Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962)

Today it is difficult to realise how popular Gibson was in the second decade of this century - popular for both his poetry and his personality. Brooke and Frost took to him instantly - he must have had a warm and easy-going temperament - and everyone had a good word to say about him. "I have no friend here like Wilfrid Gibson," wrote Frost to an American friend in March 1914. Brooke affectionately called him 'Wibson' and his letters to Marsh and others are full of concern for Gibson's well-being and comments about how nice he is. D.H. Lawrence wrote to Eddie Marsh in November 1913 that "I think Gibson is one of the clearest and most lovable personalities I know." John Middleton Murry, in a letter of reminiscence to Christopher Hassall, says "We quickly introduced Wilfrid to Eddie [Marsh] . . . and Eddie took to him as naturally as we had done, for his singular integrity."

Around 1906 Gibson ceased writing pseudo-Tennysonian verse and began writing realistic poems in which he tried to reflect the speech of ordinary people, based on events arising out of his everyday life in Northumberland and later Glasgow. By 1912, of all the younger English poets of the day, only one, John Masefield with his 'The Everlasting Mercy', could challenge Gibson in the matter of general popularity.

Poet Laureate Robert Bridges praised his "very remarkable" contributions to Georgian Poetry. In 1913 Frost wrote to another friend that "He is much talked of in America at the present time. He's just one of the plain folks with none of the marks of the literary poseur about him."

Two volumes of Gibson's poems - Daily Bread (1910) and Fires (1912) - impressed Frost, partly for their colloquial style but also because they provided evidence that there was a market for poems about ordinary people and everyday happenings. Daily Bread went into a third printing in 1913 - the year when Frost's first volume was published. Gibson was thought of as a poet concerned with the problems of common humanity. Frost and others may have jokingly referred to him as "the People's Poet". After Frost and Thomas had an unpleasant encounter with a gamekeeper in the woods behind Abercrombie's house, Frost wrote to a friend that he would now have a better claim than Gibson "to the title of the People's Poet".

Gibson left his native Northumberland and moved to London in the summer of 1912. He worked as assistant editor for Rhythm, a poetry magazine being produced by John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield. His salary, small but essential for his upkeep, was paid anonymously by Eddie Marsh, and it was Marsh who introduced him to Rupert Brooke on September 17, 1912. This proved to be one of the important moments in Gibson's life. Just three days later Gibson, at Brooke's invitation, attended the very first meeting to discuss the publication of Georgian Poetry. In November 1912 he moved into a small room above Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop, a couple of months before it officially opened. Here he was well-placed to become even more a part of the London literary scene.

Wilfrid Gibson had read and admired Robert Frost's A Boy's Will when it was published early in 1913. That August he wrote to Frost, whom he had not met, urging him to bring some of his new poems to the Poetry Bookshop. Frost did so, and Gibson wrote a poem called 'The First Meeting'. Given their subsequent reputations today, this poem reminds us that at the time Gibson was the famous poet and Frost relatively unknown. Gibson wanted Frost to meet Abercrombie, and invited him to a poetry reading that Abercrombie was giving at the Poetry Bookshop. In December 1913 Gibson was married, in Dublin, to Harold Monro's secretary Geraldine Townshend. The Gibsons spent their honeymoon at The Gallows, while the Abercrombies were away, and soon afterwards they moved to a thatched cottage called The Old Nailshop. It was two miles west of Abercrombie's cottage, and on the road from Dymock to Ledbury.

Gibson had already suggested to Frost that he should leave Beaconsfield and come to live near Dymock. Early in 1914 the Gibsons found a place for the Frosts and their four children to live, two miles from The Old Nailshop, on the other side of the River Leadon. Geraldine Gibson wrote to Elinor Frost on 25 February 1914 that "We have just this moment got your husband's letter saying you are coming here. We are absolutely rejoiced . . . how perfectly splendid!" In February 1914 Marsh wrote to Brooke, after a weekend at The Old Nailshop discussing Georgian Poetry II, that "W. hasn't really begun writing again yet, but he soon will, he feels the stirrings." When he did begin, he wrote in typical Gibson fashion about the everyday things that surrounded him, and particularly the cottage that he and Geraldine loved dearly.

'The Old Nail-Shop', published in New Numbers 4, is one of many poems about the cottage; it shows Gibson's sense of history and continuity as well as his sympathy with poor rural folk. But the most important poem about the cottage, for Dymock Poet aficionados, is 'The Golden Room'. It describes the scene inside, on the only night we know for sure that five of the six Dymock Poets (not Drinkwater) were together for an evening. Dedicated to his wife and published in a volume of the same name in 1927, 'The Golden Room' is less than satisfactory as a poem but it accurately catches the nuances in style and personality of the poets.

The evening in question - most likely June 24, 1914, despite the fact that Gibson later remembered it as July - is almost certainly the night referred to in Thomas's letter of June 27 (see the section on Thomas). Brooke had just returned from his year of travels, and wanted to see Abercrombie and Gibson about New Numbers; Thomas and his wife were on a short holiday, possibly getting over a period of domestic discord. The poem captures Frost's intellect and expansiveness, Thomas's shyness, Brooke's merriment; but it also captures the pain that Gibson still felt - a decade later - about how the war had ended it all. One year and two weeks after this golden evening, Eddie Marsh retreated to the attic room of Gibson's cottage to spend eight days writing his celebrated memoir of Rupert Brooke.

