Sunday, September 23, 2012
A (late) spring harvest
Who was Geoffrey Bache Smith? Many of my regular readers will already know, but for those who don’t, some background is probably in order. I will try to keep it brief, since others have already written much more extensively about Smith and there is little point in copying their work here. Instead, see the end of this post for suggestions on where to learn more. But to try to put it succinctly —
G.B. Smith was a talented poet and one of Tolkien’s closest friends at King Edward’s School and later at Oxford. With Tolkien, he was a member of that inseparable foursome at the heart of the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), the other two being Rob Gilson and Christopher Wiseman. Smith and Gilson were killed during World War I, after which Tolkien and Wiseman — just Tolkien, really, but he wanted Wiseman credited as well — published a posthumous collection of Smith’s poems, A Spring Harvest (Erskine Macdonald, 1918). Tolkien wrote a short prefatory note — see the scan above, signed by Tolkien (sorry about the tilt; I tried to rotate it, but the quality suffered). The collection runs to some 80 pages, and it has regrettably been out of print for close to a century. We don’t know how many copies were printed, but it can’t be very many. Most of the surviving copies are probably in private collections, but I know of a handful in university libraries.
Over the past few years, I’ve tried to track down a copy to read, but it’s proven impossible so far. It hasn’t been practical to travel to one of the universities with a copy yet. This is not a book that would be lent out through interlibrary loan (the note above did come from an ILL request, but I can’t get the entire book reproduced this way).
A few of Smith’s poems, or parts of them, have been appeared in print here and there (particularly in Garth and Scull/Hammond; see the end of this post). Smith’s two short “Songs on the Downs”, appeared in Oxford Poetry 1915, just a few pages before Tolkien’s own “Goblin Feet”, about which I have written more than once (for example, this post). Elsewhere, “The Burial of Sophocles”, a poem Tolkien singled out in his note, was reprinted in The Valiant Muse: An Anthology of Poems by Poets Killed in the World War (ed. Frederic W. Ziv; Putnam’s Sons, 1936). Excerpts from “A Preface for a Tale I never Told” (sic), “We who have Bowed Ourselves to Time”, and “Anglia Valida in Senectute”, appear in For Remembrance: Soldier Poets Who Have Fallen in the War (Arthur St. John Adcock; Hodder and Stoughton, 1918).
From the excerpts I’ve seen, “Anglia Valida in Senectute” is a particularly poignant work.
We are old, we are old, and worn and school’d with ills,
.....Maybe our road is almost done,
Maybe we are drawn near unto the hills
.....Where rest is and the setting sun.
Whatever comes, I will strike once surely,
.....Once because of an ancient tryst,
Once for love of your dear dead faces
.....Ere I come unto you, Shapes in the mist.
And [God] grant us at that ending
.....Of the unkindly quest
To come unto the quiet isles
.....Beyond Death’s Starry West
Powerful and somber lines, revealing the wisdom of an old soul. Particularly harrowing when you consider the man who wrote them was only twenty-two years old when he perished. The third stanza I’ve quoted almost sounds like it could be bound up in Tolkien’s mythology, doesn’t it? It almost sounds like a prayer Frodo might send out into the void to Elbereth.
So what is this exciting new development? Surely you’ve guessed.
As it happens, Mark Atherton has just published a new study of The Hobbit and its origins — à propos of its seventy-fifth anniversary — and he includes as an appendix a selection of poems from A Spring Harvest. Eight poems I hadn’t read before (at least not whole): “Rime”, “A Preface for a Tale I Have Never Told”, “A Sonnet”, “It Was All in the Black Countree”, “O There Be Kings Whose Treasuries”, “O, One Came Down from Seven Hills”, “Over the Hills and Hollows Green”, “So We Lay Down the Pen”.
This appendix is a nice treat, but it isn’t the exciting development. Think of this as just a hors d’oeuvre to whet your appetites, because Atherton prefaces his appendix with this surprising announcement: “A new edition of A Spring Harvest is forthcoming, edited by Douglas A. Anderson.” Well, how about that! I wrote to Doug, and he confirmed this is true. So we should shortly be able to read the complete collection, along with, I am sure, some very useful and interesting background material. Keep your eyes on Doug’s blog for a formal announcement to come.
If you want to know more about G.B. Smith, consult the following works (for a start).
Anderson, Douglas A. “Smith, Geoffrey Bache (1894–1916).” Michael D.C. Drout, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. New York: Routledge, . 617–8.
Garth, John. “Robert Quilter Gilson, T.C.B.S.: A Brief Life in Letters.” Tolkien Studies 8 (2011): 67-96
Garth, John. “T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society).” Michael D.C. Drout, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. New York: Routledge, . 635–6.
Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Hammond, Wayne G., with the assistance of Douglas A. Anderson. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography. New Castle, Deleware: Oak Knoll, 1993. 280–1.
Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond. “Smith, Geoffrey Bache.” The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Volume 2: Reader’s Guide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 938–42.
Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond. “G.B. Smith: An Inventory.” January 15, 2012.