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The Old Ships -- James Elroy Flecker

Guest poem submitted by Aparna:
(Poem #685) The Old Ships
 I have seen old ships like swans asleep
 Beyond the village which men call Tyre,
 With leaden age o'ercargoed, dipping deep
 For Famagusta and the hidden sun
 That rings black Cyprus with a lake of fire;
 And all those ships were certainly so old
 Who knows how oft with squat and noisy gun,
 Questing brown slaves or Syrian oranges,
 The pirate Genoese
 Hell-raked them till they rolled
 Blood, water, fruit and corpses up the hold.
 But now through friendly seas they softly run,
 Painted the mid-sea blue or shore-sea green,
 Still patterned with the vine and grapes in gold.

 But I have seen,
 Pointing her shapely shadows from the dawn
 And image tumbed on a rose-swept bay,
 A drowsy ship of some yet older day;
 And, wonder's breath indrawn,
 Thought I - who knows - who knows - but in that same
 (Fished up beyond Ææa, patched up new
 - Stern painted brighter blue -)
 That talkative, bald-headed seaman came
 (Twelve patient comrades sweating at the oar)
 From Troy's doom-crimson shore,
 And with great lies about his wooden horse
 Set the crew laughing, and forgot his course.

 It was so old a ship - who knows, who knows?
 - And yet so beautiful, I watched in vain
 To see the mast burst open with a rose,
 And the whole deck put on its leaves again.
-- James Elroy Flecker
The first time I read any Flecker was in the preface to M.M. Kaye's "The Far
Pavilions"... those lovely lines from the The Golden Journey to Samarkand
beginning, "We are the pilgrims Master..."  After I dug up and read the
whole poem, the enchantment was complete and Flecker became and remains one
of my favourite poets.

What I love about this particular poem is the _colours_ I associate with it's replete, drenched with all the richness and colour and patterns I
would expect from a place that sounds as beautiful as Cyprus itself -- "
dipping deep for Famagusta and the hidden sun..."  -- just saying
"Famagusta" out aloud would be enough! Or that amazing juxtaposition of
images ..."questing brown slaves or Syrian oranges..." - absolutely lovely.

Despite everything I still think that "Golden Journey" is the best Flecker
I've read. Besides I might be biased but Samarkand (like caravanserai, as
Martin pointed out some time ago) is one of those words that has loveliness
and dust and distance and magic in every syllable so... :-)



James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915) was born in London on November 5, 1884. His
death in 1915 at the age of thirty was "unquestionably the greatest
premature loss that English literature has suffered since the death of
Keats" (Macdonald, 1924). The eldest son of the Rev. W. H. Flecker,
Headmaster of Dean Close School, Flecker attended Trinity College, Oxford,
and also Caius College, Cambridge, where he studied oriental languages in
preparation for a consular career. From 1910 to 1913 he held a series of
minor consular posts in Constantinople, Smyrna, and Beirut, and these
appointments reinforced his life-long love for the Mediterranean and the
Middle East. Flecker's health was not robust (he had been diagnosed with
tuberculosis in 1910 shortly after he entered the consular service) and he
was forced to take frequent leaves of absence from his posts, sometimes to
return to England and sometimes to visit sanatoria in Switzerland. He died
in Davos, Switzerland, on January 3, 1915, and is buried in Cheltenham,
England, at the foot of the Cotswold Hills. His grave is marked with a
granite cross inscribed with the poet's own words: "O Lord, restore his
realm to the dreamer." "Flecker had a splendor and breadth of vision
unmatched among young English poets of his time" (Philadelphia North
American). His writings include poetry, short stories, non-fiction prose,
and two plays that were published posthumously. Though sometimes grouped
chronologically with the Georgian poets, Flecker's real literary affinity is
with the French Parnassian school. [Georgian poets are early
twentieth-century poets like Rupert Brooke or W.H. Davies/Flecker but I have
no idea what the French Parnassian school is. Could anyone elucidate? -


The Poets' Corner has some stuff from Flecker at
[broken link]

and there's a photograph at the University of Toronto site

[thomas adds]

Aparna suggested revisiting the Silk Road theme which I had mentioned in
yesterday's post; you can read all the poems of the original theme at the
Minstrels website,


Poem #504 - Li Po, "About Tu Fu"
Poem #506 - Christopher Marlowe, "Lament for Zenocrate"
Poem #509 - James Elroy Flecker, "The Golden Road to Samarkand"
Poem #513 - Jalaluddin Rumi, "The Tavern"
Poem #515 - Robert Graves, "The Persian Version"
Poem #518 - James Elroy Flecker, "The Gates of Damascus"
Poem #522 - Constantine Cavafy, "In Harbor"
Poem #526 - Robert Browning, "A Toccata of Galuppi's"

And in response to Aparna's query:

"Parnassian - French PARNASSIEN, member of a group of 19th-century French
poets headed by Leconte de Lisle, who stressed restraint, objectivity,
technical perfection, and precise description as a reaction against the
emotionalism and verbal imprecision of the Romantics. The poetic movement
led by the Parnassians that resulted in experimentation with metres and
verse forms and the revival of the sonnet paralleled the trend toward
Realism in drama and the novel that became evident in the late 19th century.
Initially taking their themes from contemporary society, the Parnassians
later turned to the mythology, epics, and sagas of exotic lands and past
civilizations, notably India and ancient Greece, for inspiration. The
Parnassians derived their name from the anthology to which they contributed:
Le Parnasse Contemporain (3 vol., 1866, 1871, 1876), edited by Louis-Xavier
de Ricard and Catulle Mendès and published by Alphonse Lemerre. Their
principles, though, had been formulated earlier in Théophile Gautier's
preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), which expounded the theory of art
for art's sake, in Leconte de Lisle's preface to his Poèmes antiques (1852),
and in La Revue Fantaisiste (1860), founded by Mendès. Gautier's Émaux et
camées (1852), a collection of carefully worked, formally perfect poems,
pointed to a new conception of poetry and influenced the works of major
Parnassians such as Albert Glatigny, Théodore de Banville, François Coppée,
Léon Dierx, and José Maria de Heredia. Heredia, the most representative of
the group, looked for precise details, double rhymes, sonorous words, and
exotic names, and concentrated on making the 14th line of his sonnets the
most striking.

The influence of the Parnassians was felt throughout Europe and was
particularly evident in the Modernist movement of Spain and Portugal and in
the Jeune Belgique (Young Belgium) movement. In the late 19th century a new
generation of poets, the Symbolists, followers of Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul
Verlaine, themselves Parnassians in their youth, broke away from precise
description in search of an art of nuance and musical suggestion."

     -- EB

31 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Tim Cheatle said...

I first read this poem at school about 35 years ago and it's lurked in some
part of my noggin ever since, even though I haven't got it in any anthology
or collection. Aparna's comments on the wonderful phraseology and atmosphere
are spot on and I'm grateful to her/him for reuniting me with it. What a
loss Flecker was!


peter williams said...

There seems to be a verb missing from the first line of The Old
Ships, at least according to my edition of the Collected Poems ,which
I have cherished for some sixty years -

I have seen old ships SAIL like swans asleep....

Not only does the word "sail" give the opening statement its main
verb, and the first line its tenth syllable that sets and matches the
rhythmic structure of the lines that follow: it completes and
amplifies the imagery of the swans, asleep but moving onwards.

Also, in line 17, "tumbled" has lost its "l".

This poem is so exquisitely perfect that any imperfection in its
publishing is a matter of sad concern.

Peter Williams

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