Sunday, July 24, 2011

Mr. Egerton Clarke, the Siege of the Alcázar, and the Second World War

The last time we met, we left Egerton Clarke in his home—probably at Egerton Gardens, S.W.3 [left]—with his purportedly Irish wife, Teresa, and his three children.

I could speculate on which of the babies with the last name of Clarke, and with a mother's maiden name of Kelly, born between 1926 and 1941 might have been the children of Egerton and Teresa, but there really is no way of knowing. There were a pair—a boy and a girl—born in the late 1920s in Winchester, where the Clarkes had been married in 1926, but I have no sure way to ascertain those were their children.

[Note: The names and even a photograph of the children with their parents can be found in this later entry: Rediscovering Egerton Clarke. It is also worth noting that, according to his graddaughter, Janine La Forestier, Teresa is spelled "Theresa." (08-17-11)]

We also left Egerton having enjoyed his thumbnail biographical sketch published in the Catholic Who's Who and Yearbook, 1941.

Today, let's take a look at how his poetry was received at the time of its publication during the early decades of the 20th century—and I feel so very old writing that last phrase!

In Blackfriars: Volume 13 in 1932, we find this critique of Clarke's new book, The Seven Niches: A Legend in Verse [London: C. Palmer, 1932], available for 2/6:

Mr. Egerton Clarke is a Catholic poet whose earlier volumes have won praise and popularity. In The Seven Niches he breaks new ground and offers a long poem in the form of a Catholic legend. The idea has the charm of originality and the flavour of experiment : both are justified.

He has succeeded in a difficult task. A long poem such as this will tax any poet's sincerity and prove whether he is capable of sustaining his inspiration to the end. Even the physical strain of producing a long poem defeats many a writer. It demands vision, uniformity of mood, consistent style, and balanced expression. A standard tone must be maintained, together with a definite level of inspiration. Atmosphere must be created and upheld. Facility of expression, obvious clichés, commonplace rhymes may creep into a purely narrative poem, where the story is the first thing that matters. Tennyson and Masefield [right] are examples of such almost inevitable lapses.

But The Seven Niches is more like a richly embroidered tapestry than an unadorned tale. Every detail is complete in colour and execution ; every tiny piece will bear close inspection. That is the author's triumph. He has weighed every word, re-cast every phrase. He has considered every image, every metaphor before giving his final sanction. Therefore the poem has emerged clear-cut, glistening, chaste as a masterpiece in stained glass. Because the poem was not easy to write it is not easy to read. It does not carry the reader along with easy rhyme and dancing rhythm. For its understanding there must be concentration — even a mood of spiritual sympathy, almost of devotion.

Amazing praise for a poet of any era, being compared quite favorably to the two Poet Laureates with the longest tenures in history. It is a shame that his mother, Emma Anna Clarke, did not live to hear her son compared to those greats: She had passed away in 1931 while residing in her birthplace, Bishops Stortford, Herts. A solicitor, not Egerton, was the executor of the £194 12s. she proved in probate after actually expiring in "Silverdale Sydenham," south of London.

Most of the critiques of his work that are available today focus on his last book of poems: Alacazar and Other Poems [London: Burns, Oates, & Washbourne, 1937]. Here are some samples from the critics:

From the St Gregory's Society's The Downside Review (Vol. 56) in 1938:

WITHIN the thirty pages of this booklet Mr Egerton Clarke has collected some nineteen poems, several of which have already appeared in various Catholic periodicals. Perhaps the first poem in the book — that concerned with the famous siege of the Alcazar in 1936 — is most representative of Mr Clarke's poetic insight and expression.

The subject itself affords a good touchstone of poetic talent : the the minor poet, elated by the theme, dilates on valour and seldom goes deeper than the barest surface of reality. Mr Clarke sees the event both in its contemporary setting and its ultimate causes. The result is a finely-wrought integration of an historical event and its supernatural ramifications.

Also from 1938, this from the Dublin Review:

In Alcazar Mr. Clarke has produced a volume of poems of value and interest and materially increased his reputation as a writer of poetry.

