I woke up thinking about a poem. For some reason, it isn’t well known, though I can’t think why not.

The author is J C Squire, Sir John Collings Squire, a trouble-maker of superior order in his day. An anti-modernist. A ‘Georgian’. A heavy drinker.

His own band of followers were known as ‘the Squirearchy’. They sat, in metaphorical terms, on the opposite bank to the Bloomsbury group, although he certainly published some of them in The London Mercury, during his 15 years of editorship.

You can see some lovely photographs of him in the online collection of the National Portrait Gallery. He was clearly fond of stripey blazers. He was known for his antagonism towards current trends in poetry and he was enthusiastic about cricket.

His Wikipedia entry is dodgy. Obviously nobody has taken sufficient interest in him to do it well, though under ‘Reputation’ it does tell us ‘he is generally credited with the one-liner I am not so think as you drunk I am‘. It is all a long time ago. The literary squabbles of those days (in which JCS certainly played his role) are largely forgotten, just as the literary squabbles of today will be.

Knighted in 1933 (I don’t know why — perhaps services to literature?), he loved poetry and knew a lot about it. He wrote several volumes of poems himself, most of them forgettable, as is true for most of us. He also penned some extremely clever parodies – and given that he’s credited with being ‘Georgian’, he’s remarkably good at mocking some of the features of that period, and indeed the features of any period.

He was astute, witty and . . . wrote one poem at least I shan’t forget. Technically, this is in copyright but I feel the dead Sir John would sit up in his grave cheerfully at the thought of being read.

So what do you make of this? It is from Poems, First Series published by Martin Secker in 1918, when the author would have been only 34, but feeling much older. Thanks to his poor eye-sight, he had survived the Great War. Many of his contemporaries had not.


In this house, she said, in this high second storey,
In this room where we sit, over the midnight street,
There runs a rivulet, narrow but very rapid,
Under the still floor and your unconscious feet.

The lamp on the table made a cone of light
That spread to the base of the walls: above was in gloom.
I heard her words with surprise; had I worked here so long,
And never divined the secret of the room?

‘But how,’ I asked, ‘does the water climb so high?’
‘I do not know,’ she said, ‘but the thing is there;
Pull up the boards while I go and fetch you a rod.’
She passed, and I heard her creaking descend the stair.

And I rose and rolled the Turkey carpet back
From the two broad boards by the north wall she had named,
And, hearing already the crumple of water, I knelt
And lifted the first of them up; and the water gleamed,

Bordered with little frosted heaps of ice,
And, as she came back with a rod and a line that swung,
I moved the other board; in the yellow light
The water trickled frostily, slackly along.

I took the tackle, a stiff black rubber worm,
That stuck out its pointed tail from a cumbrous hook.
‘But there can’t be fishing in water like this,’ I said,
And she, with weariness, ‘There is no ice there. Look.’

And I stood there, gazing down at a stream in spate,
Holding the rod in my undecided hand . . .
Till it all in a moment grew smooth and still and clear,
And along its deep bottom of slaty grey sand

Three scattered little trout, as black as tadpoles,
Came waggling slowly along the glass-dark lake,
And I swung my arm to drop my pointing worm in,
And then I stopped again with a little shake.

For I heard the thin gnat-like voices of the trout
—My body felt woolly and sick and astray and cold—
Crying with mockery in them: ‘You are not allowed
To take us, you know, under ten years old.’

And the room swam, the calm woman and the yellow lamp,
The table, and the dim-glistering walls, and the floor
And the stream sank away, and all whirled dizzily,
And I moaned, and the pain at my heart grew more and more,

And I fainted away, utterly miserable,
Falling in a place where there was nothing to pass,
Knowing all sorrows and the mothers and sisters of sorrows,
And the pain of the darkness before anything ever was.



3 thoughts on “UNDER”

  1. I’m a Squire fan. His Collected Poems is full of unexpected things, like ‘The Stockyard’, a terrific description of meat-processing in Chicago. But – not in the Collected Poems – best of all are the parodies, like this one:

    If Gray Had Had to Write His Elegy in the Cemetery of Spoon River Instead of in That of Stoke Poges

    The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
    The whippoorwill salutes the rising moon,
    And wanly glimmer in her gentle ray,
    The sinuous windings of the turbid Spoon.

    Here where the flattering and mendacious swarm
    Of lying epitaphs their secrets keep,
    At last incapable of further harm
    The lewd forefathers of the village sleep.

    The earliest drug of half-awakened morn,
    Cocaine or hashish, strychnine; poppy-seeds
    Or fiery produce of fermented corn
    No more shall start them on the day’s misdeeds.

    For them no more the whetstone’s cheerful noise,
    No more the sun upon his daily course
    Shall watch them savouring the genial joys,
    Of murder, bigamy, arson and divorce.

    Here they all lie; and, as the hour is late,
    O stranger, o’er their tombstones cease to stoop,
    But bow thine ear to me and contemplate
    The unexpurgated annals of the group.

    There are two hundred only: yet of these
    Some thirty died of drowning in the river,
    Sixteen went mad, ten others had D.T.s,
    And twenty-eight cirrhosis of the liver.

    Several by absent-minded friends were shot,
    Still more blew out their own exhausted brains,
    One died of a mysterious inward rot,
    Three fell off roofs, and five were hit by trains.

    One was harpooned, one gored by a bull-moose,
    Four on the Fourth fell victims to lock-jaw,
    Ten in electric chair or hempen noose
    Suffered the last exaction of the law.

    Stranger, you quail, and seem inclined to run;
    But, timid stranger, do not be unnerved;
    I can assure you that there was not one
    Who got a tithe of what he had deserved.

    Full many a vice is born to thrive unseen,
    Full many a crime the world does not discuss,
    Full many a pervert lives to reach a green
    Replete old age, and so it was with us.

    Here lies a parson who would often make
    Clandestine rendezvous with Claflin’s Moll,
    And ‘neath the druggist’s counter creep to take
    A sip of surreptitious alcohol.

    And here a doctor, who had seven wives,
    And, fearing this ménage might seem grotesque,
    Persuaded six of them to spend their lives
    Locked in a drawer of his private desk.

    And others here there sleep who, given scope,
    Had writ their names large on the Scrolls of Crime,
    Men who, with half a chance, might haply cope
    With the first miscreants of recorded time.

    Doubtless in this neglected spot is laid
    Some village Nero who has missed his due,
    Some Bluebeard who dissected many a maid,
    And all for naught, since no one ever knew.

    Some poor bucolic Borgia here may rest,
    Whose poisons sent whole families to their doom
    Some hayseed Herod who, within his breast,
    Concealed the sites of many an infant’s tomb.

    Types that the Muse of Masefield might have stirred,
    Or waked to ecstasy Gaboriau,
    Each in his narrow cell at last interred,
    All, all are sleeping peacefully below.

    · · · · · ·

    Enough, enough! But stranger, ere we part,
    Glancing farewell to each nefarious bier,
    This warning I would beg you take to heart,
    ‘There is an end to even the worst career!’

  2. The strangest of Squire’s poems. Betjeman, who did the Collected Poems was puzzled.

  3. He might well have been puzzled! I think it’s a dream poem. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have troubling meaning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.