Lascelles Abercrombie (1881-1938)
Today Lascelles Abercrombie is the least well-known of the six Dymock Poets. Keith Clark succinctly summarised the reasons: “his verse seems turgid and wordy, his themes too metaphysical and heavy”. But Abercrombie and his work were highly admired in the early years of this century. In September 1914 Frost wrote to an American friend about him:
“The fellow I am living with at present is the last poet in your Victorian Anthology. If you want to see him to better advantage you must look him up in the Georgian Anthology where he shows well in a long poem called ‘The Sale of St Thomas’. Or if I can find it I will send you some time the copy of New Numbers containing his ‘End of the World’, a play about to be produced in several places - Birmingham next week, Bristol soon, and Chicago some time this winter.”
Abercrombie’s conviction that poetry was going through an exciting period of change, and his effort to develop (in theory and practice) the concept of realism in poetry, had an important effect on subsequent literary developments. Most important, from our perspective, is that without Abercrombie there would have been no Dymock Poets. He unwittingly began the short-lived literary colony along the Leadon River in a remote corner of Gloucestershire.
Abercrombie was born in Cheshire, and attended school at Malvern College in Worcestershire - thirteen miles from Dymock. He then went to Manchester University, where he began writing poetry seriously at the age of 20. But to earn a living he worked as a clerk in a quantity surveyor’s office in Liverpool where one of the partners was a family friend. His first book of poetry, Interludes and Poems, was published in January 1908, and later that same year he became a journalist with the Liverpool Courier. Edward Thomas, when reviewing Interludes and Poems for the Daily Chronicle, wrote to Gordon Bottomley on February 26, 1908: “He is good there is no doubt . . . . [he] has his own vocabulary & a wonderful variety in his blank verse, has certainly his own vision of things, is perhaps too metaphysical . . . . I wonder what he is like & envy you your chance of knowing him.”
“Lascelles had always wanted to live in the country,” according to his grandson Jeff Cooper. In 1907 Abercrombie wrote to Catherine (who was about to become his wife) that “It is the proper thing for us . . . to be together in the country. We are not townsfolk, either of us. We belong to the earth. I do hope I shall so be able to order my life that we can live, really live, in the country.”
It was Abercrombie’s sister Ursula who made his dream come true. She and her husband were friends of Lord Beauchamp, who owned 5,000 or so acres of land around Malvern that stretched as far as Dymock (the pub in Dymock is still named The Beauchamp Arms). Ursula had become a wealthy woman when her husband died in 1907 in a riding accident. Two years later she and her second husband moved to rented accommodation at Hellens, a large 14th-century manor house in the Herefordshire countryside, just a few miles west of Malvern, where Abercrombie had been a student.
She offered to rent a nearby cottage in the village for Lascelles and Catherine, so in April 1910 they ventured south, and moved to Monks Walk Cottage in Much Marcle. Less than six months later he published his long dramatic poem, ‘Mary and the Bramble’, financing the venture himself. A few months later they moved to a much larger cottage - really two old cottages joined together - in the hamlet of Ryton, less than two miles as the crow flies from the village of Dymock. “The story goes,” says Cooper, “that Ursula was out hunting with Lord Beauchamp one day around Ryton when she saw The Gallows empty. She asked him about it and one thing led to another until Lascelles and his family moved in almost exactly a year after moving to Much Marcle.”
Here Abercrombie worked as a freelance journalist, contributing regularly to several newspapers, but he also began to turn out several major dramatic works. It was from their new home that Abercrombie published The Sale of Saint Thomas - which can be described as a long poem or a short play, as verse drama or dramatic verse. This was another venture into self-publishing - the first edition says on the title page:
PUBLISHED BY THE AUTHOR
In terms of the Dymock story, the play was important for several reasons. It illustrates the ‘realism’ that characterised the early Georgians, and that was to gain them fame and notoriety in literary circles. There were objections to the self-conscious brutality in the play, particularly in a passage about the flies in India. The play was also important for a more practical reason: this second experience of publishing Abercrombie’s work must have given the couple the confidence, two years later, to begin publication of New Numbers, a quarterly magazine containing work by Abercrombie, Gibson, Drinkwater and Brooke.
The Sale of Saint Thomas was soon reprinted as Abercrombie’s contribution to the new anthology of Georgian Poetry (December 1912). The fact that it appeared first in the volume (due to alphabetical order) only partially accounts for the play’s enormous impact. Almost all the Georgians “were intent upon restoring drama to poetry. Several also attempted to restore poetry to drama.” Abercrombie tried to do both. The Nation reviewer (March 8, 1913) noted Abercrombie’s “astonishing power of dramatic psychological analysis. He is a vehement, imaginative thinker.” The Times Literary Supplement thought his was the most important poetic talent since the turn of the century. Abercrombie was now a poet to be reckoned with and this must have encouraged Wilfrid Gibson, a year later, to move to a cottage a mile north of Dymock and two miles on lanes and tracks from the Abercrombies.