His interpretation of history in the title poem, in which the communist assault on Christendom is regarded as the final working out of the schism of Byzantium from Rome, is made convincing and the result is a piece of the school of [G. K. Chesterton's] "Lepanto". But there are finer and more individual poems. "Cistercians in the Mangold Field" has great power, and there is an apocalyptic beauty in "Munera Angelorum."

[Note: Egerton Clarke and G. K. Chesterton were, indeed, friends according to Clarke's family. (08-17-11)]

And, finally, this from the Ampleforth Abbey's The Ampleforth Journal: Volumes 43-44, in 1937:

ALCAZAR. By Egerton Clarke (Burns Oates & Washbourne) 1s.

Fr Martindale once said that man is the only creature whose natural posture is on his knees. Mr Clarke shows a realisation of this truth in this little book of poems — there are only nineteen of them — for each is an expression of love through prayer that we find only too seldom in poetry of to-day. But except for this sameness of purpose we should find it hard to believe that the author of the two Christmas poems, "Munera Angelorum " and " Presents from the North " was the same as the author of the loosely-constructed and still more loosely expressed "Solitary Eye."

In the one the poet shows a delicateness of technique which is completely lacking in the other. Similarly in "Black Coat—6 p.m." and "Edgware Road", he departs from direct expression and loses his reader in sentences of enormous length; piling image on image, metaphor on metaphor, until the sense is lost. It is worth while comparing from the point of view of technique (and incidentally of poetic value) these lines from the Solitary Eye:—

…Buses and men

In dark heraldic shapes, of unreal origin

To his one frightened eye, swerve to a vast triangle

filled with designing ladybirds, then scatter

in long expanding pentagons that soon

resolve their shivering blurs to one blue, steady

and returning star, the solitary eye

With these from "The Hand," a poem written on holding the reliquary containing the hand of Blessed Margaret Clitheroe: —

Within my hand thy hand that folded with its twin in prayer...

I only wish that Google Books would provide me with more than that single line of a poem written about the fascinating story of the martyred saint [right] whose hand is kept in the chapel of the Bar Convent in York.

Other poems and articles by Clarke appeared over time in journals like Blackfriars; although the following list is in no way meant to be comprehensive, here is a sample:

• Clarke, E. (1932), REGZNAE EQUESTRIUM (for D. B. Wyndham Lewis). New Blackfriars, 13: 428

• Clarke, E. (1931), THE INHERITANCE. New Blackfriars, 12: 577

• Clarke, Egerton. "William Butler Yeats." The Dublin Magazine, April/June 1939

• Clarke, Egerton. "William Butler Yeats," Dublin Review, 204:409 (Apr- May-June 1939), 305-21. [Includes an untitled poem written in memory of Yeats.]

• Clarke, Egerton. "Gérard Hopkins, Jesuit." Dublin Review, 198 (London 1936) 127-141.

It appears that Clarke's work was well-regarded by contemporary critics in the United Kingdom, and sought after by certain periodicals. However, what I am unable to determine is whether or not it was regarded as completely mainstream, or a highly regarded Catholic niche author.

The idea of the son of a clergyman in the Church of England, and sometimes even the clerics themselves, resolving to become Catholic permeates the story of George Mills. I have heard from British citizens of today that it doesn't matter very much if a vicar might be a Roman Catholic, but I've been unable to determine if that's generally true. Clerics contacted for insight regarding the subject have not replied to those requests.

Here's an interesting point of view from the knowledgeable Jennifer M., Poet Laureate of this website:

Everything I know about the Catholic and Anglican churches in England runs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, when converting from one to the other was a huge big deal, and you sure would hide it if you were around certain people. Maybe there was still a stigma attached to it in George’s time. Wikipedia tells me that as of 2001, only 8% of England and Wales was Catholic.

English Catholicism continued to grow throughout the first two thirds of the 20th century, when it was associated primarily with elements in the English intellectual class and the ethnic Irish population.

I wonder if it was easier to make a living as an Anglican cleric, and that’s why [George's father, the Revd Barton R. V. Mills, a Roman Catholic convert who then took several livings as a vicar, and ascended to chaplaincy at the Chapel Royal at the Savoy] did it. Or maybe it was more socially acceptable [by then]. I guess maybe a lot of people had to do things that were against their beliefs in order to survive, whether it was 1883 or 1583.

