Monday, July 25, 2011

Egerton Clarke: A Final Look at the Man and his Work

After a month of almost full-time study, I feel as if Egerton Arthur Crossman Clarke—orphan, scholar, soldier, poet, librarian, and art director—has become a part of me.

While I can appreciate and enjoy Clarke's poetry, I'll admit to being far more of a "free verse" sort of fellow, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda being my one of my favourites, along with American Langston Hughes. Egerton's early work in couplets and quatrains simply doesn't move me the way I am certain he would have preferred, and any critique I could offer, save a dim "I like it," would be embarrassingly uninformed.

To the rescue comes friend of the website Jennifer M., an English Literature major from prestigious Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Over the past few weeks of my obsession with Egerton Clarke, I've shared information and his poetry with her, and she has generously consented to share with us her thoughts on our subject.

The real beauty of what she has written is found in being able to follow her along the linear path of her thinking about Egerton Clarke, his life, and his work. Flavoring it along the way with thoughts of the poetry she's read, as well as some personal experience and the influence of outside readings she has done, makes the result a commentary, rooted in informed speculation, on the life and times of Clarke, and to a degree, George Mills.

Mostly regarding Clarke's text, Kezil and Other Poems, and presented in her own words, here it is, interrupted only an occasional note answering any questions she had along the way. You can also click HERE to read the poems in a different window as she discusses them.

Sunday, June 26, 2011 11:49 AM

What really interests me is the dedication. Ernest "opened the door for me," Gerald "opened my eyes once and for all," and the mysterious "Kezil" who inspired so much. My first thought is that Egerton was gay, and he's subtly paying tribute to friends/lovers who helped him come out in some small way. The poem refers to Kezil as a "she" but of course that could have been just for cover.

It's an interesting coincidence that you would send me this now, because I just added Wilfred Owens' poetry [Owen is pictured, right] to my Amazon wish list, and Clarke's book was written around the same time. I know I had read "Dulce et Decorum Est" in high school or college at some point; when I read it again just recently I appreciated it on a whole new level, and I decided I would like to read more of his poetry. Clarke's poetry is different, of course, not all about the horrors of war.

I often prefer "old fashioned" poets like Clarke or Owens; I can understand what they're trying to say, and because they don't use the surrealistic or outlandish imagery of later poets, the ideas can really sink in more easily.

I like "Kezil." It's very romantic in a mysterious, "Far East" kind of way. The imagery of all the red and the sun and the feast on the lawn reminds me of some of the imagery of Maugham's stories. I imagine a landscape hot, maybe in the desert, the sky is shades of red, orange and gold, and lying about as the heat starts to increase as the sun rises, remembering the lovemaking of the night before as "poems of his body's memory/Carved upon the lawn." Clarke is remembering all this from a long time ago, and it was so wonderful he thinks it may have been "but a garden dream." The poem is "writ/But as yet unread," maybe because Clarke never told "Kezil" of his feelings for her/him?

Feel free to tell me I'm way off base, if I am. But I have a feeling I'm pretty close.

I loved "Shadows" because the imagery is of a time that I enjoy reading and watching movies about: a graceful old England, tea in the garden but not a simple picnic, no, we have a table with lace cloth and the good china things brought out to the garden by the servants. It reminds me of some reading I've done about the British Raj, where these people in India would go on an outing and take half a dozen donkeys with tents, furniture, household utensils, and loads of other things just to spend the day outdoors, but in
comfort and with as much style as they would have at home. I was just out on my balcony cooling off before coming in to write this, and while I just have my little folding chair, it is nice to sit outside, away from TV and music and internet, and just laze around with a book on my lap, or just look around me at the trees, thinking my thoughts.

Monday, June 27, 2011 7:30 PM

It occurred to me yesterday after I sent you my thoughts about Egs that maybe I was viewing him through "Maugham colored glasses," so to speak. I've read most of Maugham's works and two biographies of him (the best by far is The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings). He was gay, but for most of his life homosexuality was illegal in England, so he constantly had to hide who he was. He traveled all over the world, where in some places it was more tolerated, and retired to France. He had two long term relationships (Gerald Haxton and Alan Searle) and a number of other lovers, as well as a wife (Syrie) for cover, who bore him a daughter (Liza). The caption under the first picture of him is "a lonely child, guarded and withdrawn." People who knew him guessed that having to hide his sexuality went a long way towards making him a guarded and private person in general, who often had little tolerance for other people's foolishness. His stories are brilliant, his travel writing also fascinating, yet most people who knew him felt they didn't really know him. There is one *ahem* remarkable picture in the book of Maugham and some male friends sunbathing nude. So on their private estates they could let their hair down a little, but they also had to be careful who was around.

