John Drinkwater (1882-1937)
Of the six Dymock Poets, John Drinkwater was the most versatile as an artist. He was a poet, playwright, essayist, anthologist, actor, theatre producer and director, in addition to his day-to-day job as manager of Barry Jackson’s Birmingham Repertory Theatre - described by Drinkwater as “the most distinguished playhouse in the country” when it opened in February 1913. He gradually got to know each of the Dymock Poets in turn, although his connections with Frost and Thomas seem fairly inconsequential.
Drinkwater grew up with a deep passion for the countryside of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Oxfordshire. He left Oxford High School at 15 and worked at an insurance company in Nottingham. The hours were long and the work tedious, but he read widely and began to write poetry.
When the firm moved him to Birmingham at the turn of the century he became involved with amateur dramatics, which he had always loved. In 1910 he left his job to work with Barry Jackson and The Pilgrim Players - one of the provincial repertory companies popular at this time.
Drinkwater’s first book, Lyrical and Other Poems, was published by Harold Monro’s Samurai Press in 1908 (also Gibson’s publisher at the time). Drinkwater’s second volume, Poems of Men and Hours, was published by David Nutt in 1911. This is the same publishing house that produced Frost’s first volume of poetry, A Boy’s Will, in 1913. Frost’s grand-daughter thinks that Drinkwater may well have been the unknown reader who advised Mrs Nutt to accept Frost’s manuscript containing the poems that became A Boy’s Will.
In 1911 Drinkwater became president of the Birmingham Dramatic and Literary Club, and met many artists and writers as a result. He began corresponding with Gibson at this time about the possibility of producing a dramatic poem from Gibson’s Daily Bread. Gibson didn’t travel to Birmingham to see the performance nor the production a few months later of another dramatic poem of his. In fact, Gibson soon decided that he was “not much drawn to the theatre as a medium of expression. I know this is heresy nowadays,” he confessed to Drinkwater. But Drinkwater loved the theatre, and spent the rest of his life writing plays, directing them and performing in them.
It was poetry that led to his meeting with Abercrombie. After reading a laudatory but unsigned article in The Nation about a book of his poems, Drinkwater made some inquiries and learned that Abercrombie was the reviewer. This “greatly added to my pleasure in the praise, as I knew and greatly admired his Interludes”. So Drinkwater wrote and introduced himself to Abercrombie, and in May 1911 he made the first of many visits to The Gallows. “I was enchanted by it and by my first sight of Gloucestershire landscape, but most by meeting the poet whom I so much admired. . . . I had been working hard and was tired, but I sat into the night with a delighted sense of refreshment.” Unfortunately they drank a good deal of “mulled cider liberally laced with rum” and during the night Drinkwater woke the Abercrombies and announced that he was about to die.
In September 1912 Drinkwater invited Gibson (whom he had never met) and Abercrombie to visit him in Birmingham. “The visit was, for us all I think, a memorable success,” recalled Drinkwater, “and lifelong attachments sprang from it”. “Between Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie, and myself there was from the first a bond of affectionate understanding. We really liked each other’s work, and took pleasure in saying so. I thought that they were among the best poets of their time, as I still do, and I hoped to see them adding power to the revival of poetic drama in the theatre which I then thought was coming.”
In 1912 Drinkwater was asked by Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield to contribute to Rhythm (later called Blue Review). He saw Harold Monro on his visits to London, wrote frequently for The Poetry Review and was invited by Monro to Eddie Marsh’s meeting in September 1912 to discuss the idea of an anthology of contemporary English poetry. This became Georgian Poetry, and Drinkwater, along with Gibson and Abercrombie, were regular contributors. At this meeting Drinkwater met Brooke for the first time (three days after Brooke had met Gibson for the first time). Brooke was “then the most noted young man in London,” according to Drinkwater. They left the meeting together, and walked to Holborn, with Brooke promising to send Drinkwater his book of poems.
When Brooke sent Drinkwater Poems 1911 he wrote that he was “feeling much excited” about the new repertory work in Birmingham. Brooke’s great interest in the theatre must have added to the intellectual attraction between these two men. Brooke had been deeply involved with the Marlowe Dramatic Society at Cambridge, and was working on John Webster and the Elizabethan Drama when he met Drinkwater. This 30,000 word essay, a fine piece of literary criticism still cited as an authoritative work today, won Brooke a Fellowship to King’s in March 1913. That same month he visited Drinkwater in Birmingham; “we stayed up most of the night talking,” says Drinkwater. In May, just before his trip to America, Brooke sent Drinkwater a play he had written called Lithuania. Drinkwater attended the reunion supper for Brooke when he returned from his travels abroad in June 1914, and later Brooke went to Birmingham where, recalls Drinkwater, “we exhausted the complete theory of drama in a tea-shop, went to a Promenade Concert afterwards, and again talked till morning. Also he arranged to take Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, and myself in a motor-car to some quiet place where we could discuss New Numbers.” But the trip never took place.
