but the simoon was coming in sultry and damp, and the blue-bottle scandal-flies too limp to buzz through the heat. For England perhaps, for F. was furiously British: patriotic, 'God save King' exile, nostalgic, and knowing himself landless, clung desperately to [?fiction]. No. Some difference upon a point of taste, I believe. Was it Aristophanes? Flecker had just got the big Aldini Aristophanes from Orioli's, of Florence, and was spending hours and eyesight crawling about its convoluted type in hot chase of classical jests. Puns it was that he most wanted then. His passion for words extended even to the abuse of them. They had a monstrous beauty, like the hind-quarters of an elephant.

Slowly he and I made friends. This strange gawky figure felt the banishment of hot Beyrout, the steamy harbour, the formal consulate, the slow sourness of boiled cabbage which smelled through the hotel. He had shifted his quarters across the road to a kitchen-free annexe, where he had rooms, and a bit of roof, some Greek island embroideries, draperies to disguise irrepressibly German furniture... books, cascades of books. 'That's a lovely thing', said he. It was an Austrian printed cotton, too simple, one would have thought, for his grasp.

Flecker's gestures were personal things, sudden always, graceful as far as they went, but always unfinished... as though his mind was passing to another subject before the physical accompaniment was complete. They were too undisguised to be English - but what was English in this curious high-coloured sun-coloured man, with his gawky build and inquiring carriage of the head, his restless fingers smoothing the dark moustache which reduced, without wholly concealing, the sensuality of the mouth? The dark eyebrows, indeterminate nose. Not English, no: yet not Jewish either: like a sensitised edition of his young brother, who is the only living thing I have seen to remind me of him. Mrs F. Choiseul-Gouffier period - fifth century, and archaic fifth, when form still loomed bigger perhaps to the artist than meaning. Which F. was later: third century, Hellenistic.

Some of the corrupt early stuff was I feel sure Herman Flecker's work: I feel assured that 'Flecker', the mature poet whom we know as F., was James Hellé Flecker... as some of the early rococo stuff was rather Herman than James. It was the union of F. and his wife which wrought the miracle, which alloyed his too-soft gold into a metal fit for our use.

It wasn't the Fakir, the pilgrim, the hermit, the ascetic of the East, nor the poor man who called to Flecker's spirit. By instinct, by taste, by upbringing, by inheritance, his was the town-life of rich Syria, the satins and silks, perfumes, sweetmeats, grocers and Syrian boys. Dim-silked dark-haired musicians. Ah, if he could have thought of those in the next street but one. In the next street he grew sated with the nearness of them. In his street - and he longed for Marlborough Downs. It is restless, is life, for the man whose blood mates North and South. (N.W. and S.E.)

Beyrout market.

De la Mare's Arabia.

Areya, the marble pillars and stone arches of verandah: clean bright rooms suffused with Mrs F.'s love of form. F. very ill now (she Malta fever), half-sobbing with joy at the wind sighing in the pines – ('real trees, trees such as you might see in England') walking on the carpet of their needles: Roman aqueduct: asphodel: rocks on 'his' hill. Carelessly flung beneath a tree talking of women's slippers, and of whippings, of revising Hassan. Viola Tree walks like a leopard (no great miracle if you know the Egyptians.... it must have been a phrase of that week: he said it twice, gustingly)...

Dressing up Bedouin camel-hair cloak, camel-driver's heavy black merino head-knot, Hama brocade head-cloth. Photographed by some earlier visitor, one bare forearm thrust forward, to show woman's beaten silver old Damascus bangle on wrist.

There, these are such poor fragments of delight. Flecker is dead. 'Do write me a word. I'm sick, and very miserable' was the last post-card, from his cruel mountain-side in Switzerland. With him there went out the sweetest singer of the war generation.


[Later draft of two sections] This man with the abrupt graceful unfinished movements, the full spirit, the fiery temper, the lust after all luscious surfaces and experiences of life. A strong physical frame, as yet little sapped by insidious disease.

Mrs Flecker, the poised dignity and sweetness of her. The pure corrective to what was garish and excessive in Flecker, superabundant. May one call him a little Jewish in his love of colour and scent, his rioting taste? Downright English in his physical brutality and efficiency, his fighting fists, his long springing stride which carried him through the knee-deep asphodel, up and down the rock-slopes of Lebanon behind Beyrout, his classical bent thrilled to discover traces of Imperial Rome here in a rock-cut road, there in an inscription, or in the lovely aqueduct which spanned Beyrout river just above the town. Flecker was a Gadarene Greek, and kinsman of Meleager whose poems he came too near worshipping to hope to translate - spendthrift of emotion, loving men and sometimes women, showy, joyous (sinking when ill soon to despair), feeling every joy and sorrow sharply, always embroidering, curling, powdering, painting, his loves and his ideals, demonstrative, showy, self-advertising, happy.

... the large Aldine Aristophanes, and was chasing his old memories of pleasure about the intricate convolutions of its Greek type. Puns.


Editorial note. The origin of this essay is explained in a letter of 24 April 1925 from Lawrence to Robert Graves: 'If you ever see Edgell Rickword, tell him please that for days I struggled to put on paper my recollections of Flecker in Syria: a theme I thought fitting for the Calendar... but my rotten little engine conked out' (B:RG pp. 29-30). The Calendar of Modern Letters, edited by Rickword, was at that time an influential literary periodical.

The manuscript of the Essay is partly drafted in a condensed form, while some of Lawrence's amendments and additions are difficult to read. Other changes should have led to re-working of the original text, but did not. He would have removed such blemishes if he had completed the essay but, as things stand, the text is not entirely coherent. The main draft is followed by two re-worked passages but, as the original versions were not crossed out, one cannot tell which Lawrence preferred.

The Essay on Flecker was first published by the Corvinus Press in 1937. There was also a small American printing that year to protect copyright. These editions followed the manuscript, but contained a number of mis-readings and mistaken editorial changes. In 1940 A. W. Lawrence published an edited text in Men in Print, and a note (pp. 9-10 of the Introduction) sets out the basis for his version. He also reproduced Hellé Flecker's opinion of the text. Her statement that Flecker showed no Jewish traits is, perhaps, understandable at that date, since the population of Greece, her native country, was under threat from Nazi Germany. A Jewish connection might have put members of her family in danger.

I have preferred Lawrence's manuscript to his brother's edited version, except for one or two brief passages where the text is incoherent. In these instances I have used what seemed to me the best of the earlier interpretations.

JW

Source: MIP
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 6 January 2006




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