This poem was written rather more than a hundred years ago now (Flecker died in 1915), and I feel that any poet who has the chutzpah to address an audience a thousand years in the future at least deserves an intermediate review a century or so on. And I do think there is something touchingly vulnerable about it, especially given that Flecker was only thirty-one when he died, though I find its premises limited. Nothing wrong with wine, music, statues and bright-eyed love as subjects for poetry, but it’s surely good that since Flecker’s time poetry has moved away from a rather narrow aesthetic whereby certain subjects were considered ‘poetic’ towards a joyous engagement with whatever comes along.
But it is interesting to speculate as to what Flecker might have thought of poetic developments after his time. His rather ornate and dated play ‘Hassan’ contains the following passage, famous in its day:
CALIPH ‘Ah, if there shall ever arise a nation whose people have forgotten poetry or whose poets have forgotten the people, though they send their ships around Taprobane and their armies across the hills of Hindustan, though their city be greater than Babylon of old, though they mine a league into earth or mount to the stars on wings–what of them?
‘They will be a dark patch upon the world.’
So, would Flecker consider these prophetic fears to have been fulfilled? I think at one time, when the twentieth-century scene was dominated by the extremer forms of modernism, he might have done, but happily the later years of the century saw the reemergence of poets – Larkin, Hughes, Heaney and R.S.Thomas to name but a few – who at their best wrote poems that were not only very good but were also capable of giving immediate and lasting pleasure not only to litterateurs but to any intelligent reader with no professional axe to grind. Of course, there are dangers in populism, and I am myself not so much interested in bringing poetry to the people as in bringing the people to poetry. But at any rate, I like to think James Elroy Flecker would not be entirely disheartened by what came after, and here and there continues to come.
Note: Maeonides: a name for the poet Homer, from Maeonia, an ancient country in present north-west Turkey thought by some to be his birthplace.
To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence
I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.
I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure in the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.
But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?
How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.
O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.
Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.
James Elroy Flecker