We don’t want rats in Burton’s!

Poetry could create much more of a publishing sensation in the days of the Forsyte Saga than it does now.

In a centre of literature such as London, where boooks come out by the half-dozen almost every day, the advent of a slender volume of poems is commonly of little moment. But circumstances combined to make the appearance of The Leopard, and other Poems a ‘literary event’. It was Wilfrid’s first production for four years. He was a lonely figure, marked out by the rarity of literary talent among the old aristocracy, by the bitter, lively quality of his earlier poems, by his Eastern sojourn and isolation from literary circles, and finally by the report that he had embraced Islam.

In John Galsworthy’s Flowering Wilderness a publisher sees the potential of Wilfrid Desert’s new book of poetry, and is prepared to create the necessary ‘buzz’. “He who was Compson Grice Ltd had from the first perceived that in ‘The Leopard’ he had ‘a winner’ – people would not enjoy it, but they would talk about it. He had only to start the snowball rolling down the slope, and when moved by real conviction no one could do better than he.

The fuss creates a success for the publisher even greater than expectations, but things do not go well for the poet. “Wilfrid’s mood when he left his publisher at ‘The Jessamine’ was angry and confused. Without penetrating to the depth of Compson Grice’s mental anatomy, he felt that he had been manipulated.” He is expelled from Burton’s club, “not for the apostacy, but for the song he’s made about it. Decency should have kept him quiet. Advertising his book! It’s in its third edition, and everybody reading it. Making money out of it seems to me the limit.

We don’t want rats in Burton’s!” is one member’s verdict, and the club committee is particularly influenced by an article in The Daily Phase which “had a long allusive column on the extreme importance of British behaviour in the East. It had also a large-type advertisement. ‘The Leopard and other Poems‘, by Wilfrid Desert: published by Compson Grice: 40,000 copies old: Third Large Impression ready.”

It’s a matter of some curiosity that Burton’s Club was, according to Jack Muskham, “founded in memory of a very great traveller who’d have dared Hell itself“. Is this the same Richard Burton who travelled in disguise to Mecca and translated One Thousand and One Nights? Surely that Burton would have been more sympathetic to Wilfrid’s predicament than to the hypocrisy of The Daily Phase.

John Galsworthy, Flowering Wilderness, 1932

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