4 MAY 1923, Page 18

A POET IN A CARGO STEAMER.*

WHEN a poet writes in prose he disrobes and wears a lounge suit like the rest of us. We can see how he bears himself in ordinary life, we can examine him by intelligence tests, and we can judge him by standards we apply to each other. We must be careful, of course, not to theorize extravagantly from our observations. It may be as impossible to illustrate the equipment of a poet from his ability in prose as from his income-tax return. But these sidelights have their interest, and they allow us at any rate to correct false conclusions. In the 'nineties a belief prevailed that poets were unfitted for earth by their intercourse with heaven—or even, it might be, with hell. Lombroso argued speciously that men of genius were mad : Max Nordau shouted to the world that in modern times only degenerates wrote at all. A multitude of the educated unemployed lived up to this belief. They wrote verses and spent their days in squalor. They grew pale and abstracted. They were constantly knocked down by cabs. Certainly in everything but verse they were in- efficient. Since then Mr. Bernard Shaw has accounted for Nordau, Mr. Havelock Ellis has shown that men of genius are more subject to gout than to insanity, and we have realized for ourselves that most of the poets of the 'nineties were bad. If we make our judgments from the lives of undoubtedly good poets we find that on the whole they have been more than usually alert and capable ; they have done credit to their profession. And we have come to expect that a good poet will acquit himself well in prose.

In January, 1922, Mr. Edmund Blunden, who had been troubled with ill-health, shipped as a supernumerary on a cargo steamer bound for the River Plate. The next three months he spent in the narrow world of the Bonadventure,' staying for son* time in harbour at Buenos Ayres and returning by way of Germany. The officers and crew of a ship are, in a fashion, marooned in company : their small society is self-contained, and they live in far more intimate touch with one another than is possible in towns. A descrip- tion of such a voyage must deal mainly with the interaction of character and must resemble, in the detail of its portraiture, a novel of Jane Austen or Mrs. Gaskell. Mr. Blunden, in his prose narrative, has displayed clearly and particularly the microcosm in which he was set. He gives us the oddities and humours, and, to some extent, the kindliness and humanity, of the men with whom he sailed. They took him to their - friendship with a naive and traditional jest. "Whatever the weather might be," he tells us, "I was Jonah ; fine, Jonah bringing a head wind ; wet, Jonah bringing the wet ; the ship rolling, it was Jonah's additional weight on the port side that was doing it." Perhaps the most amusing passages are the records of conversation at meals. A sizable catalogue might be composed of the knowledge and interests of his shipmates. Of course, in the main they told their reminiscences ; but the captain would discuss the origin of species and The Light of Asia,' and every officer gave signs of unexpectedly serious meditation. The following conversation is typical :— 'Bicker and Meacock involved me in an a

• 2112 ' Bowdon:tune By Edmund Blunden. London: Cobden-Sanderson. Oa net] eat, which was very quickly twisted into the direct question, 'Who was England's greatest man 1' Some wretched ghost whispered Shakespeare, and Shakespeare I named. There was derision. Shakespeare ! Nelson was the man. I was obliged to stick to my choice. 'We're talking about fellows that DID something for their country,' said Meacock, and I gave up. Bicker was once again in exceLtis at this evidence of his superior understanding, which he seemed about to back up with physical argument. The shade of Nelson was vindicated ; and then. I was informed that the second greatest man was Kitchener. I asked with innocent ignorance what he had effected of particular significance to our own lives ? A photo- graph was produced of the earlier more Achillean Kitchener, by way of settling that point."

Their view of country life is typical, too, in its deliberate and humorous blindness. It excellently illustrates our English habit of counting laughable whatever is strange to us—omne ignotum pro ridicule.

"The subject of my future standing in the village tavern had already been discussed when others failed. It now arose again. The saloon's ideas of rural England were almost as broad as mine of sea life. They could see or affected to see nothing else in agricul- ture but one large joke : and its communities as so many tribes of gaping lads in smocks, with churchwardens, clustering about the oldest inhabitant. I had told them not once nor twice that no one in my village had any sense of distance, or wish to travel, or to hear of travels. But still it was believed that on my return I should be received at the inevitable 'Green Cow' or • Pig and Whistle' with roars of applause, all mouths in the shape of O's,. all attentions grappled to my lightest word. More probably, I hinted, if I were to return and mention as a news item a voyage ma tramp to South America, the patronage would preserve a chilling silence, and would then resume the old buzz of 'sheening and jack hares and the riches of the rich."

Of minor revelations we like best Mr. Blunden's account of the third mate's monstrous adornment, "a red and blue

serpent tattooed on his arm by the very same Chinaman, he said, who had tattooed King George."

But the richness of the journal as a form of literature lies in the opportunity it affords for unconsidered and almost irrelevant excursions of thought. It is true that Mr. Blundell is not one of those diarists who expose their hearts and instruct us in our own psychology. He gives away no more than he intends. For all this, his bywords are of great interest. He tells us of his dreams—they would equally have impressed Charles Lamb and Lamb's theorizing friend. We can gather something of his prejudices and of the thoughts that most occupy him. And where he describes the natural effects of sea and sky, for once he lets himself loose and sets down in satisfying and tmhackneyed phrases a series of most vivid and minute descriptions. Here and there come evidences of hasty writing and here and there small vices of style— artificialities and archaisms. But on the whole the book shows him as witty, quick-sighted, and of engaging honesty ; his prose is flexible and sound ; he will give no handle to those who still believe that poets are nincompoops.