Smallbeer, the Professor and Waugh

D J Taylor writing in the current issue of The Critic describes how Professor Barry Mole managed to eke a career out of the works of the largely forgotten 1930s poet Esme Smallbeer. This is the latest entry in his “Arty Types” column. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Esme Smallbeer died young in 1938 leaving behind him four slim volumes of lyric poetry and a reputation that, as his Times obituarist tactfully put it, had been “somewhat eclipsed” by more fashionable contemporaries such as W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender.

And that might have been the end of Esme, his forty-odd years on the planet and Twilight in Wardour Street, the delicate volume of autobiography left unfinished at his death, had not a promising young graduate student named Barry Mole discovered his name in the index to Valentine Cunningham’s British Writers of the Thirties.

There were only four references, and one of them was merely a footnote about Evelyn Waugh’s mocking review of his first collection, Smitten by the Tarantula, but Barry was not deterred.

In the spirit of Taylor’s profile of Mole’s career, we can note that research of Waugh’s journalism for that period has turned up the “mocking review” cited in the article. This was one of the rare examples overlooked by Waugh’s bibliographers. It appears in the first (and only) issue of the magazine Day Before Yesterday. This was an attempt (futile as it turned out) by several of the participants in the production of the 1937 weekly journal Night and Day (that included weekly contributions from Waugh in a books column) to resurrect it in the early months of 1938. This was after its original publishers shut it down in the closing days of 1937. The inaugural issue of Day Before Yesterday, scheduled to be released on 23 March 1938, contained Waugh’s review (entitled “Better Smite Than Bite?”), but it never saw the light of day. Most issues were pulped when the publishers couldn’t pay the printers.

When one of the few surviving issues recently passed through the hands of London  bookseller, Joshua Shellout, we were generously allowed to read but not reproduce it. Waugh discerned in Smallbeer’s collection a foreshadowing of the work of Julian Maclaren-Ross in the 1940’s, another minor  writer in whose work Waugh  took an interest. How that may have been managed by a poet might be difficult to imagine but with the benefit of Waugh’s text, it all becomes clear. No doubt we can look forward to the appearance of that text in a forthcoming column.

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