The admiration was mutual. Abercrombie had favourably reviewed Gibson’s Daily Bread in 1910. And when he reviewed Georgian Poetry 1911-1912 (in the Manchester Guardian, January 8, 1913) he singled out Gibson because, he said, Gibson’s work illustrated better than anyone’s how contemporary poetry was dealing with new themes but respecting the traditional conventions.
Abercrombie’s most important review, for our purposes, was a very long and thorough one in The Nation (June 13, 1914) of Frost’s second book, North of Boston. Walsh calls it “a pioneer review”, based on “reasoned literary principles”, the first one to evaluate seriously the sound-of-sense ideas. John Haines sent the review to Frost, who replied from Little Iddens: “I liked it very well. The discussion of my technique wouldn’t have been what it was if Abercrombie had had nothing to go on but the book. He took advantage of certain conversations in which I gave him the key to my method and most of his catchwords.” But Frost recognised that “it was a generous review to consider me in all ways so seriously and as I say I liked it.”
This review, with phrases like “unique and entirely original”, was reprinted in a Boston newspaper, bringing Frost’s name to public attention in American literary circles for the first time. Soon after arriving back in America in 1915 he was being hailed as a successful poet. Frost realised that this was a crucial review, and wrote to Abercrombie from New Hampshire in September 1915: “Yours was the first praise over there, and there will never be any other just like it.”
When Abercrombie wasn’t working, he and Catherine must have been welcoming and easy-going hosts. Frost, Drinkwater and Brooke, as well as John Haines, Eddie Marsh, and the Gloucestershire poet Ivor Gurney have all commented on the happy times they spent with the Abercrombies at Ryton. The primitive washing facilities seem to have made the place even more endearing to them. The Frost family lived at The Gallows for five months (see the section on Frost) and he obviously felt sentimental about his time there. A letter to Abercrombie from New Hampshire in September 1915 says “Now I should like to go out into the yard and shake hands with your big cold pump till his iron tank was as full of water as my heart is of Ryton memories.”
Abercrombie’s next verse drama, The End of the World, had as big an impact as Saint Thomas. Eddie Marsh was the first to enthuse about it. On August 17, 1913 he visited The Gallows for the first time and wrote to Brooke with glowing descriptions of the bucolic scene (including the bathroom, “a shed out of doors, with a curtain instead of a door”), of how he enjoyed cutting up French beans and peeling potatoes, and of his “longish walk with L.A. - it’s lovely country and we climbed a high hill. . .and he made me swill ‘mild’ at every pub”. Abercrombie, working on The End of the World at this time, read the beginning of it to Marsh, who told Brooke it was “magnificent”.
In February 1914 Marsh returned to Dymock, partly to see the newly married Gibson who was living near Abercrombie. He wrote to Brooke in Tahiti about his weekend at The Old Nailshop with “the Wilfrids who seem flawlessly happy. . . . The Lascelles dined with us on Sat. and we with them on Sunday. . . . L. read out his End of the World, now finished, and to appear in the 2nd N.N. It’s a sublime work, in its fusion of poetry and comedy there has been nothing like it. . . We had a lovely walk, it’s beautiful country. . . . ”
The following month Abercrombie went to London as Marsh’s guest for five days. Again Marsh wrote to Brooke, describing the whirlwind of lunches, teas and dinners with famous people that he laid on for Abercrombie - “Lascelles almost speechless with admiration, he didn’t know there were such people” - as well as trips to the theatre, to the House of Commons to hear Winston Churchill deliver a speech and to the Poetry Bookshop where Abercrombie did a reading from The End of the World.. Marsh reported that “L. is rewarding me with the dedication of The End of the World, which will in itself assure me of immortality.”
The End of the World was published in April 1914, in the second issue of New Numbers. Brooke, sending a copy of New Numbers to Mrs Chauncey Wells, said: “There’s some awfully good Abercrombie in it; and we’re rather proud of the whole thing.” And Frost wrote to Abercrombie shortly after his return to America, saying that he wanted to show The End of the World to several people and wanted some copies of New Numbers sent to him.
But there were criticisms of Abercrombie’s play, and most of these “were directed not so much to the poet’s use of realism per se as to its artistic irrelevancy and the apparently deliberate brutality of Abercrombie’s conception”. The passages about frogs being crushed under cartwheels were, said D.H. Lawrence, “nasty efforts at cruelty”. But none of the criticism stopped Marsh from reprinting it in the second Georgian Poetry anthology or Drinkwater from producing it for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s 1914 season.
