This first edition of Heather Walker's biography of James Elroy Flecker is so rough that it reads like a proof copy. In fact it obviously is a proof copy, or something worse, rushed into print with little or no effort at correction. Some of the many mistakes look suspiciously like careless writing, weakness in English, or howling errors of fact - Virginia Woolf's maiden name, for example, is given as 'Stephens' on pages 224 and 272 and under S in the index, although a note on page 654, and the index entry 'Woolf, Virginia' do both carry the correct spelling.
Look at the following lines from a Flecker poem on page 103 of Walker's book, and see if you notice anything unusual about them:
"Like a dull bee the steamer plies,
And settles on the jutting pier:
The barques, like monster butterflies,
Round idle headlands idly veer.
He scored through 'vast' and replaced it with 'dull'."
The book is quite consistent in doing this sort of thing when least expected; another example is that on pages 531-2, an extract from one of Flecker's letters, the continuation of Walker's own paragraph, and Flecker's dedication of a poem are all lumped together as indented text.
Worse still, certain phrases taken from Rupert Brooke ("While other sing..." page 243) and Flecker himself ("We cross mountains, vallies..." page 245; "The poems are proceeded by a most polemical preface..." page 499, "my first draught of Hassan" page 538, "I am translating Vergil... What ill the Futurists say?" page 555) also raise possibly libellous questions about the poets' own choices of words.
One cannot further expect that just because Flecker had close connections with Greece, his biographer should familiarise herself with the use of the letters of the Greek language, yet it does seem a pity that Ms Walker should spell the only Greek text she includes in the book, the word for 'vampire' (page 405), in a way which would look to the Greeks rather like 'vdmpnre' does to the English reader.
Is the authoress perhaps winking slyly at us when she records on page 500 that Flecker had managed "to hoof out all sorts of godless rot" including "a horrible misprint" from the proofs of his volume The Golden Journey to Samarkand, mentions a remark by Flecker about "the gross carelessness of the printers" (page 513), quotes from letters in which Flecker says that "correcting proofs is rather convenient work for an invalid" (page 516) and "I have had to make a great many alterations in the proofs which is a plague" (page 547), repeats some sarcastic remarks by Flecker about a possible misprint in a poem he dislikes (page 529), notes that the poet "trembled to think of the printer's bill for altered proofs" (page 548) or when (page 730) she coolly states that the 1946 edition of Flecker's Collected Poems "contains misprints"? More to the point, is it fair to the memory of an ailing and poverty-stricken poet, who obviously took great pains to tidy up his own work before he died at the age of 30, to make money out of him by marketing a book so riddled with errata?
A deeper annoyance eventually replaces that caused by the errors, owing to the authoress's continual tendency to speculate and 'read between the lines', over-using expressions such as "could have", "might perhaps have", "must have", and "may possibly", referring archly to "the hidden Beazley factor" or "the Firbank element" in teasing out suggestions of homosexuality, and modifying or contradicting her own statements, for instance with 'but' and then another 'but' again in the same sentence:
"He did not publish 'Soon she will come...' but he did publish 'Light are your eyes', which can be described as an Eleanor poem, but he did not republish it in his anthologies, which is one of the means of assessing his dissatisfaction with it." (page 378)
On page 450: "Whether Brooke caught the idea for the theme of the poem from Flecker, either consciously or unconsciously, it is not possible to say."
Well why say anything then?
The following passage, from pages 473-4, is also typical:
"Hellé went on to say that her husband was in high spirits, which would send a hidden message to anyone who was aware of the true sequence of events, that being in Oxford with her was a much happier experience compared to his recent reunion with his male friends. If this was a message and not just a lapse of memory, it was in keeping with the spirit that lay between the lines of her published account of her life with her husband."
A badly-typed biography laced with demure hints and women's magazine allusiveness might be all right if its 700-odd pages also contained mainly relevant information, but the author repeatedly bores us with technical correspondence between Flecker and his employers and publishers when other more interesting material could have been brought to the fore. Flecker's wife was Greek. In October 1912, at the outbreak of the First Balkan War, in which Greece was a belligerent against Turkey, the couple were resident in the Lebanon, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Significant? Not really. Walker tells us merely that Hellé was unwell at the time and then records the minutiae of Flecker's application for a month's leave from the Consular Service. Chapter 10 ends with an over-detailed account of plans made by figures on the London literary scene to include some of the poet's work in a new anthology. We hear nothing of the excitement of the First Balkan War going on practically all around them until Hellé is informed, at the start of Chapter 11, that the Greek army has captured Salonika. By this time, however, the Fleckers are on board ship for Alexandria, en route to Marseilles, as fed up with the Lebanon as the reader is fast becoming with Heather Walker.
On page 481 there is a brief mention of a December 1912 article by Flecker entitled 'What Insecurity in Turkey means with some general reflections on the impending Armenian question.' However, Walker is far too interested in what she sees as the Fleckers' "depressed state" on leaving England to concern herself with the poet's comments on relations between Turkey and the Armenians, which remains one of the most controversial issues of our age. Her endnote 1575 (they run like an unstoppable computer printout from 1 to 2000, without reference to chapter or page) refers to a manuscript in the library of the University of Edinburgh, and includes, as often in this book, a cryptic and unexplained reference ('Sar. Coll. 15'). The article is mentioned again on page 544 in the context of a letter written by Flecker to a publisher. The rest is silence.
There are other, subtler deficiencies. Consider the following paragraph, from page 491:
"Flecker's more open approach to the writing of his feelings about lovemaking with his wife is in contrast to the steps he was prepared to make to tone down his verse to suit the reader when the verse would be published. The day before he set off up the Beirut river valley (31 January) he wrote to Monro confirming that he would write the John Davidson article for the June number of The Poetry Review. He had agreed while he was in Paris to making alterations to Hassan because he had said that he honestly agreed with Marsh and was not being 'amiable'. He agreed to Monro's taking out a verse from the poem that was to be entitled 'The Golden Journey to Samarkand' due to be published in Monro's Poetry and Drama in March."
A bit difficult to read, eh? That is because the first of these four wordy sentences establishes the theme of Flecker modifying his poetry for publication, but the second sentence appears to be about something else. Then, somewhat in the manner of a Japanese Haiku, except that this is prose, the two unrelated strands are brought together by the third sentence, whose use of the past perfect tense refers confusingly to events at a much earlier time. The fourth sentence completes the idea established in the first, and only if the second and third sentences are skipped over does the thought develop logically. There is a great deal of this grasshopper-like jumping from point to point in Walker's writing, and a marked tendency to irrelevance, incoherence, tediousness and repetition (for example, page 518 repeats almost a whole paragraph from page 494).
'Roses and Rain', then, is not a book I would recommend as an introduction to the life of James Elroy Flecker, and I would hesitate to pass it on to little children or sensitive souls - not because of any eccentricities on the part of its subject, but because of an irritating style and textual deficiencies that might mislead the young and infuriate the irascible. Nevertheless, it does contain some photographs, and enough solid information to be useful enough to anybody who would like to know more about this fascinating poet.