Letter from . . . June 2018
The second-worst poet in English
On Cumberland Clark, the bard of Bournemouth.
The mention of Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, revives in me a slightly uneasy conscience. A much older cousin of mine, whom I always called Aunt because of the difference in our ages, retired there many years ago when the town was still known for its gentility rather than its drug “culture”; and though I was close to her as a child, I had, thanks to laziness and other, supposedly more important things to do, lost even telephonic contact with her.
Before my return to Bournemouth after an absence of several decades, I looked her up on the internet. I was to address the Freedom Association on the subject of current threats to freedom of opinion. The only trace of my cousin on the internet was an announcement in the local newspaper that she had passed away peacefully in April 2010. She was a charming woman who managed to combine a sense of humor with an ability to think well of everyone: she was charitable in a way that I have never managed. I suppose that she is of the last generation that will leave so slight a trace on the electronic record.
Next door to my hotel was the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, well worth a visit for those who inclined to doubt the necessity of modernist reform at the end of the Victorian era. Built at the end of that era by the hotelier, philanthropist, and vertiginous social climber Sir Merton Russell-Cotes, first as a house but always with a museum in mind, it is splendidly cluttered with late Victoriana. There is in it an utter aesthetic confidence that provokes a certain involuntary admiration, as absolute and unyielding self-belief, however unjustified, is apt to do. As with the Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai, kitsch on such a scale transcends itself and becomes something different, something on an altogether higher plane.
Clark was the second-worst poet in the English language.
Russell-Cotes made his fortune from the Royal Bath Hotel, then the latest thing in luxury and bon ton, though it has since passed into the hands of the Britannia Hotel Group, regularly voted the worst hotel group in the country, if not in Europe and the rest of the world. Its hotels leave no opportunity for slovenliness unseized; indeed slovenliness of this thoroughness, like kitsch, transcends itself and also becomes some kind of achievement, in this case comic.
Oscar Wilde used regularly to stay at Russell-Cotes’s hotel, and Bournemouth in general has several literary associations, despite its relatively recent foundation as a town. Mary Shelley is buried there, Paul Verlaine taught there, and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde there. But for me the presiding literary spirit of Bournemouth is without doubt Cumberland Clark, a man whose name will probably ring no bells even in the best-read of persons.
He was the second-worst poet in the English language, not far behind William McGonagall. Born in 1862, he seems to have commenced author, as the saying goes, in his middle fifties, thereafter suffering, or perhaps enjoying, severe graphomania, the compulsion never to leave off writing. Until then he had led a wandering life, abandoning his native London for Australia as a teenager, studying for the church at Sydney University, and working variously as a minister, gold miner, and sheep farmer in many far-flung places. But he settled eventually in Bournemouth and evidently decided that Bournemouth was best.
Much of his poetry extols the town. It is wonderfully, gloriously, hilariously awful. Here, taken at random when I opened the second edition of The Bournemouth Song Book (1934 second edition, 1929 first, privately published) is the opening stanza of “Bournemouth Boarding Houses”:
The boarding houses met with in this splendid seaside town
Are mainly very excellent, deserving their renown.
The residents form usually congenial society,
Although among so many you meet types in great variety.
This continues for about four-and-a-half quite closely printed pages.
Bournemouth Boarding Houses” is no momentary lapse or case of Homer nodding. Here, for example, is the beginning of “The West Overcliff Drive”:
Do you know the West Overcliff Drive?
If you don’t, there’s no doubt that you ought to.
With interest always alive,
It’s a place everyone should be brought to.
Perhaps the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins can be dimly espied here—but then again, perhaps not. Taken also at random is the opening of the more promising “Bournemouth and Napoleon” (Sir Merton Russell-Cotes, by the way, was a great admirer of Napoleon as the ultimate self-made man, as a kind of Josiah Bounderby writ large, and he bought a wine-cooler from Longwood House that was used by the former Emperor during his long exile on Saint Helena):
Years ago Napoleon, at the apex of his power,
Was still upon the rampage, other countries to devour.
The English folk were not afraid, but what upset them most,
Was thinking, p’raps, he’d have a try to land upon their coast.
The Bournemouth Song Book is a work to make you weak with laughter: for this reason it can be taken in only small doses, like (for other reasons) Oswald Spengler. And yet there is something very curious about Cumberland Clark: he was far from a stupid man.
The Bournemouth Song Book is a work to make you weak with laughter.
