Edgar Bourchier began to compose poetry while reading English at Drake College in Cambridge in the style of the 1890s decadent poets, the so-called fin de siècle movement which flourished just before the turn-of-the-century. Journals such as 'The Yellow Book' and 'The Savoy' had been profoundly influential in creative circles; that Bourchier drew from these sources is obvious in such poems as 'Thus He Comes From Me' and 'Valerie The Rose'. We can also intuit from the themes of these early pieces that the young poet had been 'unlucky in love'. After enlisting in the Royal Warwickshers, Bourchier was sent to the Front Line, where his poems began to metamorphose into very personal narratives. 'Love's Black Fetters' provides a fascinating bridge between the two styles, seeming to contain both romantic and conflict-drawn inspirations (sentiments echoed in 'Everything Is A Secret Hidden Message'). From late 1914, Bourchier's work then becomes wholly focused upon the Great War. As the conflict progresses - and as Bourchier's own tragic death approaches - the work seems to acquire a more knowing cynicism. Nihilism, a growing contempt for hypocrisy and an obsession with suicide are recurrent motifs.
Prior to his death, Bourchier has been in correspondence with the publisher Elkin Mathews. We know from unpublished letters held at his alma mater Stowborough College that the poet had communicated to the avant-garde publisher his 'joyous hope' that his name might one day appear on the title page of a book by the 'famous Elkin Mathews at Vigo Street', and it is perhaps because of this reverence that when the book appeared in 1918, it did indeed state 'Vigo Street' on the title page - even though Mathews had moved to new premises in Cork Street in 1912.
The Darkling Fields Of Stowborough & Other Melancholy Reflections was published posthumously in 1918 in red cloth boards with gilt titles to the spine and upper cover. The top edge was trimmed and gilded while the other two edges were left rough and untrimmed. Thick handmade wove paper was used, and the margins around the printed text were suitably generous. An accomplished frontispiece portrait of the author by an 'M. Edmondson' depicts the poet in his military uniform, replete with his regimental 'Royal Warwickshire' insignia. It is likely the book was printed in a small print run of circa 500 copies. As Elkin Mathews explains in his brief but illuminating introduction, he opted to include all of Bourchier's known poems:
"The poet favoured drawing from his somewhat subversive pre-conflict forays into poetical form while I preferred the idea of publishing those works which directly referenced our 'Great' War.... In order that I might best pay my courteous respects to the late Mr Bourchier, I have decided to publish all of his known work – inclusive of the scattered fragments – in the approximate order that I believe them to have been composed."
The poems included in the volume were as follows:
DECADENT PRE-WAR POEMS
Valerie The Rose
Bored Was I
Thus He Comes For Me *
While You Sleep *
Listen In The Twilight Breeze *
Love In Black Fetters (A Fragment)
The Darkling Fields Of Stowborough *
Everything Is A Secret Hidden Message *
Pounding For Peace *
Softly Spoken Bill *
Ploughing The Dead
Everyone’s Hungry In Hell
Poor Surgeon Tim *
Robbing The Grave Of A Poetic Clown *
Better Today, Better Today
The Kindness Of Ravens *
The Castringham Sickness
Corpse Number 564 *
The Haunted Yellow Hours *
From Blackbird Pie To Raven Stew
The Hunter’s Privilege
The Lost Bastard Son Of War *
The Error Of The Day
The Eternal Black Darkness Of My Death *
The Expressionist Tell *
Suicide In The Mess
The poems were later reprinted by the Olympia Press in Paris during the 1960s, featuring a fresh introduction which referred tantalisingly to an attempt in the 1920s by Saul Preminger to adapt some of the work into cabaret. The unpublished scores for this were apparently discovered in the 1980s by Preminger's granddaughter and then subsequently passed on to Christopher Richard Barker and Mick Harvey. Harvey drew heavily from this work when composing music to accompany many of the 15 songs which appear on The Fall & Rise of Edgar Bourchier and the Horrors of War while Barker focused upon adapting the original poems into broadly conventional lyrics. In a small number of cases he also created choruses from the original words.
The Elkin Mathews edition is exceedingly scarce, nor were any copies filed with the British Library, which of course presents something of a challenge to any scholars wishing to research further. The Olympia Press edition is also frustratingly elusive. The copies consulted for the purpose of Barker & Harvey's musical project The Fall & Rise of Edgar Bourchier and the Horrors of War were those presented to Stowborough College by the respective publishers. (Our thanks are due to Magda Squires, Librarian at Stowborough.)
NB. The poems asterisked (*) were later adapted into song by Saul Preminger, Nicholas Parkes, The Moon Lepers, Mick Harvey & Christopher Richard Barker.