“To my mind, education is an absurdly over-rated affair. At least, one never took it very seriously at school, where everything was done to bring it prominently under one’s notice. Anything that is worth knowing one practically teaches oneself, and the rest obtrudes itself sooner or later.”
― ‘Reginald on Worries’
I wish it to be distinctly understood (said Reginald) that I don’t want a “George, Prince of Wales” Prayer-book1 as a Christmas present. The fact cannot be too widely known.
There ought (he continued) to be technical education classes on the science of present-giving. No one seems to have the faintest notion of what anyone else wants, and the prevalent ideas on the subject are not creditable to a civilised community.
There is, for instance, the female relative in the country who “knows a tie is always useful,” and sends you some spotted horror that you could only wear in secret or in Tottenham Court Road.2 It might have been useful had she kept it to tie up currant bushes with, when it would have served the double purpose of supporting the branches and frightening away the birds—for it is an admitted fact that the ordinary tomtit of commerce has a sounder æsthetic taste than the average female relative in the country.
Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious. Continue reading →
“I’m writing a poem on Peace,”1 said Reginald, emerging from a sweeping operation through a tin of mixed biscuits, in whose depths a macaroon or two might yet be lurking.
“Something of the kind seems to have been attempted already,” said the Other.
“Oh, I know; but I may never have the chance again. Besides, I’ve got a new fountain pen. I don’t pretend to have gone on any very original lines; in writing about Peace the thing is to say what everybody else is saying, only to say it better. It begins with the usual ornithological emotion:
‘When the widgeon westward winging
Heard the folk Vereeniginging,2
Heard the shouting and the singing—’”
“Vereeniginging is good, but why widgeon?”
“Why not? Anything that winged westward would naturally begin with a w.”
“Need it wing westward?”
“The bird must go somewhere. You wouldn’t have it hang around and look foolish. Then I’ve brought in something about the heedless hartebeest3 galloping over the deserted veldt.”
“Of course you know it’s practically extinct in those regions?”
“I can’t help that, it gallops so nicely. I make it have all sorts of unexpected yearnings:
‘Mother, may I go and maffick,4
Tear around and hinder traffic?’
Of course you’ll say there would be no traffic worth bothering about on the bare and sun-scorched veldt, but there’s no other word that rhymes with maffick.”
Reginald considered. “It might do, but I’ve got a lot about angels later on. You must have angels in a Peace poem; I know dreadfully little about their habits.”
“They can do unexpected things, like the hartebeest.”
“Of course. Then I turn on London, the City of Dreadful Nocturnes,5 resonant with hymns of joy and thanksgiving:
‘And the sleeper, eye unlidding,
Heard a voice for ever bidding
Much farewell to Dolly Gray;6
Turning weary on his truckle-
Bed he heard the honey-suckle
Lauded in apiarian lay.’
“I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve a sweet temper, but I can’t stand being agreed with. And I’m so worried about the aasvogel.”8
Reginald stared dismally at the biscuit-tin, which now presented an unattractive array of rejected cracknels.
“I believe,” he murmured, “if I could find a woman with an unsatisfied craving for cracknels, I should marry her.”
“What is the tragedy of the aasvogel?” asked the Other sympathetically.
“Oh, simply that there’s no rhyme for it. I thought about it all the time I was dressing—it’s dreadfully bad for one to think whilst one’s dressing—and all lunch-time, and I’m still hung up over it. I feel like those unfortunate automobilists who achieve an unenviable notoriety by coming to a hopeless stop with their cars in the most crowded thoroughfares. I’m afraid I shall have to drop the aasvogel, and it did give such lovely local colour to the thing.”
“Still you’ve got the heedless hartebeest.”
“And quite a decorative bit of moral admonition—when you’ve worried the meaning out:
‘Cease, War, thy bubbling madness that the wine shares,
And bid thy legions turn their swords to mine shares.’
Mine shares seems to fit the case better than ploughshares.9 There’s lots more about the blessings of Peace, shall I go on reading it?”
“If I must make a choice, I think I would rather they went on with the war.”