With that statistic—8% of the population—fixed in my mind, I wonder if Egerton Clarke was a renowned poet or a renowned Catholic poet. I also wonder if there was—or is—a difference.

If not as a Catholic author, but surely as an author whose religion was Roman Catholic, Clarke soon began to write children's books—another area in which he and George Mills shared something in common.

The Catholic publishing house of Burns, Oates, & Washbourne had printed Egerton's noteworthy Alcazar and Other Poems in 1937, his response to the symbolic and propaganda-oriented stand-off [below, right] between Republican and Nationalist forces at Toledo, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War.

In 1936 and in 1937, Egerton had also published children's books with that company: St Peter, the First Pope, and Our Lady of Flowers.

While Egerton did not publish in 1938 any text that I can find, he was still involved in the area of children's literature after 1937.

The evidence is found in the preface to the third children's book of George Mills, 1939's Minor and Major, which focused on boys' preparatory schools:


THIS book deals with life in a big preparatory school, and tells about the boys and masters, their goings-out and their comings-in. All the characters are imaginary, and no allusion is meant to any living person.

The boys, who first appeared in Meredith & Co. and King Willow, once again present themselves for a short time during a cricket match.

I wish to record my thanks to my old friend, Mr H. E. Howell, for so kindly reading the manuscript and proofs. I also recognize the kindly aid of a schoolboy, Terence Hadow, whose criticisms have been invaluable, as also has the encouragement given to me by my friend, Mr Egerton Clarke, who has read the book in manuscript form. My thanks are also due to Mr A. L. Mackie, who has kindly helped to read the proofs.


Once again we find the mysterious Mr. H. E. Howell, and we've discussed the tragic circumstances under which Terence Hadow was lost during the Second World War.

Here, we consider the fact that Egerton Clarke—an old friend of Mills who had recently published children's books of his own—was offering encouragement as well as reading George's original manuscript before the book's 1939 press run.

The fact that Mills doesn't mention Clarke in either of his first two books suggests this was a reunion of sorts for the two old friends. Egerton ostensibly had been pursuing a career as a poet while becoming a father, while Mills had been striving to make teaching his vocation at a variety of public schools and having been trying to make a husband of himself, although he remained childless.

In 1939, Mills would complete the third book of his prep school 'trilogy,' but that would not be the only text he'd have published in that very year, before the looming World War: Mills also published a children's book, Saint Thomas of Canterbury, with—and you may have guessed this—Burns, Oates, & Washbourne. Saint Thomas, still found on the shelves of the British Library, remains the only text of George's that I have not seen or read.

If someone should mention to me it was simply coincidental that Egerton Clarke had helped Mills with the writing and editing of his manuscript for Minor and Major in the same year that Mills also had published St Thomas of Canterbury at the Egerton's Catholic publishing house, that it was all completely unrelated, I would have to disagree.

Perhaps the 1938 release of George's King Willow, the sequel to 1933's Meredith and Co., had come to the attention of Clarke, reuniting the two men after marriage and careers had separated the two old army and Oxford mates. Or perhaps they simply bumped into each other at the theatre or in a coffee shop that year. For whatever reason, they had reconnected.

The year 1938 followed Egerton's publication of his poem "Alcazar," a work that was clearly an intense experience for both the reader and the poet. The siege [left] involving the army of fascist Generalissimo Francisco Franco at Toledo, and the suffering of the innocents involved, foretold the painful story of the Second World War, a global conflict fueled, at least in its European Theatre of Operations, by the tenets of fascism during which the world's suffering was immense.

War was declared by Britain in 1939, the year George Mills published his last published writing, save for the odd letter to the editor of The Times thereafter.

Egerton Clarke, as far as one can tell, had already published his final literary works in 1937.

Neither man would write creatively again.

We know that on 11 October 1940, Mills re-entered the military as part of the Royal Army Pay Corps—where he had once been ceremoniously disposed of as a 'useless' fatigue man—and as a 2nd lieutenant at that.

What became of poet Egerton Clarke during the hostilities, though? Once again, we must look to the reference books. In the text Catholic Authors: Contemporary Biographical Sketches (1948) by Matthew Hoehn, we find this relatively complete entry:

Egerton Clarke 1899-1944.

