Humbert Wolfe, whose own poetry is a peculiar mixture of the witty and the sapless, has asked first for a sonnet on sonnets, and, although he is more pleased with the B competition, he still thinks that there are several excellent entries. He can’t resist a bit of dry sarcasm (almost everyone sent in fourteen-liners), and he commends the witty as well as the more serious. He cuts the shortlist to three, and the last one to be thrown out is Hilary. What is perhaps a bit of a bother is that he wished to keep Hilary because lines like ‘The sandals barefoot poesy endures’ are allegedly almost too good to lose, whereas I would have been reaching for the bin at the double, as would, I think, judges like J.C.Squire. Never mind. The winners are Dermot Spence and D. C.R. Francombe. In Spence’s case, this is a first appearance. He was a linguist who had been to Oxford and Heidelberg universities in the late 1920s, and who was fluent in German (and other languages, probably including Hungarian, since he would seem to be the translator of a number of Hungarian poems). He was working in publishing and in an art gallery, and had edited one of Conrad’s novels. His biographical details are largely visible because his son, Jonathan D. Spence, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Chinese history.
Here are the two sonnets:
What excites Wolfe is the response to a much more surreal competition, one that feels a great deal more contemporary in spirit. Competitors had to give six questions and editorial replies on the following subjects:
goldfish, automatic chess-players, gas-fitting as a career for girls, difficulties of growing orchids in the open air in Lapland, skiing as a qualification for beekeepers, and the advantages of reading modern poetry by candlelight
This elicited a large postbag. (In passing, automatic chess-players were still in their infancy, although two famous hoaxes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, involving chess masters hiding inside ‘machines’, had aroused interest, and there are references in some fiction, including a story by Ambrose Bierce. Not until the 1950s did automaton chess have any significance.) What Wolfe does is to select various entries to each question, and tot up who has the most entries overall:
The name of the last entrant quoted has been omitted by accident, not by me! The overall winners are Rosemary Higgins and Prudence. R. Graham’s name is a rarity: but he was one of the five original well-wishers, and the only one thus far to have won nothing (and has barely been mentioned, in fact) – although perhaps his ‘entry’ is misprinted. It’s worth noticing that the Sitwells are considered fair game (they are the subject of the next competitition). Vita Sackville-West had already had a skit on Edith Sitwell published in The Nation (under a pseudonym), and they were regarded as the leaders of a nonsensical and pretentious tendency.