Edgar Wallace as War Poet

Edgar Wallace was once the best-known and best-selling author in Britain. His thrillers caused sensations and were read by just about everyone. His plays packed theatres.  His sales in Germany and elsewhere were immense, too. Is he still read, except as a curiosity? I don’t think his thrillers have worn as well as Sapper’s.
He started as a journalist, and reported the Boer War. Sometimes in South Africa he tried his hand at verse, and produced pieces that were tough and realistic. here’s one I didn’t know until today. It was printed in the Spectator in 1902:

edgar wallace poem

The sentiments are standard; this is an upstanding young officer proud of his ‘two years’ work’ in South Africa. He’s able to speak of the ‘glory and joy’ of fighting, which not so many did in the Great War.

But the stream of consciousness effect seems ahead of its time, and the use of slang (‘old boy’) links it with the Great War poems where the poet is striving after an authentic officer’s voice.

And  ‘it doesn’t seem quite right’: Is that a judgment on the arbitrary unfairness of death, or on the whole business of war? And is there at least a hint of irony in that final ‘dulce est’? Is that what he’s trying to believe, but can’t quite?

4 Comments

  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted April 8, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    It almost pre-echoes the last lines of HA Vachell’s The Hill [1905] in which one Harrow schoolboy [now dead in the Boer War] writes to his best friend on the eve of the action in which he’s killed:

    ‘…”I have been meaning to write to you, dear old chap, ever since we parted; but, somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to tackle it in earnest till to-night. To-morrow, we have a thundering big job ahead of us; the last job, perhaps, for me. Old Jonathan, you have been the best friend a man ever had, the only one I love as much as my own brothers—and even more. It was from knowing you that I came to see what good-for-nothing fools some fellows are. You were always so unselfish and straight; and you made me feel that I was the contrary, and that you knew it, and that I should lose your friendship if I didn’t improve a bit. So, if we don’t meet again in this jolly old world, it may be a little comfort to you to remember that what you have done for a very worthless pal was not thrown away.

    “Good night, Jonathan. I’m going to turn in; we shall be astir before daybreak. Over the veldt the stars are shining. It’s so light, that I can just make out the hill upon which, I hope, our flag will be waving within a few hours. The sight of this hill brings back our Hill. If I shut my eyes, I can see it plainly, as we used to see it from the tower, with the Spire rising out of the heart of the old school. I have the absurd conviction strong in me that, to-morrow, I shall get up the hill here faster and easier than the other fellows because you and I have so often run up our Hill together—God bless it—and you! Good night.”

    • Tom Deveson
      Posted April 8, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      Although [I meant to add above] Vachell’s version of how a young officer-moriturus would salute his friend is entirely free from irony.

      • Posted April 8, 2016 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

        Vachell had not been to South Africa, and I think had never seen war, so his account is utterly untinged by experience.
        Thanks for this, Tom. It shows how some of the crucial tropes of WW1 literature were in use some while before 1914.

  2. Bill
    Posted April 8, 2016 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Although I think you’re right about Vachell seeing neither South Africa or war, I think you may be understating Wallace’s experience. I believe he first went to South Africa on active service in the Medical Corps (“War” – probably his best known poem – deals with surgery during a battle) and only took up journalism once he was there. And I still read him from time to time – although I suspect it is largely curiosity. He has certainly worn better than his disciple Sydney Horler (“Horler for Excitement!”).


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