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Why James Elroy Flecker deserves our attention

1 February 2015

2:09 PM

1 February 2015

2:09 PM

This month sees the Swiss alpine resort of Davos play host to the annual World Economic Forum summit, but it also marks the centenary of the death of one of England’s greatest Edwardian poets. The worship of Mammon and the ascent of Parnassus are traditionally not easy bedfellows, but the two are linked by the Swiss town. It was here that this now little known poet succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of thirty.

James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915) deserves far greater acclaim and public recognition for his poetic accomplishments.

A prodigious linguist, fluent in French, German, Italian, Spanish and modern Greek, he read Classics at Oxford and took a further degree in Modern Languages at Cambridge, all with a view to entering the diplomatic service. He was posted to Constantinople in 1910 and Beirut in 1913, yet spent time in between convalescing in the Cotswolds, Paris and Switzerland from the malady he had contracted and which would ultimately prove fatal.

Renowned during his lifetime for ‘The Golden Journey To Samarkand’ (1913), a poem which drew deeply on his love for and intimate knowledge of the Middle East, Flecker was a genuine polymath, an urbane scholar and by all accounts a kind and affable man.

He is now best known as the author of ‘To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence’ (published in his 1911 collection Forty-Two Poems) – a poignant ode to the enduring appeal of poetry and its ability to transcend millennia. This for me is the work upon which his claim to poetic immortality rests.

‘To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence’ is mellifluous, measured and memorable. In it, Flecker imagines a conversation with a poet a thousand years from now, majestically distilling the essence of what constitutes our humanity into twenty-four terse yet sonorous lines.

I first read this poem as a teenager and immediately responded to its cosmic themes. To this day, the poem’s wise counsel abides with me. When I am in need of succour, solace or a sense of perspective, ‘To A Poet A Thousand Years’ always nourishes my soul.

To commemorate the centenary of Flecker’s death, I would entreat you all to do as the poet asks in the penultimate stanza: to read out his words at night, alone. Luxuriate in the poem’s language. Bathe in the resplendent beauty of his meaning. Cast your mind back to when you too were young and cared for poetry, not to mention ‘a bright-eyed love’ and ‘foolish thoughts of good and ill’. Perhaps you still do.

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