James Elroy Flecker (5 November 1884 – 3 January 1915) was a British novelist, playwright, and poet, whose poetry was most influenced by the Parnassian poets.

Flecker, in his rooms at Cambridge (circa 1905)

Biography edit

Herman Elroy Flecker was born on 5 November 1884 in Lewisham, London, to William Herman Flecker, headmaster of Dean Close School, Cheltenham, and his wife Sarah.[1] His much younger brother was the educationalist Henry Lael Oswald Flecker, who became Headmaster of Christ's Hospital.[2]

Flecker later chose to use the first name "James", either because he disliked the name "Herman" or to avoid confusion with his father. "Roy", as his family called him, was educated at Dean Close School, and then at Uppingham. He subsequently studied at Trinity College, Oxford, and at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. While at Oxford he was greatly influenced by the last flowering of the Aesthetic movement there under John Addington Symonds, and became a close friend of the classicist and art historian John Beazley.[3]

From 1910 Flecker worked in the consular service in the Eastern Mediterranean. On a ship to Athens he met Helle Skiadaressi,[4] and they were married in 1911.

Flecker died on 3 January 1915, of tuberculosis, in Davos, Switzerland, and was buried in Bouncer's Lane Cemetery, Cheltenham. His death at the age of thirty was described at the time as "unquestionably the greatest premature loss that English literature has suffered since the death of Keats".[5]

Helle Flecker settled in England. She edited Flecker's Letters: Some Letters from Abroad of James Elroy Flecker, published by Heinemann in 1930 "with a few reminiscences by Helle Flecker".[6] In 1935, she was awarded a government pension of £90 a year "in recognition of the services rendered by her husband to poetry".[7] Helle Flecker survived her husband for more than 45 years, dying in Sunbury-on-Thames in October 1961.[8]

Works and influence edit

Flecker's life and works were the subject of Life of James Elroy Flecker, a biography by Geraldine Hodgson published in 1925, relying on letters and other material provided by Flecker's mother.[9] She summarised his contribution as "singular in our literature". However, this comment and her book received a damning review in The Calendar, which called it "sentimental and prudish... conceited and irrelevant".[10]

Flecker's poem The Golden Journey to Samarkand was published in 1913, but only found its larger context when his play, Hassan, was published.

Hassan (The Story of Hassan of Baghdad and How He Came to Make the Golden Journey to Samarkand) is a five-act drama in prose with verse passages. It tells the story of Hassan, a young man from Baghdad who embarks on a journey to Samarkand, a city in Central Asia. Along the way, he encounters various challenges and obstacles, including bandits, treacherous terrain, and political turmoil.

Hassan was published posthumously in 1922 and had not been staged in Flecker’s lifetime. Instead, it premiered in 1923, with instrumental music by Frederick Delius. The production included incidental music, songs, dances, and choral episodes. It caught the fancy of English audiences at the time, perhaps because of the escape implied in its exotic setting and a post-war vogue for oriental imagery, and its wistful ending of death, by execution, and a hoped for reunion and love in the afterlife, a theme that would have resonated for the survivors of the Great War, remembering those who died in the war. Delius's nostalgic music also contributed to the success of the production.

The excerpt from Flecker's verse drama Hassan ... the Golden Journey to Samarkand) inscribed on the clock tower of the barracks of the British Army's 22 Special Air Service regiment in Hereford provides an enduring testimony to Flecker's work:

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea.

The same extract appears on the Special Air Service Memorial in Herefordshire[11] the New Zealand Special Air Service monument at Rennie Lines in the Papakura Military Camp in New Zealand, and at the Indian Army's Special Forces Training School in Nahan, Himachal Pradesh, India.[12]

A character in the second volume of Anthony Powell's novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, is said to be "fond of intoning" the lines For lust of knowing what we should not know / We take the Golden Road to Samarkand, without an attribution to Flecker. (This is in fact a misquotation, the original reads "...what should not be known").

Saki's short story "A Defensive Diamond" (in Beasts and Super-Beasts, 1914) references "The Golden Journey to Samarkand".

Agatha Christie quotes Flecker several times, especially in her final novel, Postern of Fate (1973). "Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing. Have you heard That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?"

Jorge Luis Borges quotes a quatrain from Flecker's poem "To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence" in his essay "Note on Walt Whitman" (available in the collection Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952):

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.

Nevil Shute quotes from Hassan in Marazan (1926), his first published novel, and in the headings of many of the chapters in his 1951 novel Round the Bend.

The Pilgrims' Song from Hassan and its setting by Delius play a pivotal role at the beginning of Elizabeth Goudge's novel The Castle on the Hill (1942).[13]

Tracy Bond quotes an amended stanza from Hassan in the 1969 film On Her Majesty's Secret Service as she looks out of the window of Piz Gloria at the sun rising over the Swiss alps:

Thy dawn, O Master of the World, thy dawn;
For thee the sunlight creeps across the lawn,
For thee the ships are drawn down to the waves,
For thee the markets throng with myriad slaves,
For thee the hammer on the anvil rings,
For thee the poet of beguilement sings.

