‘Other Men’s Flowers’ selected and annotated by Lord Wavell. see below for details.
This is written partly to hang on the coat-tails of a recent Desert Island Discs on radio4 with Dame Judy Dench as the figure to be abandoned on an island. This book was her ‘additional’ book with the proviso that it was an audio-book read by her daughter.
The other part of the reason is that I had seen it in secondhand and charity shops on three separate occasions but as tatty hardbacks from printings of 1944 or soon after. I had been tempted but a backlog held me back. Not forgetting this summer was the 75th anniversary of Dunkirk. The coincidence of her choice prompted me to get a new copy.
Wavell read and remembered poetry widely throughout his life. Less in the war years (wwII) when he relied on his facility for poetic recall. Kipling and Browning could have been his favourites. Kipling, Browning and Chesterton have the largest numbers of poems included by far and the rest cover a broad range of poetry through the ages. There 108 other poets, including quite a few Anons and approximately 260 poems or extracts, long and short. A taste of the variety of poets is: Blake, WH Davies, John Buchan, Edward Lear, Jean Ingelow, Burns, Housman, Belloc, Robert Frost and on, up and down the ages
Wavell ( not a Lord when he put this collection together in 1943) said in his introduction that the poems were noted down as favourites by him and with the help of his family in reminding him of their favourites he would read and recite for them.
His introduction to the first, his son’s introduction to the last (memorial edition) help define context of the man and the collection. The book is divided into nine sections and each has a briefing by Wavell on the theme and poems selected which also adds to our understanding of the man. If you cast an eye over the list of headings: music, mystery and magic; good fighting; love and all that; the call of the wild; conversation pieces;the lighter side; hymns of hate; ragbag; Last post and lastly: outside the gate. This last is purely one sonnet, by Wavell, followed by a brief note about that sonnet and a final paragraph by his son ending with a soldier’s poem.
There are a great many poets not included that you might have expected. You will not see Pound, Auden, Eliot, many of the now regular, more modern poets of the early 20th Century or those of purely pastoral or natural bent. No Wordsworth, Clare or Edward Thomas. Any collection will have gaps and you may think there are many here but remember this is a selection of personal favourites that supported and inspired him throughout his military campaigns.
Not that such a book can tell all of a man but ‘Other Men’s Flowers’ surely puts a large marker on the place of poetry in the world. One man’s, Wavell’s remarkable knowledge of and memory for, poetry, is that marker for inspiration. It shows he was a military man through and through, that he was a man of wide reading but based to an age before poetry had one of its periodic bursts into new territory such as the ‘new’ poetry consolidated and moved on by the First World War. A few poets of this period are included though positioning their poetry style may pre date it. Classics and the Orient are much in vogue, obviously themes and compositions that held up well in Wavell’s view on life and poetry. Classics and the Orient were still ‘popular’ as themes for poets and subjects that were still important for study at University and likely needed for many potential high level students and professions. No doubt elements of public take-up were led by the mystery still pertaining to the East and what is now spoken of as ‘the Great Game’.
The Poems, short, long or just a few extracted lines stand up well to quoting aloud and the rhythms and rhymes often act as an aid to memorising. Remember that memorising poetry as well as much else, was a requirement in many schools and households at the turn of the 19th to 20th Century. Pre-radio even……..Reading, reciting,singing, music and additional entertainment among friends was a pre-requisite for visiting or hosting friends and acquaintances.
This is not a time to pick out any of my favourite poems or poets but there are plenty there to make it an anthology worth keeping. As long as you appreciate the styles of the poems and extracts have a somewhat dated feel compared to reading a collection containing more modern poets and poet’s selections. You either have to be old enough or hooked into the poets of an earlier age. No surprise when you remember the book was first published some seventy years ago.
Well I do have to leave a little keep-sake from the book:
An extract from Samson Agonistes by John Milton
Nothing for Tears.
Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast; no weakness, no contempt,
Dispraise or blame; nothing but well and fair
And what may quiet us in a death so noble
By the way, thank you Dame Judy for prompting me to dip into a remarkable anthology. In the last few laughing seconds of the programme she may have whispered that she wanted none of the records but I like to think she would hang on to this book.
Other men’s flowers: selected and annotated by Lord Wavell
Pimlico £15.99 paperback 978 071265342 8