Elegies tend to be sad by definition, but this one by James Reeves seems sadder than most in that it interweaves a lament for a dead poet friend with a lament for the drying up of his own poetic gift. At one point I thought that the ‘he’ referred to in the fourth stanza might be Robert Graves, who was friend to both Reeves and Cameron but had by this time long left England for Majorca, but I am now persuaded that it is simply a continuing reference to the river-god, as symbolising Reeves’s source of inspiration.
To Norman Cameron 1905 – 1953
I asked the river-god a song
Wherewith to mourn your fallen head.
No answer: but a low wind crept
About the stones of his dry bed.
The fingers of insomnia
Turning the pages of self-hate
Are like the incurious wind that stirred
The papery reeds on that estate.
In other days I knew the god
Who flashed and chuckled in the sun.
Where has he taken now his moods
Of shadow and his sense of fun?
The requiem I might have had
From him you would have understood
Just as you also understood
How hard a thing it is, though good,
To hold your peace and wait your time
When there is nothing to be said.
I know it now: I knew you both,
But he is gone, and you are dead.
Even the wind has stopped; no sound
In this dull air is born to live;
So I my desperate silences
To you my friend and poet give.
I think the E.B. of this poem must be Edmund Blunden, as the initials fit, the dates fit (except that Blunden actually died in January 1974, not 1973) and Blunden was a friend of Reeves. The only problem is that Blunden was actually quite well recognised as a poet in his lifetime, assuming that the award of the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry, election to the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, and commemoration on a stone in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey count as recognition.‘By most neglected’, therefore, may be a bit of an overstatement and one can’t help wondering if the poem is more an expression of Reeves’s own relatively unrewarded devotion to his craft.
The Queen of Elfland’s sometimes inconvenient gift to Thomas was, of course, a tongue that was incapable of lying: see ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, Child Ballad no. 37.
On a Poet
E.B. 1896 – 1973
Having no Celtic bombast in his blood,
Nor dipsomaniac rage, nor very much
To give his time of what his time expected,
He saw his Muse, slight thing, by most neglected.
She was no exhibitionist, and he,
With only the Queen of Elfland’s gift to Thomas,
Could not afford to school her in the taste
For stolen gauds and ornaments of paste.
When he is dead and his best phrases stored
With Clare’s and Hardy’s in the book of gold,
She with her unpresuming Saxon grace
In the Queen’s retinue will take her place.