21 JULY 1979, Page 23


Jonathan Keates

,A Pilgrimage of Passion: The life of Wllfria Scawen Blunt Elizabeth Longford (VVeidenfeld e8.95.) On 18 January 1914, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington and three other poets arrived by motor at Newbuildings Place, Sussex, bringing with them what its recipient later described as 'an absurd futurist bas-relief of a naked Egyptian woman' by Gaudier-Brzeska, and specimens of verse (including Pound's 'The Return' and Yeats's 'When Helen Lived'). They ate heartily off beef and roast peacock, mistook Lord Osborne I3eauclerk for R.L. Stevenson's son Lloyd Osbourne, and posed for a group photograph, in which Pound said that *Yeats looked like a moulting eagle. The rather bewildered object of their homage was the poet, traveller and political hell-raiser Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, whom they claimed as a literary forerunner despite his privately expressed distaste for their work ('too entirely unlike anything I can recognise as good verse'). Someone is perhaps at this moment preparing a definitive edition of Blunt's poetry, and doubtless the inevitable reassessment is due, but even the most painstaking scrutiny is unlikely to persuade us that he is any better than Patmore or any worse than Arthur Symons. The insufferable Bosie Douglas once asked Blunt for £500 to help keep his 'Academy' magazine afloat, and to the latter's telegrammed 'You must not count on me in this matter' spat back 'Did not count on you. I never count on any one who can't write sonnets.' True, though Blunt stuck doggedly enough to the form and to what he considered an appropriately Elizabethan diction. His best poem was a Crabbet Club piece written in 1894 on colonialism: Teach them your virtues, your plain ways, law courts and parliaments.

Build them South Kensington art schools, sky signs, gasometers .

Take control of their home life. Show them how' royalty Does it at Osborne and Windsor, you of the Bedcham ber!

Go to them, Lords of the Household! Teach them your thirstiness, How to behave on occasion, drunk but decorously . . .

Go—only leave me protesting, pleased and polygamous.

Protesting against the excesses of imperialism, pleased inordinately with himself, and polygamous, or at any rate philandering, Blunt was the typical hyper-energetic upper class Victorian. A Catholic upbringing seems to have had strangely little influence on the development of his character and tastes, which went pretty clearly towards horses, women and travel by the time he married Byron's granddaughter Lady Anne King Noel in 1869. A toughgrained heiress with a hankering for adventure, she proved splendidly equal to the wilder challenges of Turkey and Argentina, and set off into the desert highlands of Central Arabia without batting an eyelid.

The Blunts, piquing themselves on travelling undisguised, survived everything from moribund camels, sandstorms and hailstones as big as dates to attack by tribesmen only fended off by appeals to Bedouin hospitality laws. They loaded and unloaded their own dromedaries and horses, swam them across rivers, pitched tents and shouldered rifles: Wilfrid nearly died of dysentery and Anne, pitching headforemost off her camel, dislocated her knee. Small wonder that what she had called 'a feverish dream of heat and flies' should ultimately give place in their shared Arabian memories to an almost paradisal idealization of 'our own desert'.

Home at Crabbet Park they founded a stud with their Arab bloodstock, and Blunt held back advancing middle age with the Crabbet Club, a series of tennis and poetry weekends for the rising proconsular generation of moustachioed Wyndhams and Curzons with Oscar Wilde as a blubber-lipped pig-in-the-middle (Blunt's daughter Judith recalled him as 'a great wobbly blancmange trying to serve underhand'). Endlessly flunking attempts at procuring a parliamentary seat, Blunt as a Tory renegade set himself up for the archetypal nuisance to Victorian imperialism, backing poor Arabi Pasha against Gladstone's gunboats, badgering Lord Ripon in India, and ultimately flinging himself into Irish rabble-rousing among the Galway landleaguers. Imprisonment at Kilmainham made an honorary patriot of him, and as an old man of 76 he came to envy the martyred Casement, seeing himself as having laboured under 'the curse on me of my imperial English origin'.

Lady Longford is somewhat naively convinced that remaining in Ireland would have offered moral as well as political salvation, whereas a series of winters in a Cairo garconniere guaranteed neither. Wilfrid had always been what is discreetly termed 'an amorist', and randiness increased with age, reaching a kind of hysteria when he turned 50.

Burking and Debretting through country house conquests, he gave 'Crabbet Stud' a new meaning as he romped with Janey Morris in a gig ('usually' says his obliging biographer, 'it was a splendid Arabian four-in-hand'), 'had tea' with the Hon. Mrs Reggie Talbot, and enjoyed Margot Tennant, characteristically more interested in chat than sex. Hats off, then, to Mrs Stillman, Burne-Jones's ex-model, who merely allowed him to unbutton her glove.

Each new passion was to be the ultimate, though none of them of course was quite the last. A stamina similar to that which had carried him across the Nejd was to endure, at least in the imagination, into his last years: when Clemmie Churchill had a baby, Blunt wrote 'I shall consider it in some sort mine for . . . did I not kiss her in that pleasant barn before we parted?'. This sexual restlessness formed part of a general itch to whose scratching he devoted most of his life, and it helps to explain the sense of distinguished failure which tinges his entire career.

Dashing, sexy and energetic as he may have seemed to Mrs Reggie Talbot or Richard Aldington, he had all the faults of his background upon him, including that fatuous mistrust of the middle classes upheld as a virtue in such clans as the Cecils and the Sackville Wests.

In this respect, as in all others, Lady Longford maintains an admirably dispas sionate view. Respectful of her subject, she sees justice done to his wife and daughter, and invokes our compassionate interest in them all. Basing her richly detailed narra tive on Blunt's hitherto unpublished papers, she amply vindicates her claim for him as 'a social diarist on a par with Charles Greville'. We may eagerly await publication of the diaries themselves.