The town of Mefeking held out against a siege by the Boers for 215 days (1899—1900). News of its relief was greeted in Britain with such joy that it led to the coinage of a short-lived verbal noun ‘mafficking’, meaning ‘celebrating loudly and extravagantly’.↩
Punning on the title of Scottish poet James Thomson’s long poem The City of Dreadful Night (1874). (Rudyard Kipling also wrote a ‘sketch’ with the same title, published 1888.) “Nocturnes” probably refers here not to musical pieces but to the paintings of night-time London by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), which attracted a great deal of criticism at the time.↩
“Goodbye Dolly Gray” was a song written by Will D. Cobb (lyrics) and Paul Barnes (music), ventriloquising the feelings of a soldier going off to war. It was popular in the USA during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and (after a few changes to the lyrics) in the UK during the Boer War.↩
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), American poet.↩
A reference to “they shall beat their swords into plowshares” in Isaiah 2:3-4; control of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State brought with it the right to exploit their mineral riches, such as their gold and diamond mines.↩
The Quatrains of Uttar Al Ghibe Part I, from The Westminster Gazette, March 4, 1901. My thanks to Brian Gibson (author of Reading Saki) for sending me a copy.
Possibly I am the only person in the world to care about this question, but what the heck…
Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Munro’s work can hardly miss its references to that nineteenth-century poetic sensation, Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.
The most obvious link is Munro’s pen-name. The FitzGerald versions contain the word “Sákí” (meaning “cupbearer”). One of Munro’s earliest published pieces were some quatrains supposedly by a Middle Eastern poet named “Uttar Al Ghibe” in which he mocked the politicians of the time:
In marvel at each man’s allotted sphere
I mused “We know not wherefore we are here”;
Said One who ruled o’er markets and bazaars
“I had an Uncle once.” His case was clear.
Munro’s biographer A. J. Langguth conjectures that it was this early work that led Munro to pick “Saki” as his nom de plume.
There are other obvious references too, such as ‘Reginald’s Rubaiyat’, or the reference in ‘A Young Turkish Catastrophe’ to “the heretic poet of Persia”. The Rev. Wilfrid Gaspilton’s invented poet Ghurab in ‘For the Duration of the War’ is inspired by (and compared to) Omar Khayyám, as well as Persia’s other great poet Hafiz.
Fitzgerald revised and expanded his translation throughout his life. There were five editions (the last being published posthumously based on his notes):
When checking references to the work in Munro’s writings, I’ve often wondered which edition I should consult. From that question came the idea for this article.
As a young man, Munro copied some lines from FitzGerald into his commonplace book, including the quatrain that contains his future nom de plume:
Yet ah, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the branches sang,
Ah whence, and whither ﬂown again, who knows!
Yon rising Moon that looks for us again
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden—and for one in vain!
And when like her, oh Sákí, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass,
And in your blissful errand reach the spot
Where I made One—turn down an empty Glass!
Perplext no more with Human or Divine,
To-morrow’s tangle to the winds resign,
And lose your ﬁngers in the tresses of
The Cypress-slender Minister of Wine.
So when that Angel of the Darker Drink,
At last shall ﬁnd you by the river-brink,
And, offering his Cup, invite your Soul
Forth to your Lips to quaff—you shall not shrink.
Oddly, Munro has shuffled the order: he copied the quatrains in the order 96, 100, 101, 41, 43. More significantly for my inquiry, these versions were only found from the third edition onwards.
However, a few other allusions in other stories muddy the waters:
For example, in the early satire ‘The Angel and his Lost Michael’ (1903), the line “The Tabernacle is prepared within, why lags the lazy worshipper outside?” parodies a quatrain (number 2) that was added in the second edition and which runs “When all the Temple is prepared within,/Why lags the lazy worshipper outside?”. In the fifth edition, however, this has been changed to “When all the Temple is prepared within,/Why nods the lazy worshipper outside?”.
In addition, in ‘Reginald’s Rubaiyat’ Reginald pens the lines:
“The hen that laid thee moons ago, who knows
In what Dead Yesterday her shades repose;
To some election turn thy waning span
And rain thy rottenness on ﬁscal foes.”
The phrase “Dead Yesterday” is taken directly from FitzGerald, in lines which occur only in the first edition (ruba’i no. 37, to be exact).
In the same story, Reginald (or Munro?) misunderstands or misremembers a reference in the Rubáiyát:
“Hast thou the pen that once the gardener had?
I have it not; and know, these pears are bad.
Oh, larger than the horses of the Prince
Are those the general drives in Kaikobad.”