Anyway, I realized that I was applying many of these standards to Egs, and assuming he was gay. And they could all be true, or none of them true. But that dedication sticks with me. I'd be curious to see the dedications in his other books. I think the one in Kezil is one of the longest I've seen in any book. Do you have any idea who Gerald Crow and Ernest Duggan were? (And I agree with Egs that deciding who to dedicate your first book to would be a difficult choice, which makes his selection of Gerald and Ernest all the more significant.)

[Crow was an influential poet at Oxford during the time. Duggan did not attend Oxford, and there is not enough information about him to identify him from among the many Ernest Duggans of the era.]

I was thinking too about George, and your comments in your croquet article that there was really no trace of him after WWII, except for the croquet results. I imagine it would be hard for him, serving as an Army paymaster but not serving in the Army itself, handing out pay to men he knew might never come home. That could mess with your head. Do you know how George and Egs met? Was it in the Army?

[As we know, Egerton served almost exclusively with the Army Pay Corps in Winchester, Hampshire, where he became acquainted with George Mills, during his months in the military.]

After living through WWII, with Nazi rockets slamming right into your house, I can see how one would want to retire and just play croquet for the rest of your life. After something like that, maybe stories about boys' schools didn't seem so consequential anymore. I'm sure a lot of things that seemed important wouldn't matter much anymore after an experience like that. Perhaps some of the real boys he based the characters on died in the war.

So, back to the poems (in no particular order).

Envy: Well, I saw a whole bunch of "the love that dare not speak its name" in this poem. Making of evidence a lie, he dares taste only the seeds, coward comforts, nought is real before the eye, and in spite of all this make-believe, contented he would be. Of course, if the poem turns out to be something else entirely, I'm gonna feel like a goof. But the more I read them over the more I'm convinced he's talking about something he can't really talk about. Do you know what year he was married? I would be interested to see if it was before or after this book was published.

[Clarke married Teresa Kelly at Winchester, Hampshire, in 1926, and they had three children together.]

Reverie: This one made me sad, because I can relate to his feeling of going back to the places of your childhood and realizing that those days are gone forever. I, too, "understand the present lack of all the half-remembered moods." The places where you were a child may not have changed, but you, the person, surely have. "Is irretrievable the time/When afternoons meant nurse and walk?" Sadly, when you're a grown-up, they do seem to be.

In Hospital: This one brought to mind some of Wilfred Owens' poems. This one is a good portrayal of someone in pain in the hospital, not really aware of their surroundings, but everything makes them uncomfortable and they just want to sleep…

Was Egs in WWI, and was he wounded?

[Exclusive of his first few days under the Colours, Egerton served only in Winchester, Hampshire, in England. He easily could have come in contact with casualties receiving treatment for combat wounds, though.

By the way, is it a mere coincidence that his service and his marriage both occurred in Winchester? Might Teresa even have been one of his nurses?]

Sunday, July 03, 2011 7:31 AM

I've been rethinking my sweeping assertion that Egs and Gerald were gay. I was reminded yesterday of a book by Sharon Marcus called Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England. I've never read it, but I've heard it referenced elsewhere.

In this persuasively argued, provocative book, Marcus makes the case that women in late 19th-century England engaged in intimate friendships—which "the Victorians... believed cultivated the feminine virtues of sympathy and altruism"—that often had a sexual component of visual objectification and even sexual intimacy.

The history of gender and sexuality becomes much more interesting, difficult, and subtle after [reading] Between Women. Reading the love and affection of nineteenth-century women now requires a new level of care and historical self-consciousness that may be painful to possess, as it will remind us of our own losses--of the affection, eroticism, attachment, encouragement, and tremendous fun between the ordinary women--real and fictional--Marcus has so valiantly re-imagined, recovered, and recorded.

I think both men and women can form deep attachments to members of the same gender without it having be a gay or lesbian romantic relationship. I think that's what I was missing when I was looking over Eg's and Gerald's poems. Today people don't generally express such deep emotions so openly. Also taking into account that these men served in WWI, a horrific experience, which would probably bind them closer to their comrades then ordinary friendships. So I withdraw my assertion that I'm certain one or any of them are gay. I just don't know, and there's really no way of knowing, now.

I'm planning to read through Kezil again so I'm sure I'll have more to say about some other of the poems.

Sunday, July 03, 2011 7:40 PM

I've read this poem over several times in a row now, and I'm still not sure what to make of it. On the surface, it's about two people sitting up all night with a friend's body. From reading I know that used to be a custom in many places, that relatives would sit up all night with the dead the first night after they died.

