I’ve come across a gem of a poetry collection selected and annotated by Lord Wavell called Other Men’s Flowers. His choice is old school and eccentric - publication was an afterthought and so reflects the career soldier’s personality.
As befits a man of action, the poems for the most part are red-bloodied. Robert Browning and Rudyard Kipling are strongly represented with G K Chesterton and John Masefield in attendance. Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Milton don’t get a look in lacking, according to Wavell, human warmth and humour. Both of which mattered much to him.
He lost an eye at Ypres in 1915, rose to Field Marshall in the Second World War and was created a viscount when he became the penultimate viceroy of India in 1943. His private passion had been memorising and reciting poems to family and friends; his anthology was first published a year later. He died in 1950.
I don’t necessarily agree with all his judgements but as his son writes in a foreword this is “an anthology of poems about people, of men and women in their loves and in their sorrows, voyaging, fighting, laughing in all the human situations of the mystery of life and death.” And that’s for me.
The collection is divided into categories that also give a clue to the man. There is the almost embarrassed-sounding segment Love And All That – compare it to the punchy Good Fighting and The Call Of The Wild sections.
As a condition of publication Wavell was asked to write introductions to the different parts and add notes to some of the poems themselves. It is these observations which continue to keep the volume in print.
Here is Wavell on T S Eliot: “I look on him as one who has sinned against the light of poetry by wrapping his great talent in the napkin of obscurity.”
Of the country’s favourite poem If, though a Kipling fan, Wavell dismisses it as one of his most “hackneyed.”
Wavell the warrior writes: “It is a law of life which has yet to be broken that a nation can only earn the right to live soft by being prepared to die hard in defence of its living.”
To finish on a poem (and sometime music hall ditty) from Wavell’s The Lighter Side selection, I noted that one of the few anonymous entries is Poor But Honest, which begins “She was poor, but she was honest/Victim of the squire’s whim.” The final stanza says all there is about Chancellor George Osborne’s claim that we’re all in it together as he wields the spending scythe.
“It’s the same the whole world over;
It’s the poor that gets the blame,
It’s the rich that gets the pleasure.
Isn’t it a blooming shame?”