Tuesday, May 28, 2019

a spring harvest

This is perhaps appropriate to bring up on the day after Memorial Day.

If you've seen the new bio-pic Tolkien, you'll have noticed a fair amount of attention devoted to the poetry of Tolkien's friend Geoffrey Bache Smith, one of his school fellowship the T.C.B.S., who died on duty in World War I in December 1916. There's a scene in which Tolkien tries to persuade Smith's mother to allow a collection of his poems to be published.

In fact, Mrs. Smith initiated the idea of the collection, asking Tolkien to gather up any poems of her son's that he had copies of, and the book was actually published, with a brief introduction by Tolkien, in June 1918.

The book, which was sadly and wistfully titled A Spring Harvest, came to mind when I saw an interview with the director and stars of the movie, conducted by Stephen Colbert. At the end, the director handed Colbert a few books, one of which I could see was a reprint edition of A Spring Harvest.

I remembered reading a few years ago that someone was preparing this, but having a scan of the original I hadn't bothered to get this. I did so now, however, getting the Amazon POD edition, and let me advise you that you'd be much better off with the Kindle e-book version, at least if you get the version with images. (I found it on Project Gutenberg.) The e-book is a reasonable facsimile of the printing of the original. The new printed edition is not. It lacks italics, it lacks breaks between verses, and, oddest of all, it prints poem titles in the same typeface as the text, immediately following the last line of the previous poem. This makes this edition hard to read and even harder to find anything in, and I have underlined all the titles in my copy. (There is a different paper reprint on Barnes & Noble which is more expensive but which I suspect is a better edition.)

Smith's poetry shows talent; it's probably both more voluminous and more obviously promising than a collection of Tolkien's would have been, had he been the one who died in 1916, even though he was nearly three years Smith's elder. Some of Smith's poems are mythic, in particular the opening work, which is his own version of a Fall of Arthur story, focusing on the tale of Bedivere.

There's a couple musically-related poems, one titled for an obscure piano piece of Schumann's that I wonder might have been intended to be sung to it; another is addressed "To a Pianist," whose playing evokes "soft sounds of summer seas / In a melody most fair," whereas others cause "most doleful threnodies / [to] chase about the air." Was the pianist Christopher Wiseman of the T.C.B.S.? Or could it have been Edith Tolkien?

But most moving are a hail and farewell to Oxford, depicting its college scenes in winter, and two in memory of the other T.C.B.S. member Rob Gilson, killed in battle several months earlier than Smith. One is bitter, asking God to "accept this sacrifice" for his own "inscrutable purposes." The other, without using any names, gently asks the remaining T.C.B.S. members to "sit silently, we three together ... And he, the fourth," from his grave "shall ... draw nigh unto us for memory's sake."

Honored memory to Smith and to them all.


  1. The British Library version is a lot better in my opinion than the Project Gutenberg version, as it is a scan of the original edition, you can access it here http://access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100022558373.0x000002#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0&xywh=-824%2C0%2C3279%2C2395

    1. But not very easy to read, as it displays in reduced format on only about half the screen, cuts off most of the page if you try to magnify it, and then reverts to tiny size when you turn to the next page.

  2. If you click on download at the bottom of the web-page you can create a pdf file of the whole book, which you can read using a pdf reader.