The Great Western Railway offered special excursions to see the wild daffodils for which Dymock and Newent were (and still are) famous. It's not surprising that Gibson wrote a poem called 'Daffodils'. It tells of a man reminiscing about his son Jack, now off fighting "in a bloody trench" but who, 18 years ago, had enjoyed picking and sniffing the daffodils. It was published in An Annual of New Poetry (1917), edited by Gordon Bottomley - the same volume that contained Edward Thomas's first published poems.

Dymock's daffodils are an important feature of another poem, 'To John Drinkwater', which makes such effective use of alliteration (Dymock, daffodils, delight, dances, dreams). Like 'The Golden Room' it blames the war for bringing an end to their idyllic world. Gibson was usually more interested in people than in his physical surroundings, and two of the poems in New Numbers 4 - 'Girl's Song' and 'The Orphans' - give an idea of why he was called 'the People's Poet' (if only in jest) by Robert Frost. Both poems end on a sad note and with a sense that poor country folk have a hard life and many burdens to bear. Their lives stand in sharp contrast to the scene depicted in 'Trees', which was dedicated to Lascelles Abercrombie and published in Friends, a small volume of Gibson's poems which appeared in 1916. Here we see Abercrombie reading to the poets who are gathered under an elm tree at The Gallows.

An elm features in another poem of Gibson's, also from the Dymock period and published in the following year in Livelihood, another volume of Gibson poems. 'The Elm' was inspired by the fact that an elm at The Old Nailshop was brought down in a storm, and Gibson mentioned this when corresponding with Frost after his return to America. I see touches of Frost in the poem - for example, the first few lines of the third stanza. But it also illustrates Gibson's constant nostalgia and his repeated use of a narrow range of themes.

Farther afield were the Malverns - providing another theme for Gibson's poetry. From The Ragged Stone it's clear that he walked to the southern end of the Malverns and climbed up Ragged Stone Hill with its wonderful views of May Hill to the south and the Severn plain to the west. He may have already heard two local legends - still repeated today - about the dreadful things that would happen to those on whom the shadow of the stone outcrop fell. It's interesting to see how Gibson has related this to the shadow of the war falling on everyone.

Frost became increasingly disenchanted with Gibson in 1914. It began with Gibson's review of North of Boston in the August Bookman and the incident with the gamekeeper seemed to confirm Frost's disenchantment with his friend. In his review Gibson simultaneously commends and criticises Frost's poetry. Walsh speculates on "why Gibson should have discerned less of Frost's accomplishment than Abercrombie". He notes that Gibson and Abercrombie "must certainly have talked at length, and repeatedly, about Frost and his book" (they had seen it prior to publication). "Beyond mere obtuseness," says Walsh, "one reason for his [Gibson's] blindness may have been a burdensome tinge of jealousy, aroused by his recognition that while Frost and he were in pursuit of much the same goals, the American had reached heights of art beyond anything in Gibson's prolific output, perhaps beyond anything imagined by him as possible."

Brooke's death was a great blow to Gibson. The title page of Gibson's Friends (1916) is dedicated 'To the memory of Rupert Brooke', followed by an untitled poem printed in italics followed by the date, 23rd April 1915. This poem is often titled 'To the Memory of Rupert Brooke' to distinguish it from the first poem in Friends, a long poem titled 'Rupert Brooke'. Part III of this second poem describes the field of poppies at The Gallows that Brooke had noticed the previous summer. Another poem in Friends about Brooke's death is 'To Edward Marsh', as the sub-title makes clear. It begins with a reference to the evening of the King's Cross fire when Marsh introduced Gibson and Brooke. Another poem about Brooke, titled 'Rugby: 1917', was published in Gibson's Neighbours (1920). Gibson was still writing poems about Brooke in 1927; 'Skyros' was published in The Observer in April and an anthology of that year's best poetry reprinted it.

In 1915 Gibson published a small volume called Battle, containing 32 poems about the war. When reading them it is hard to believe that at this time he had not been involved personally in the war. He had poor eyesight and it wasn't until two years later that the Army accepted him for clerical work. 'Before Action' is the first poem in the collection, but there are several others that are powerful reminders of the agony of war. Gibson always belittled his own work. So perhaps his comments in a letter to Frost about Battle should not be taken too seriously: "I had to publish it as I felt I must make my little protest, however feeble and ineffectual - so don't be too hard on me."

Gibson's work was popular in America and in 1917 he went on a successful reading tour there. When he returned to England in July, the Army Service Corps finally accepted him for duties at Sydenham, near London, for the remaining twelve months of the war. His son Michael was born in 1918, and Abercrombie became his godfather. When Robert and Elinor Frost came to England again in 1928 they visited the Gibsons, and Wilfrid not only wrote a poem called 'Reunion' but also dedicated his next book, Hazards, in which the poem first appeared, "To Robert and Elinor Frost". Gibson continued to publish a book of poems every couple of years or so, until 1950. And he continued to go on lecture and reading tours around Britain. But his themes and the treatment he gave them seemed increasingly superficial to the modern world. His work declined in popularity to such an extent that it is hardly known today. "I am one of those unlucky writers whose books have predeceased him," he wrote to Frost in 1939.

It would be hard to over-estimate the significance of the Dymock period to Gibson, and the domestic bliss he found with Geraldine in their old nail-shop, facing on to an even older track called The Greenway, two miles north of Dymock. When his Collected Poems were published in 1926 he placed at the very front of the volume an untitled poem - printed in italics - that begins 'So long had I travelled the lonely road'.

 

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.

 

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