There is no place called Kaikobad: it is the name of a king of ancient Persia. The references can be found in rubáiyát 8 and 9 of the first edition, 9 and 10 of second (with slight alterations) and 9 and 10 of the fifth (again with small changes).
I had hoped that perhaps one of the versions would be more ambiguous, allowing me to identify which version it was that misled Munro, but as far as I can see they are all more or less equal: if you read fairly attentively you can see that the various names mentioned are those of people rather than of places (especially if you note the reference to Rustum, which ought to be well known to readers of English poetry because of Matthew Arnold’s 1853 poem Sohrab and Rustum).
So, in the end, there is no clear answer to my questions. Maybe that’s not so surprising, as Fitzgerald’s work was so enormously well known and widely quoted that there are over 130 separate references to it in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, encompassing around half the work.
Or perhaps Reginald’s terse comment “I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyám” was inspired by something Munro wanted to tell his acquaintances?
FitzGerald (1809–1883), a gentleman poet and scholar, had discovered a set of Persian four-line poems (the technical name is ‘rubáiyát’) which had been written by an 11th century polymath named Omar Khayyám. FitzGerald translated and arranged a selection of these, publishing them in 1859. Taken up by Rossetti and Swinburne, among others, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám became—after a slow start—extremely popular. (Quoted from the introduction to The Complete Annotated Reginald Stories.) ↩
Short historical note: “Al Ghibe” means A.J.B. (which was how Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was sometimes referred to); Balfour’s predecessor in the job was his uncle, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. ↩
Langguth also suggests that the difficulty of typesetting foreign accent marks was what led to “Sákí” becoming just “Saki” (pp. 60–64). ↩
Yahoo republishes an article in the Daily Telegraph about the Victorian bathhouse. While most of the article is about the fashion for orientalism in architecture and design in the nineteenth century, it does begin with a picture of the Jermyn Street Turkish bath where Saki set ‘The Recessional’.
Turkish baths occur occasionally in Saki’s stories. (I speculated a bit about the reasons here.) The habit of going to such places also provoked the following bit of wisdom about human nature:
Spayley had grasped the fact that people will do things from a sense of duty which they would never attempt as a pleasure. There are thousands of respectable middle-class men who, if you found them unexpectedly in a Turkish bath, would explain in all sincerity that a doctor had ordered them to take Turkish baths; if you told them in return that you went there because you liked it, they would stare in pained wonder at the frivolity of your motive. (‘Filboid Studge’)
I did some more digging on the topic of “the City, where the patriotism comes from” (‘Reginald on Worries’) after posting about it last week and it seems that my suspicions were correct. The City (meaning, when capitalised, the financial and business district of London) was very active patriotically, especially at the time of the Boer War:
In December 1899, the City decided to subsidize, equip, train, and send to South Africa a volunteer force to fight in the Boer War […] The lord mayor, Sir Alfred J. Newton, Bart., was the moving spirit behind this enterprise. On December 21 the Court of Common Council of the City of London agreed, at his urging, to provide £25,000 toward the regiment, henceforth to be known as the City Imperial Volunteers, or CIV, which would number 1,000 men. Something like fifty City companies contributed an additional £34,000, while individual City gentlemen found yet another £55,000 for the project. The entire sum of £114,000 was raised within days. Simultaneously three great shipping families, Wilson, Currie, and Evans, announced that they would transport the volunteers to South Africa free of charge. It took only three weeks for the volunteers, all Londoners, all bachelors, many employed in the City itself, and numbering 1,550 in the end, to be registered, medically certified, trained, and sent off to Africa.
The social composition of the CIV suggests that a surprising number of London’s gentlemanly capitalists were prepared to fight and die for empire. Forty-four employees of London’s leading banks volunteered, according to one count, fifty-two according to another, including “a very good percentage of Bank of England officers.” Twenty-one lawyers from the Inns of Court served. Something like two hundred brokers, jobbers, and clerks at the Stock Exchange served as well. “The Stock Exchange has had some very nasty things said about it,” boasted the Financial Times of January 15, but “what other similar body of private individuals in the country has sent anything like so large a proportion?”
It was not only the elite of the City who volunteered, however, but rather a broad cross section of its working population.
Common sense suggests, and research confirms almost immediately, that the empire tugged not only at purse strings but at heartstrings too. Men were unlikely to volunteer for service in South Africa and to risk their lives solely for their profit margins. They fought and died for something better, something larger.
