Edgell Rickword, the Fitzroy Tavern

The Fitzroy

Lots of poets drank at the Fitzroy. It was a haunt of Dylan Thomas and William Empson and Nina Hammett and Malcolm Lowry; it gets a mention in Briggflatts (‘left breast of a girl who bared it in Kleinfeldt’s’ – Kleinfeldt was the proprietor, and the line gets the single best annotation in the whole of Don Share’s magisterial edition of the Complete Poems).

But there’s only one poet I can think of who’s associated with the Fitzroy and nowhere else. (Thomas has the Wheatsheaf; Empson, the Rosslyn Arms; Bunting, the Bridge Hotel in Newcastle.) That’s Edgell Rickword: here’s Empson’s remembrance of him holding court:

There was a time, around 1929, when Edgell Rickword was the Sage of the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street; much jostled by other sages, and very unassertive, indeed he could hardly be got to speak, and then hardly above a whisper, but he was the real one, if you happened to know. John Davenport knew, and advised a few other Cambridge students, including myself; we felt that a visit to London had to include looking for him there. I remember straining my ears, and of course I often succeeded in hearing him, but I cannot remember anything he said. This is the less odd because what he said was remarkable for its studied moderation, and respected for that, even by us; to renounce poetry on becoming a communist, as we all supposed he had done, seemed such a vehement thing, almost like Rimbaud – after that, a man had the right to speak placidly about current quarrels.

(from a PN Review festschrift for Rickword; included in Empson’s Argufying)

Rickword today is remembered only for a handful of WW1 poems, and barely remembered at that; which is a shame, because one of them especially, ‘Trench Poets’, deserves to be much better known. I read it as an attack on Owen; so the opening lines are pastiche; but it’s really far too good for pastiche, and Owen, I think, never managed anything so genuinely terrifying and haunting:

I knew a man, he was my chum,
But he grew darker day by day
And would not brush the flies away
Nor blanch, however fierce the hum
Of passing shells…

Of course he can’t keep up this level right through, and the facetious ending almost spoils the poem. But those opening lines stay in the head for a long time.

Tomorrow, we revert to poets’ houses again: I’m going to strictly ration myself when it comes to pubs (there are just so many). The Fitzroy these days, incidentally, is a very pleasant Sam Smiths joint, and just as jostle-y as it was in 1929.

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