He fails every conventional or generally accepted test of a good poet; yet he has a freshness, he is worth taking seriously as a human being.
– Peter Levi
To read John Lowe’s 1991 biography of Edward James is to spend time in the company of a deeply eccentric but ultimately insufferable man. Lowe’s account may be coloured by his difficult tenure as a founder of the Edward James Foundation and the book sags significantly when it gets to the infighting within this body, leaving a cloud of rancour hanging heavy over the entire book. But Lowe’s portrait helpfully illuminates a lesser known aspect of his one-time employer’s ventures beyond patronage of Dalì, Magritte and other Surrealists, his bizarre interiors in London and Monkton and of course his extraordinary Mexican estate: his activities as a poet and a publisher.
James, born this day in 1907, established a pattern early on for his work. He was a prodigious correspondent, sending rambling letters to friends and enemies alike while conducting his chaotic business dealings – and writing poetry. He would colonise any flat surface in his vicinity as his paperwork spread. Once, when visiting a friend’s restaurant in San Remo before mealtime, said friend asked the poet to move his papers. Rather than clear up, James bought the restaurant.
As an adult James was never bound by the obligations of normal employment, or normal anything for that matter. With an inherited fortune under his belt he, in common with other artsy, dilattentish heirs and heiresses, took to verse (from the back pages of Strange Flowers alone we could cite Natalie Barney, Raymond Roussel, Nancy Cunard, Harry Crosby, Eric Stenbock and Evan Morgan). Their output often took the form of boutique limited editions which left bestseller lists untroubled, but Harry Crosby was Dan freakin’ Brown compared to Edward James.
Inspired by the Nonesuch Press, James at first hoped to produce deluxe editions of classic works, starting with a bilingual version of Goethe’s Faust, and he had already chosen Faustian Press as a name for his venture. However all that remained of these plans was a clenched fist (“faust” in German), the emblem for what would instead become The James Press. That self-identification is evident in the roster which featured the work of James himself (sometimes under an alias) with only one exception. But it was an impressive exception: Mount Zion, the first book of poetry by John Betjeman. The poet was listed as one of the quartet of directors along with James and a couple of aristocratic friends when the press was established in 1931.
After Mount Zion, James turned exclusively to luxury editions of his own works, each of which he grandly allotted an “opus” number. “Opus primum” was Juventutis Annorum, the first set of James’s poems (apart from a slim volume issued in 1926). The poet stored all but five copies of this book. This method became a pattern. Naturally James didn’t need to make a living from his writings, and the books he published were often works in progress, typeset and bound in luxury editions at more-or-less arbitrary points in their development, and it was his policy “to lay them by in my cellars as one lays up a stock of wine, to await for it to arrive at such a period when it can at last be reviewed in retrospect and drunk in that due state of mature fermentation which only the patient years give.”
A hugely prolific period ensued, a period which also coincided with James’s disastrous marriage to Austrian dancer Tilly Losch. James claimed that 1931’s Twenty Sonnets to Mary was dedicated to Mary, Lady Curzon, others claimed they were to a male friend; either way it was a strange gesture from a married man. Laengselia followed later in the year while 1932 brought Next Volume with illustrations by Rex Whistler (seen here), Carmen Amica and one of the most promising-sounding books: The Venetian Glass Omnibus. With illustrations by theatre designer Oliver Messel, it tells of a group of children travelling across Europe to Venice in a Baroque multi-levelled glass bus. That premise alone would seem to justify a greater print runt than the 45 copies which eventuated.
This burst of activity came to a close in 1934 with Reading into the Picture. It was the same year that James divorced, publicly and bitterly. He accused Losch of infidelity while she countersued, citing James’s gay liaisons and naming dancer Serge Lifar as one of the men he had apparently slept with.
Edward James would continue to self-publish erratically until the late 1950s and continued writing until his death, but these books represent the core of The James Press’s small and eccentric output. They fetch hundreds of dollars if they come on the market at all, and a copy of Twenty Sonnets to Mary was recently on sale for USD 1400.
It is highly unlikely that anyone in the world has the full set of books under the James Press imprint. Lowe saw boxes of untouched volumes at West Dean, but that was over 20 years ago. It would be fascinating to know if they were ever released from captivity. Edward James’s outsize personality, the care that was evidently lavished on his printed works as well as their extremely limited runs ensures their value as bibliographic treasures. But that very rarity prevents us from judging the literary value of these elusive vintages. What can we say about his more readily accessible poetry?
The Heart and the Word is a commercially published (though now out out-of-print) sampler of James’s poetry, posthumously culled from the blizzard of paper he left behind. In his introduction Peter Levi admits “I am unable to discover any motive in his poetry that is not aesthetic”, and many verses do indeed suggest an avant-garde Basil Fotherington-Thomas touring the globe airily uttering “hullo trees, hullo sky” in leaden couplets.
To take some lines more or less at random: “Slow from the melting foothills draws the snow/where, islanded, the first green patches grow;/and through the rills and gorges of the hills/drips the long thawing by bluelidded sills.” Not terrible, but hardly life-changing and suggestive of nothing deeper than an enviably unhurried traveller’s fleeting impressions. Over the course of dozens of verses the weightlessness is wearying, though each reader will reach a different breaking point. It might be titles such as “To a primrose”, “The magic cuckoo calls her phantom word” or “Poor trees that cannot weep”. It might be lines like “Boisterous, shining, incorrigible puppy/who steals my shoe and hides it in the ditch,/it hurts to scold you when you are so happy,/angelic joy, distracted by an itch!”. Personally, the poem about Napoleon which rhymed “Jena” with “gainer” was the point at which I wanted to throw the book across the floor, remembering just in time that it was a library book.
Is this unfair, picking through a dead man’s discarded verse and passing judgment? Well, James chose to be remembered with the description “POET” on his self-designed gravestone, and recklessly opined that his verse would “burst upon an astonished world” after his death.
Perhaps it just needs to go back to the cellar for a few more years.