'Loathsome reptile': and other poetic insults

06/10/2011 by Ana McLaughlin

From green trousers to sneering postcards - poets are not always as demure as they seem

Researching Tyger Tyger Burning Bright: Much-Loved Poems You Half-Remember threw up a great amount of weird and wonderful information about the men and women who wrote the poems we have loved, learnt and half-forgotten. 

I was often tickled by tales of the relationships between writers: a young Betjeman, partying his way through Oxford while clutching his wonderfully named teddy bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore, inspired the character of Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, for example.

While Edward Thomas, whose blackbird sang out at Adelstrop, took the poet W H Davies under his wing. Well known for his gentle verses Leisure (“What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare'?) and The Kingfisher, Davies' ramshackle life came as a surprise when I looked into his autobiography. He lived much of his life as a tramp, lost a leg train-hopping in Canada and eventually married a pregnant prostitute half his age whom he had met at a bus stop. Thomas' patronage extended even to buying Davies a wooden leg.

Not all relationships between the poets I researched were quite so harmonious. Katherine Mansfield, who is now better known for her short stories but whose strange little verse Camomile Tea is included in the book, had a long and complicated entanglement with D H Lawrence and his wife Frieda. Their relationship had evidently soured when Lawrence took it upon himself to call Katherine a "loathsome reptile". The insult was delivered by postcard, which must have given a curious postman something to think about on his round. 

Meanwhile, the infamous incident in which Ezra Pound ate a quantity of flowers – some reports claim they were tulips, others roses – apparently occurred because he was annoyed at Yeats hogging the limelight one evening. Given that Ford Madox Ford describes Pound wearing green trousers, a pink shirt, a single blue earring and a sombrero, it's safe to assume that he wasn't a man to blend into the background.

I also enjoyed looking at what poets did when they weren't writing poetry. e e cummings was a firm believer in UFOs, and wrote a satirical ballet based on Uncle Tom's Cabin. While Ben Jonson's [pictured] moving epitaph to his first son and elegant "country house" poems contrast rather strikingly with his reputation as a boozer and a brawler: he even slew a fellow actor in one fight.

All this eccentric and appealing detail brought the poems to life for me, which is why I have included short biographies of each poet in this volume, as in the previous anthology I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud… and Other Poems you Half-Remember from School

National Poetry Day is a great opportunity to remind ourselves of the poems we have enjoyed at every stage of our lives, and I hope you'll have a moment to revisit just one choice verse today, whether it's from The Walrus and the Carpenter or one of Shakespeare's sonnets.

Tyger Tyger Burning Bright: Much-Loved Poems You Half-Remember, edited by Ana Sampson, is published by Michael O'Mara Books.

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