The original in Flecker's play is more romantic, and makes clear that the Caliph is being addressed, not the Almighty:

Thy dawn O Master of the world, thy dawn;
The hour the lilies open on the lawn,
The hour the grey wings pass beyond the mountains,
The hour of silence, when we hear the fountains,
The hour that dreams are brighter and winds colder,
The hour that young love wakes on a white shoulder,
O Master of the world, the Persian Dawn.

That hour, O Master, shall be bright for thee:
Thy merchants chase the morning down the sea,
The braves who fight thy war unsheathe the sabre,
The slaves who work thy mines are lashed to labour,
For thee the waggons of the world are drawn –
The ebony of night, the red of dawn!

In Flashman at the Charge (1973), author George MacDonald Fraser concludes a final scene with a decasyllable quatrain pastiche in Flecker’s style. Following many misadventures suffered by the book’s picaresque hero Harry Flashman, brother-in-arms rebel leader Yakub Beg waxes poetic and evokes the mystique of middle Asia with its concomitant voyage of self-discovery and friendships hard-won by reciting:

To learn the age-old lesson day by day:
It is not in the bright arrival planned,
But in the dreams men dream along the way,
They find the Golden Road to Samarkand.

Flecker's poem "The Bridge of Fire" features in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, in the volume The Wake, and The Golden Journey to Samarkand is quoted in the volume World's End.

In Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy",[14] the young English Literature lecturer Dr Pran Kapoor attempts to reduce colonial influence in the syllabus and suggests removing Flecker (to make room for James Joyce). Professor Mishra disagrees and quotes from "The Gates of Damascus"

Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing. Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird.[15]

Works edit

Poetry edit

  • The Bridge of Fire (1907)
  • Thirty-Six Poems (1910)
  • Forty-Two Poems (1911) (e-book)[16]
  • The Golden Journey to Samarkand (1913)
  • The Old Ships (1915)
  • Collected Poems (1916)

Novels edit

  • The Last Generation: A Story of the Future (1908)
  • The King of Alsander (1914)

Drama edit

  • Hassan (1922; full title Hassan: The Story of Hassan of Baghdad and How he Came to Make the Golden Journey to Samarkand)
  • Incidental music to the play was written by Frederick Delius in 1920, before the play's publication, and first performed in September 1923.[17]
  • Don Juan (1925)

Other edit

  • The Grecians (1910)
  • The Scholars' Italian Book (1911)
  • Collected Prose (1920)
  • The Letters of J.E. Flecker to Frank Savery (1926)
  • Some Letters from Abroad of James Elroy Flecker (1930)

References edit

  1. ^ Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, Grevel Lindop, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 380
  2. ^ "Henry Lael Oswald Flecker (1896–1958), Headmaster of Christ's Hospital". Art UK. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  3. ^ "Beazley, J[ohn] D[avidson], Sir". Dictionary of Art Historians. Retrieved 14 June 2012.
  4. ^ Walker, Heather. Roses and Rain (2006). Melrose Books. ISBN 1-905226-06-3
  5. ^ "James Elroy Flecker, About.com". Classiclit.about.com. 3 January 1915. Archived from the original on 21 June 2015. Retrieved 23 August 2014.
  6. ^ "Flecker's Letters", The Scotsman, Thursday 15 January 1931, page 2
  7. ^ "ONE TO DRAMATIST'S WIDOW: HIS PLAY BROADCAST THIS WEEK", Daily Herald, Wednesday 10 July 1935, page 6: "Another woman recipient is Mrs. Helle Flecker, in recognition of the services rendered by her husband, the late Mr. James Elroy Flecker, to poetry. She receives £9O."
  8. ^ "FLECKER Helle of Sunbury Nursing Home Sunbury Middlesex widow died 27 October 1961" in Wills and Administrations (England and Wales) 1961 (Probate Office, 1962), p. 393
  9. ^ Hodgson, Geraldine Emma (1925). The Life of James Elroy Flecker: From Letters and Materials Provided by His Mother. Basil Blackwell. ISBN 9780827429314.
  10. ^ Rickword, Edgell; Garman, D. (14 January 2014). Calendar Modern Letts 4v Cb: Cal of Modern Letters. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-14773-0.
  11. ^ Popham, Peter (30 May 1996). "SAS confronts its enemy within". The Independent.
  12. ^ Staff (15 September 2009). "The Selected Few – Training in the SAS". [New Zealand Army]. Archived from the original on 18 September 2010.
  13. ^ Elizabeth Goudge, The Castle on the Hill, Chapters I.i, II.i
  14. ^ Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy, chapter 1.16
  15. ^ Flecker, James Elroy. "The Gates of Damascus". Retrieved 21 January 2023 – via Allpoetry.
  16. ^ Forty-Two Poems by James Elroy Flecker – Free Ebook. Gutenberg.org. 1 January 2002. Retrieved 23 August 2014.
  17. ^ "Delius-hassan-review-1923". Thompsonian.info. 29 September 1923. Retrieved 23 August 2014.

Sources edit

  • James Elroy Flecker (1922) by Douglas Goldring
  • An Essay on Flecker (1937) by T. E. Lawrence
  • No Golden Journey: A Biography of James Elroy Flecker (1973) by John Sherwood
  • James Elroy Flecker (1976) by John M. Munro
  • "Hassan" (1922) by James Elroy Flecker, Windmill Press, as reprinted 1946

External links edit