From 1933 to 1939, Egerton Clarke was children's Librarian of Messrs. Burns Oates and Washbourne, the Catholic publishers. In 1939 he was art editor of the publishing firm of Hutchinson's.

Egerton Clarke was born in 1899, the son of the Reverend Percy Carmichael Clarke, an Anglican Chaplain living at Dinard, Brittany. He was educated at St. Edmund's School, Canterbury and at Keble College, Oxford. When 23 years of age (1922) he was received into the Church. During World War I he served with the 5th Devon Regiment from 1917 to 1918. In 1926 he married Teresa Kelly of Dublin. Two sons and one daughter were born from the marriage. The author of many books of poems, he was a vice-president of the Catholic Poetry Society. Up until his death in October, 1944 he was secretary of St. Hugh's Society for Catholic boys of the professional classes. He is the author of: The Death of Glass and Other Poems (1923); The Ear-ring (1923); The Popular Kerry Blue Terrier (1927); The Death of England and Other Poems (1930); The Seven Niches: a Legend in Verse (1932), and Alcazar (1937). He was also a contributor to periodicals.

Egerton Arthur Crossman Clarke passed away on 20 October 1944. We don't know the cause of Egerton's death, but it is interesting to note that there were Nazi rocket attacks on England during that time, specifically these dates:

Oct. 3, (20.00 hours) A4 rocket fired, impacted in Denton, the impact was about 10 minutes later (longer than normal) creating much damage.

Oct. 03, (23.00 hours) A4 rocket fired, impacted Wanstead (Leytonstone)

Oct. 09, (10.42 hours) A4 rocket fired, impacted at Brooke.

If he had been injured in the collateral damage of those explosions, he could have been in the hospital for a while before he succumbed to his wounds.

It also is entirely possible, however, that, given his lifelong weakness of heart, the organ simply failed Egerton at last, causing his death at the tender age of 45 years.

[Note: No! Clarke actually died of tuberculosis after an experimental procedure according to Janine. She adds: "When my grandfather was ill, they did an experimental treatment on him - deliberately collapsing his lung(s)? - the treatment failed. Clearly." (08-17-11)]

Perhaps Clarke would have published additional poetry and children's books after the war. We'll never know.

But we do know that George Mills never published another book.

The time frame form 1939 through 1945 was a period during which Mills—like many others in the UK and across the globe—lost a great many people who were dear to him, not the least of which would have been his wife, his mother, and Egerton Clarke.

You may recall the London Gazette, dated 2 November 1943, ran the following item:

Lt. and Paymr. G. R. A. Mills (150796) relinquishes his commn. on account of ill health, 3 Nov. 1943, and is granted the hon. rank of Lt.

This bout with "ill health" pre-dates the death of Egerton Clarke the following year, but it suggests that George already was struggling to survive the war, even though it seems improbable that Mills, then 47 years of age, was near any actual combat.

The condition of his health did not preclude George from engaging in a public tiff with a retired Major General in the letter column of The Times in April of 1944 while Mills was using the rocket-damaged Naval and Military Club [right], Piccadilly, as his mailing address.

After the death of Egerton Clarke in late 1944, and his mother in late 1945, Mills went quiet until he wrote a whimsical remembrance of his father's to The Times in April of 1959.

These letters to the editor—written almost exactly 15 years apart—are believed to be the last words that George would publish.

In 1944, George Mills lost a friend and contact in the publishing industry. Still, he had published works with the Oxford University Press and Geo. G. Harrap and Co. without any assistance from Egerton Clarke of which we're aware.

It seems as if the global conflict that changed the world so profoundly may have played a part in silencing George Mills, at least as author, even though he had other windmills at which he needed to tilt before his own passing in 1972.

That's a story for another day, though. Next time, we'll look at the poetry of Egerton Clarke—primarily his early work, circa 1920—from the vantage point of today.

Don't miss it!

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I am doing a project on the Siege of Alcazar and I wanted to use the photo with the caption: Toledo- El Alcazar, despues del asedio, however I couldn't find any information to cite it in my bibliography. Can you comment back on where you got it and more information (date taken, author of photo etc.) so that I can use it?