With war threatening in the early summer of 1914, Brooke and Drinkwater managed to meet a couple of times for lunch in Soho, and Drinkwater recalls “the note of foreboding. . . that seemed to touch all his words thereafter till the end.” When Brooke wrote to Marsh saying that royalties from his book should go to Gibson, Abercrombie and de la Mare if he dies, Brooke put in brackets that “John is childless”. Although no surname was used, this most likely referred to Drinkwater and explains why Brooke didn’t include him as a beneficiary.
If Catherine Abercrombie’s memory was accurate, Drinkwater and Gibson were at The Gallows when the idea for New Numbers was first discussed in the early summer of 1913. She was as enthusiastic as the three men, and offered to help with the administration and secretarial work. But there seem to have been some second thoughts about Drinkater’s involvement. Eddie Marsh, during a visit to The Gallows in August 1913, wrote to Brooke that Abercrombie and Gibson “are rather uneasy about Drinkwater as a contributor to New Numbers, as they think he only means to send them what he can’t get paid for by magazines! I think it would be best to chuck him.” Marsh suggested Flecker or Bottomley instead. A more likely reason for concern would have been Drinkwater’s busy full-time job managing the theatre.
Nothing came of the suggestion, however, and five Drinkwater poems appeared in the first New Numbers, including ‘The Boundaries’ and ‘A Town Window’. The latter, reprinted in Georgian Poetry 1913-1915 and Swords and Ploughshares, illustrates Abercrombie’s comment about Drinkwater’s poetry: “Commonplace things ceased to be that in his enjoyment of them: they were all part of the inexhaustibly marvellous privilege of being alive.”
Drinkwater made frequent visits to The Gallows to help plan New Numbers. Catherine Abercrombie recalled them, especially the time “he turned up with a sleeping-bag and announced that he wanted to set up camp under the great elms at the bottom of the garden, but the first night he roused us up in great perturbation to let him in. . . . ” It seems that a horse in the next field had frightened him. She paints an idyllic scene of Abercrombie, Gibson and Drinkwater often sitting outdoors in the evening, reading their latest poems while supper cooked in an iron pot over the fire. John Haines recalled Drinkwater at Ryton, “talking ecstatically on Poetic Drama in that enchanted garden, with a cherry orchard close by.” And for miles around there were “daffodils, daffodils everywhere.” ‘The Broken Gate’ evokes that north Gloucestershire countryside of fruit trees and daffodils.
Drinkwater was deeply affected by Brooke’s death, and wrote a poem titled ‘Rupert Brooke’. He also wrote a 22-page essay on Brooke that he had printed as a small book, at his own expense, in 1916. This was reprinted in his 1918 volume of essays called Prose Papers, along with an essay on Brooke’s thesis about John Webster.
Drinkwater continued to write poetry in the years following the Dymock idyll. A volume of poems called Swords and Ploughshares was published in 1915. ‘Mamble’ shows Drinkwater’s skills as a lyric poet and his love of ordinary countryside. One of Drinkwater’s most well-known poems is ‘Cotswold Love’, another fine lyrical poem published in Tides in 1917. At this time Drinkwater was discovering the beauty of another part of the Cotswolds. He had become friends with the artist William Rothenstein, a painter who had bought a farmhouse at Far Oakridge, near Stroud, and was playing host there to many artists.
In 1916 Drinkwater published Olton Pools, which contained ‘Immortality’ - a poem that mentions Dymock and, at least in the first six lines, sounds as if it could have been written by Brooke rather than Drinkwater. It seems likely that Brooke is the friend (“who died in his young beauty”) referred to in part II. The references to seas and Dymock orchards obviously have connections with Brooke.
Another poem that mentions Dymock - and shows the lasting influence of his visits to the area - is ‘Blackbird’. It was published in Loyalties in 1919. But the Drinkwater poem most redolent of Dymock is ‘Daffodils’, also from Olton Pools. Here are references to Dymock, Ryton woods, friends who make rhymes, and daffodils that are aglow - as they still are today although not in such profusion as when the poets were there. At about this time Drinkwater moved to Far Oakridge to be near William Rothenstein and to live in this corner of what he called the “enchanted Cotswold country”. Later he was involved in the early days of the Malvern Festival, which was founded by his good friend and colleague Barry Jackson in 1929.
This text is from
Once They Lived in Gloucestershire: A Dymock Poets Anthology
by Linda Hart
ISBN 0 9526031 52 - Reprinted in 2011
£6.95 from the Green Branch Press, Kencot, Gloucestershire, England GL7 3QX.
The book also includes most of the poems mentioned in the text above, a chapter introducing the Dymock Poets, two maps showing the Dymock area, and detailed references to all sources.
See also Simon Payton’s review
of Claire Cochrane’s talk
‘For Art is Holy’: Birmingham Rep and a Dream of Theatre 1913–1929.