And yet little phrases come in and kind of skew the meaning, and make me think there's something else behind it:

Customary vigil kept
Yet gave no thought to the dead

Knowing Convention had bought
Our silence, we were afraid

But never a thought we took,
For the pale and shuttered eyes

Each thinking the other's thought,
With never a thought for him,

We knew how Custom had bought
Our love for a dead man's whim

So these two people are sitting up with their dead friend, but why aren't they thinking about him? What thought are they sharing? Seeing phrases like "convention has bought our silence" makes me drift back to the idea that Egs was gay, but I'm trying to steer myself away from that, to be open to other interpretations. Whatever is going on between him and the other mourner, it's eating at them both, and they can't think of anything else, and they don't want anyone else to know about it. Something that happened in battle, in WWI? Or they're sitting up with the dead person out of custom, but that don't really want to, it's a "dead man's whim"? I just can't get a handle on that this poem is trying to say, or rather, trying not to say.

Saturday, July 23, 2011 1:33 PM

You know, I'm really starting to second guess myself on the whole "Egs is gay" thing. I was so sure at first, but the more I learn about him from all the research you did, I'm kind of changing my mind. I think he and George were very close friends, sure, but I'm no longer convinced it was anything more than that. I think friendships between people, women or men, were different and sometimes more intense "back in the day," and I was trying to apply that using today's standards. I mean, maybe I was right, but we'll never know for sure.

Saturday, July 23, 2011 7:29 PM

Reading [this] all over, I don't think I really have a summing up to write... Just that Egs was a good poet, and maybe we're not meant to know for sure, much more about him than that.

This missive arouses a notion that has crossed my once in a while during my time researching George Mills: Could George have been gay?

Egerton's dedication, if nothing else, certainly plants the seeds for wondering something like that. He and George had been friends in the Army Pay Corps and likely also at Oxford, although they studied at different colleges: Mills at Christ Church and Clarke at Keble.

They both were extremely sensitive individuals who probably never fit into the regimentation of the military, and perhaps not even into the institutional discipline required for success at Oxon. It seems they may have relied upon one another to make their way through those experiences, although it seems as if Mills may have been more reliant on the Clarke, who ostensibly had been an orphan and already must have had ample experience taking care of himself under the auspices of an institution, St Edmund's School [left].

George's 1925 marriage to Vera Beauclerk, indeed, could have been a cover for his romantic preference. That would explain in part his childlessness, as well as providing a possible reason that Vera was residing away, in such an unusual place—Minehead—at the time of her death early in 1942.

Still, not a bit of that means, or even really suggests in the least, that he was homosexual.

It seems far more likely that George's dirty little secret as a young man—something his family knew but most others would not—was that he, like his father, was a closet Roman Catholic in a land brimming with Anglicans, of both the Low and High Churches.

It's quite possible that his faith in Catholicism might have rubbed family members the wrong way. There must be, after all, a reason why his relations today are often unaware of the existence of Georges entire branch of the family. It is possible that his mother, Elizabeth Edith Ramsay Mills, may have found herself distanced from her own family when, after they believed she was marrying an Anglican vicar, it turned out she had married a secretly devout Roman Catholic. As much as I am told it really didn't—and doesn't—matter, something certainly 'mattered' that managed to erase Revd Barton Mills and his progeny from all of his in-laws' family trees.

I find it difficult to believe that, by chance alone, they all simply happened to be entirely forgotten by everyone.

There have been other suggestions along the way here that things with Mills may not have always been what they seem. The sentence, "I'm afraid that the Catholic school system, as you probably know, was infested for many years by paedophiles and ghastly sadists," once shared by a friend of the site, springs immediately to mind. It regarded why, in the end, George [pictured, right, at Ladycross School in 1956] may have been disappointed by the union of his faith and his career in education, and eventually left teaching.

This is not to take a swipe at only Catholic prep schools regarding a problem common to many institutions. We recently received this message, attached to an entry regarding Parkfield School in Haywards Heath: "In hindsight it was a hideous, sadistic and monsterous Dickensian nightmare of a school."

There may, in fact, be some aspects of the story of George Mills that one might consider a bit on the dark side. Still, there's nothing in the evidence to verify or even indicate that George participated in any of it.

George Mills may simply have been a relatively bland fellow: A bit sickly, tall, slight of build, overly sensitive, with a speech impediment, a fine sense of humor, a keen eye for observation, and a proclivity for failing to finish what he started, especially regarding any of his careers. There may be a part of us that would like some sensational quality upon which to hang our metaphorical hat regarding George Mills. We are, after all, often privy these days to many of the controversial secrets of those in the public eye, and we have almost come to the point as a society where it's not a matter of 'if they exist,' but 'when they will be revealed.'

But that does not seem to be the case right now with our George Mills.

Returning in conclusion to Jennifer's implication of some Higher Power overseeing all of this, or with at least the sure and steady hand of fate writing out this script, she sums up everything succinctly above: "Maybe we're not meant to know for sure much more about him than that."

No comments:

Post a Comment