Humbert Wolfe

Humbert WolfeHumbert Wolfe, although born in Milan in 1885, grew up in Bradford. His surname is an anglicised version of Wolff,  his father’s German surname and his forename was originally Umberto. His mother was Italian. And, although both his parents were Jewish, he converted to Christianity (interestingly, as did Heine, whose work he translated, and whose slightly anarchic streak Wolfe, a prolific poet, seems to have possessed. By prolific, I mean 40 publications in 20 years). You may think you’ve never heard a word of his, but one of his brief squibs, which probably first appeared in Punch, is frequently quoted: ‘You cannot hope/ To bribe or twist/ Thank God! The British journalist./ But seeing what/ That man will do/ Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.’

Wolfe was a civil servant at the Board of Trade and later at the Ministry of Labour from 1910, but became highly active in literary circles after World War I. In an article written after Wolfe’s death, at 55, in 1940, Henry W. Wells, in The Sewanee Review, identified him as almost wilfully damaging a promising career: “During his early years he persisted in writing volumes in a fairly effective but outmoded style … readers came to think of him as an author of conservative and fragile lyrics … moreover Wolfe did almost everything which an author can do to turn critical opinion against him … he had … just too much modernity to please the conservatives, and just too much traditionalism to satisfy the radicals … Wolfe committed the unpardonable mistake of failing to appreciate whatever charms lay in The Waste Land … to conclude, Wolfe did almost everything in his power to make his public take him lightly …”

Wolfe, although married, had an affair with the writer Pamela Frankau that lasted till his death. He was made a CBE, the fate of the top civil servant. But we find him in The Week-end Review as a capricious, good-humoured, and very receptive judge.

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