Abercrombie, unfit for military service, left The Gallows in March 1916 to work in a munitions factory in Liverpool. But he made a return visit in 1919, staying with a friend at Crowfield Farm near Dymock, and his creative impulses, which had dried up during the war, now re-emerged. He wrote many poems, one of the finest and best known being ‘Ryton Firs’. Its theme is declared in one stark line: “Ryton Firs, like Europe, fell.” The poem recalls the beautiful woods near The Gallows, felled and used as pit-props in Welsh mines. These were the woods where Frost and Thomas were walking when they were told to leave by one of Lord Beauchamp’s gamekeepers. For Haines, “nothing ever written has described so well the daffodils and the ‘fresh red mounded earth’ of the Dymock and Redmarley country.”
Abercrombie and Brooke first knew of each other when Harold Monro, editor of The Poetry Review, asked Brooke in September 1912 to write a defence of Abercrombie’s poetry against an attack made by Ezra Pound. “I’m not so fervent an admirer of Abercrombie’s as many people,” Brooke told Monro, “but perhaps that’s all the better, as I do think him good.” Although Abercrombie had been publishing Brooke’s poems in New Numbers, the two men didn’t meet until the day after Brooke’s homecoming party in London in June 1914. Brooke insisted that Abercrombie stay overnight at Marsh’s so that they would have more time to talk. “I think he’s very remarkable,” Brooke wrote to Ka Cox. Soon thereafter Brooke made the first of two visits to Dymock, to see Abercrombie and Gibson in their rural hideaway and discuss the next issue of New Numbers.
But war broke out, Brooke became a soldier, and there were to be no more visits to Gloucestershire. Despite wartime shortages, Abercrombie and Gibson managed to produce the fourth issue of New Numbers which had been promised to subscribers, but all four poets agreed that this would be the final issue. Brooke was pressed to hurry up and send some poems along. In December 1914, from Blandford Camp in Dorset, Brooke wrote to Marsh: “I hear Winston’s expected [to visit here]. Insist on coming with him. . .. . I see Lascelles is lecturing on War & the Drama. How is he? Won’t you bring him down with you, as Assistant Clerk, or Admiralty Bard, or something? I’d like to see him.” From the Aegean four months later, and less than three weeks before his death, Brooke wrote a long letter to Abercrombie from his sickbed, telling him to “come and join us”, inquiring after the Gibsons, and commenting on the last New Numbers: “I saw a notice of NN4 in the Times: by a laudatory half-wit. He didn’t seem to realize it was ‘good-bye’.. Perhaps we should have put in a slip to say so; and extracted, even in these times, a few tears, a few shillings”. He also wrote letters ensuring that Abercrombie would receive the royalties from his book should he die in the Aegean.
Like Gibson and Drinkwater, Abercrombie wrote a poem about Brooke’s death, titled ‘R.B.’. He also wrote a lengthy obituary in the Morning Post. The money Abercrombie received from Brooke’s royalties helped him considerably, especially during the war years when there was no market for literary criticism. In 1931 Abercrombie and his wife travelled to Greece, as Abercrombie had been asked to deliver the oration when a statue of Brooke was erected on the island of Skyros. We can only wonder at his emotions, and memories of his happy times with the dazzling young man, as he stood beside Brooke’s grave.
Edward Thomas was killed in the war just as Abercrombie was helping to get Thomas’s poems published for the first time (see the section on Thomas). Thomas had heard about Abercrombie’s inability to write during the war, and wrote to Gordon Bottomley from France in March 1917: “I should also like to hear that Abercrombie had either begun writing or had got over his impatience at not being able to.” Less than a week before he was killed, Thomas wrote again and mentioned Abercrombie: “I hope very much to see him & new work of his some day. I do not know his equal for keenness and warmth.”
After the war Abercrombie became a respected professor, at Liverpool University, Leeds University, Bedford College (London) and Merton College (Oxford). He also wrote several books, such as The Idea of Great Poetry (1925) and Principles of Literary Criticism (1932). While Professor of English Poetry at Leeds University, he arranged for Frost to give a poetry reading there on his 1928 visit to England. Abercrombie received many honorary degrees and became a Fellow of the Royal Academy in 1937. In 1930 his collected poems and plays were published. With characteristic modesty and regret, he wrote in the Preface: “The invitation to collect these pieces by the Oxford University Press was one which I could not but accept with the keenest pleasure; I allowed it to overbear a certain unwillingness to bring together poems which, to me, must chiefly represent unrealized ambition.”
In 1932 Abercrombie looked back wistfully on his years at Dymock:
“I have lived in a cottage in the daffodil country, and I have, for a time, done what I wanted to do . . . . and I have known what it is to have Wilfrid Gibson and Robert Frost for my neighbours; and John Drinkwater, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Will Davies, Bob Trevelyan, Arthur Ransome, have drunk my cider, and talkt in my garden. I make no cider now, and I have no garden. But once I lived in Gloucestershire.”
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.