The Blagasphere

17 Apr

This has precious little to do with the war, but it’s one of my very favourite things I’ve ever found and I am powerless to resist passing it along.

Sir John Collings Squire (1884-1958), best known as an editor, a satiric poet, a parodic speech-maker, a lover of stout ales, and as one very well-accomplished in the field of general bluster, was from 1919 through 1934 the editor of the London Mercury, a widely-read literary magazine featuring reviews, news, and short original works.  The magazine was noted (and at times denounced) for its more conservative approach to the literary scene of the time; Squire and his colleagues were not keen on Modernism, nor upon the sometimes less overtly Modernist but still distinctly modern works of the Bloomsbury Group, and the Mercury offered a venue in which work of an older style could still be published and discussed.  The personal and professional feuds that developed between the new-wave literary scene and what one Bloomsbury wag described as “The Squirearchy” are deeply interesting, and will certainly be something to which I intend to return at greater length later; for now, however, I want to examine a curious coincidence of nomenclature.

In one of his editorial notes in the Feb. 1920 issue of the Mercury (1.4), Squire writes rather scornfully of the “experimental” verse being turned out by what he called the Futurist-Vorticist-Cubist type.  I won’t go into detail about the specific poems (many of them quite shockingly weird) that he lambastes, as that’s rather beside the point, but what matters from our perspective is the brief mention he makes of Blast, the very influential (and extremely short-lived) Vorticist periodical put out by Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis and others.  It lasted for two issues — the declaration of war in 1914 saw many of its contributors forced into other lines of work, and at least two of them (T.E. Hulme and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska) would be killed in action.

In any event, Squire looks back fondly upon Blast‘s demise, it having stood for many of the things he found most tiresome, but he offers a sort of lament all the same: in its death, he writes, it “[gave] place to countless smaller magazines and books.” This was the culture of the “Little Magazine” that flourished in this period; Ford Madox Ford’s celebrated English Review is one such example — a small periodical founded by, edited by, and largely beholden to a single figure’s tastes and ideas. These smaller magazines made their way along by constantly referring back to one another; the authors had feuds and denounced one another; they reviewed and condemned each other’s works; and so on.   Such magazines fed upon one another; they “attach[ed] themselves to anything which [would] give them publicity,” as Squire concludes.

The similarity of this to modern blogging is notable, wouldn’t you say?  I would.  The only real difference is the possibility of real-time reader comment rather than much-delayed letters to the editor, and even that is not so much a difference of kind as a difference of degree.

This brings us to the reason for this post.

In denouncing all of the above, which bears in its culture and its conduct so much that is now common among bloggers, Squire needed something to call them to distinguish them from periodical contributors generally. He unaccountably settled upon the epithet blagueurs.  Let that sink in.

Squire’s emphasis in this was primarily upon the (to him) unappealing nature of the material being published, whether it be the font-based shenanigans of a Marinetti or the inarticulate noise-words of some of the verslibrists being reviewed by F.S. Flint in The Monthly Chapbook.  He could not easily believe that many people sincerely enjoyed such “poems,” and still less that the artists were sincerely producing them.  He viewed it as japery, fraud — the work of “tricksters” and “jokers”.  Blageuers means exactly that.  That it should end up sounding so much like the term chosen to describe a similar sort of personal periodical production a century later is remarkable.  Nothing at all beyond a coincidence, but remarkable.

During the war, Squire was a frequent contributor (usually of reviews) to Land & Water, one of the premiere English periodicals dedicated solely to the war and its progress; the magazine also regularly saw content provided by Hilaire Belloc and Fred T. Jane, the latter of the now enormous Jane’s military reference series.  Given that I’ll be returning to Squire often, here, perhaps that’s where I’ll go next.

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3 Responses to “The Blagasphere”

  1. George Simmers April 18, 2013 at 7:52 am #

    It’s good to see Squire remembered. He was a notable literary presence, and, I think, a good poet at his best.
    He has vanished from many accounts of twentieth century literary history now, except, as here, to be remembered for what he was against, rather than what he actually achieved.
    At Land and Water, he was not only a contributor, but also literary editor. In the years immediately after the War, this magazine was one of the few papers still interested in printing stories about the War. He published Ford’s ‘Pink Flannel’, and pieces by Richard Blaker, as well as Rose Macaulay’s ‘Dennis Demobilised’.
    His ‘Collected Poems’ contains many elegies for those who died; some of these have a touch of survivor guilt, as in this one, where the eyes of the dead accuse him:

    THE MARCH

    I heard a voice that cried, “Make way for those who died!”
    And all the coloured crowd like ghosts at morning fled;
    And down the waiting road, rank after rank there strode,
    In mute and measured march a hundred thousand dead.

    A hundred thousand dead, with firm and noiseless tread,
    All shadowy-grey yet solid, with faces grey and ghast,
    And by the house they went, and all their brows were bent
    Straight forward; and they passed, and passed, and passed, and passed.

    But O there came a place, and O there came a face,
    That clenched my heart to see it, and sudden turned my way;
    And in the Face that turned I saw two eyes that burned,
    Never-forgotten eyes, and they had things to say.

    Like desolate stars they shone one moment, and were gone,
    And I sank down and put my arms across my head,
    And felt them moving past, nor looked to see the last,
    In steady silent march, our hundred thousand dead.

    • Nick Milne April 18, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, George — I’d like to say at once that your blog is probably my favourite out of all the ones I’ve yet found while looking for additional stars in the firmament of “WWI online”. I stumbled across it initially because we’ve both written reviews of Bernard Newman’s ‘The Cavalry Went Through’ (mine at a now-defunct blog — I’ll be reposting it here again soon) and was surprised to discover another one when I had been Googling my own!

      I’m in absolute agreement about Squire, his neglect, and his aptitude for poetry. Most of the poems of his that I’ve read have been wonderfully satirical, so I think you for passing along this more serious offering.

      My latest post is about one of the astounding poems of Sir William Watson — it may be of some interest to you.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The worst war poem | Wellington House - April 18, 2013

    […] sensational.  John Collings Squire, in a short essay on the collection, drily notes that “this must certainly be the most […]

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