James Elroy Flecker died in January 1915, having added at least one poem to the perfect anthology of English verse. Probably his work contains a good deal that is permanent besides this. But one is confident at least of the permanence of The Old Ships. Readers coming a thousand years hence upon the beauty, the romance and the colour of this poem will turn eagerly, one imagines, in search of other work from the same pen. This was the flower of the poet’s genius. It was the exultant and original speech of one who was in a great measure the seer of other men’s visions. Flecker was much given to the translation of other poets, and he did not stop at translating their words. He translated their imagination also into careful verse. He was one of those poets whose genius is founded in the love of literature more than in the love of life. He seems less an interpreter of the earth than one who sought after a fantastic world which had been created by Swinburne and the Parnassians and the old painters and the tellers of the Arabian Nights.
“He began,” Mr. J.C. Squire has said, “by being more interested in his art than in himself.” And all but a score or so of his poems suggest that this was his way to the last. He was one of those for whom the visible world exists. But it existed for him less in nature than in art. He does not give one the impression of a poet who observed minutely and delightedly as Mr. W.H. Davies observes. His was a painted world inhabited by a number of chosen and exquisite images. He found the real world by comparison disappointing. “He confessed,” we are told, “that he had not greatly liked the East—always excepting, of course, Greece.” This was almost a necessity of his genius; and it is interesting to see how in some of his later work his imagination is feeling its way back from the world of illusion to the world of real things—from Bagdad and Babylon to England. His poetry does not as a rule touch the heart; but in Oak and Olive and Brumana his spectatorial sensuousness at last breaks down and the cry of the exile moves us as in an intimate letter from a friend since dead. Those are not mere rhetorical reproaches to the “traitor pines” which
sang what life
The falsest of fair tales;
which had murmured of—
That beat on vaster sands,
Where blaze the unimaginable flowers.
It was as though disillusion had given an artist a soul. And when the war came it found him, as he lay dying of consumption in Switzerland, a poet not merely of manly but of martial utterance. The Burial in England is perhaps too much of an ad hoc call to be great poetry. But it has many noble and beautiful lines and is certainly of a different world from his mediocre version of God Save the King.