Like William McGonagall he was a keen Shakespearean, but as a writer and critic rather than as an aspiring actor. He was also much better educated than McGonagall (which makes the awfulness of his poetry all the more mysterious). He was the founder and president of the Bournemouth Shakespeare Society, and wrote fifteen books in all on Shakespeare, mostly, but not entirely, self-published, and by no means incompetent. A Study of Hamlet, for example, gives the best and clearest account of the plot that I have ever read, and I would recommend it to anyone who did not know the play. If Cumberland Clark’s commentary on Hamlet is unoriginal, it is also unexceptionable. He quotes Goethe and Coleridge on the subject, and is up to date—1926—on more modern commentary. (My copy has an aura of antimacassar and mothballs about it. It was presented by Crosby House School, Bournemouth, to Joan Furze-Mills in June 1937 “for gaining an Honours Certificate in the London College of Elocution Primary Section.” She was nine at the time and elocution classes would now probably be considered a manifestation of class prejudice or even as a form of child abuse: but in those days, socially ambitious parents wanted their children to learn to speak “properly.” Joan Furze-Mills died, aged eighty-two, in the same year as my cousin.)
Cumberland Clark wrote book-length studies of Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Macbeth, Henry VIII, and The Merchant of Venice, the character of Falstaff, Shakespeare and the supernatural, and Shakespeare and science (the latter two published by respectable publishers). He wrote nine books or pamphlets on Dickens as well, including on the dogs in Dickens and the response of Dickens to begging letters.
Nor was this all. He seems to have been an amateur numismatist of some distinction and wrote a book on early forms of writing such as cuneiform. An anonymous donor of a collection of twenty-five cuneiform tablets to the library of ucla insisted that it should be called the Cumberland Clark Collection. Interestingly, the library says:
Property rights to the physical object belong to the UCLA Library Special Collections. Literary rights, including copyright, are retained by the creators and their heirs. It is the responsibility of the researcher to determine who holds the copyright and pursue the copyright owner or his or her heir for permission to publish where The UC Regents do not hold the copyright.
I would imagine tracing the Sumerian authors of 2000 B.C. (or B.C.E., as the library website has it, proving that political correctness now insinuates itself into even the most obscure corners of our culture) might prove slightly difficult.
Cumberland Clark was an early and ferocious critic of communism.
Cumberland Clark was an early and ferocious critic of communism. This has attracted a certain amount of snide comment, but in fact his self-published book The Curse of Communism, written in the same year as his Study of Hamlet, was vastly more perceptive than many an apologia published at the time. If he harped with uncomfortable insistence on the proportion of early Bolsheviks who were Jewish, he was certainly right about the new kind of evil that the Bolshevik state represented. (In his study of Hamlet, however, he refers with great respect to the work of the scholar of early English Sir Israel Gollancz on the sources of the play. Cumberland Clark believed in the democratic system and was therefore anti-Nazi.) And he was more prescient about communism than many a celebrated Western intellectual:
Wherever a dictatorship of the proletariat is set up, there will inevitably be a Tcheka [the first Soviet secret police], crushing freedom and happiness and living on terror and death, overriding the workers’ soviets and concentrating power in its own hands.
He was aware of the terror, the mass executions, the famine, the wanton destruction, the lying propaganda, the tyranny, and the universal spying that Bolshevism instituted from the first. He was clear on the means by which the Bolsheviks deceived foreign guests, much clearer than many of the guests themselves, then and for many years afterwards:
They [the visitors] are given a cordial welcome, and special trains, luxurious lodgings, and magnificent banquets are prepared for them. They are conveyed in comfortable motor cars and attended by courteous guides, who act as interpreters. These interpreters . . . are none other than members of the Tcheka, and it is absurd to believe that a Russian would speak of his miseries to a stranger with one of the dreaded Inquisition to translate his complaint. Even were he fool-hardy enough to do so, the translation would bear a very different complexion from the original remark. . . . The Bolshevists have brought the fooling of the Socialist visitors to a fine art.
He described the Potemkin institutions that the willingly duped visitor was shown—precisely the technique that I observed in Albania and in North Korea more than sixty years later. Cumberland Clark was not a fool.
The mystery, then, is how a man who had obviously studied Shakespeare closely, who was alive to the beauty of his poetry, and who was moreover no imbecile could have published such reams of ludicrous doggerel apparently in all seriousness and without any appreciation of the spectacle that he was making of himself. Insofar as he is remembered at all, it is as the McGonagall of Bournemouth; a desultorily active Cumberland Clark Memorial Society sometimes holds a dinner in his memory.
People are, of course, predisposed in favor of their own work, and even good poets have bad days. But the gulf between Cumberland Clark’s literary appreciation and his practice of poetry is of an amazing and heroic proportion. He opens a new field of speculation for the psychologist.
Poor Cumberland Clark, bard of Bournemouth! He and his housekeeper were killed in his flat during a German air raid on the town in April 1941, when he was in his eightieth year. Peace be to his soul! On my part, I always find myself much in sympathy with his kind of failure.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 10, on page 32
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