They accepted British rationales for the conflict at face value and repeated them to one another. “We have been forced to the arbitrament of war,” declared the lord mayor to five hundred CIVs at their swearing-in ceremony, ”and we shall not sheathe the sword until our supremacy in South Africa is established – a supremacy which will be universally welcomed as securing in that country equality before the law to all nationalities, and, in consequence, real freedom in its best and only true sense.” Some may have fought, in part, because they believed that British rule in South Africa would benefit the Africans themselves. “In time, by God’s blessing, we may hope to be enabled to extend the benefits of peace, justice and mercy throughout all the dark places of the earth,” said one gentlemanly capitalist. More common was the statement of Lord Gifford to the shareholders of the Bechuanaland Exploration Company: the war would assure “equal rights to all white men.” This would be “true liberty as we understand it.”
But to many in the City the empire stood for more than political principles; it stood for something mystical, based upon blood ties which united the Anglo-Saxon race. “The British Empire is no mere name, no congeries of independent peoples bound together only by the fact that they choose to colour all their lands pink on the map,” boasted the Financial Times of June 1, 1900. Rather the empire was an organic whole, a family, as the “magnificent enthusiasm with which the colonies have thrown themselves into the fight [against the Boers] and have clamoured for the forefront in the battlefield” demonstrated.
On numerous occasions the City turned out as one to greet returning soldiers or sailors from South Africa, suspending business to wave flags and national emblems, to cheer and sing “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the Queen,” above all, it would appear, to drink. When the City learned that Lord Dundonald’s troops finally had broken the Boer siege of Ladysmith, for example, “by one o’clock the whole of the year’s stock of champagne was sold out [at Mabey’s restaurant] and other restaurants enjoyed a similar experience.” Upon the relief of Mafeking, the stock exchange devoted three full days to celebrations. Its members arranged even for a movie camera to record these activities, so that later generations could witness the intensity of gentlemanly capitalism’s patriotic and imperial sentiment.
It’s always a pleasant experience to come across something useful when you’re not expecting it. At the minute I’m reading John Carey’s . While Carey does mention Munro in passing — specifically the stories ‘The Mappined Life’ and ‘The Music on the Hill’ (in relation to the dichotomy of suburban life and respectability versus the wild and pagan) — the sentence that caught my attention was in relation to the characterisation of Hall Pycroft, “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” in the Sherlock Holmes story of that name. “Clerk”, Carey has already explained, was a late nineteenth-century term that covered that broad swathe of “the middle and lower-middle class employed in commerce, banks, insurance and real estate” (58). Such people mostly lived in the newly constructed suburbs and commuted every day to their offices in the centre of cities.
Dr Watson writes:
The man whom I found myself facing was a well-built, fresh-complexioned young fellow, with a frank, honest face and a slight, crisp, yellow moustache. He wore a very shiny top-hat and a neat suit of sober black, which made him look what he was — a smart young City man, of the class who have been labelled cockneys, but who give us our crack volunteer regiments, and who turn out more fine athletes and sportsmen than any body of men in these islands.
Carey notes that “Richard Price, studying middle-class jingoism in the late nineteenth century, has found that there was a disproportionate number of clerks among volunteers for the Boer War” (64).
Is this what Reginald is getting at when he refers in passing to “the City, where the patriotism comes from” in ‘Reginald on Worries’? I’d previously assumed it was a more general cynical hit at big business (whose fondness for Imperial causes was likely not unconnected to the financial benefits the Empire brought with it). But it seems as if there may be a more concrete reference. I should probably check out Richard Price’s essay.
Carey, John, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939, Paperb. ed., 1. publ. (London: Faber, 1992)
Doyle, Arthur Conan, ‘The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk’, first publ. in The Strand Magazine, March 1893. Collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (London: George Newnes Ltd., 1893)
Munro, H. H., ‘Reginald on Worries’, in The Complete Annotated Reginald Stories, ed. by Bruce Gaston, 1st edition (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016)
Price, Richard N., ‘Society, Status and Jingoism: The Social Roots of Lower Middle Class Patriotism, 1870-1900’, in Crossick, Geoffrey, ed., The Lower Middle Class in Britain: 1870-1914, Repr. (London: Helm, 1978)