James Elroy Flecker (5 November 1884 – 3 January 1915) was a British novelist, playwright, and poet, whose poetry was most influenced by the Parnassian poets.
Herman Elroy Flecker was born on 5 November 1884 in Lewisham, London, to William Herman Flecker (d. 1941), headmaster of Dean Close School, Cheltenham, and his wife Sarah. His much younger brother was the educationalist Henry Lael Oswald Flecker (1896–1958), who became Headmaster of Christ's Hospital.
Flecker later chose to use the first name "James", either because he disliked the name "Herman" or to avoid confusion with his father. "Roy", as his family called him, was educated at Dean Close School, and then at Uppingham. He subsequently studied at Trinity College, Oxford, and at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. While at Oxford he was greatly influenced by the last flowering of the Aesthetic movement there under John Addington Symonds, and became a close friend of the classicist and art historian John Beazley.
From 1910 Flecker worked in the consular service in the Eastern Mediterranean. On a ship to Athens he met Helle Skiadaressi, and they were married in 1911.
Flecker died on 3 January 1915, of tuberculosis, in Davos, Switzerland and was buried in Bouncer's Lane Cemetery, Cheltenham. His death at the age of thirty was described at the time as "unquestionably the greatest premature loss that English literature has suffered since the death of Keats".
His contributions and biography was described by Geraldine Hodgson in 1925. She summarised his contribution in Life of James Elroy Flecker as "singular in our literature". This comment and her book in general received a damning review.
Flecker's poem The Golden Journey to Samarkand was published in 1913, but only found its larger context when his play, Hassan, was published.
Hassan (The Story of Hassan of Baghdad and How He Came to Make the Golden Journey to Samarkand) is a five-act drama in prose with verse passages. It tells the story of Hassan, a young man from Baghdad who embarks on a journey to Samarkand, a city in Central Asia. Along the way, he encounters various challenges and obstacles, including bandits, treacherous terrain, and political turmoil.
It was published posthumously in 1922, and was not staged in Flecker’s lifetime. Instead, it premiered in 1923 with instrumental music by Frederick Delius. The production included incidental music, songs, dances, and choral episodes. It caught the fancy of English audiences at the time, perhaps because of the escape implied in its exotic setting, and a post-war vogue for oriental imagery, and its wistful ending of death, by execution, and a hoped for reunion and love in the afterlife (a theme that would have resonated for the survivors of the Great War remembering those who died in the war), and notably because of the appeal of Delius's nostalgic music.
The excerpt from Flecker's verse drama Hassan ... the Golden Journey to Samarkand) inscribed on the clock tower of the barracks of the British Army's 22 Special Air Service regiment in Hereford provides an enduring testimony to Flecker's work:
We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea.
The same inscription also appears on the NZSAS monument at Rennie Lines in the Papakura Military Camp in New Zealand, and at the Indian Army's Special Forces Training School in Nahan, Himachal Pradesh, India.
A character in the second volume of Anthony Powell's novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, is said to be "fond of intoning" the lines For lust of knowing what we should not know / We take the Golden Road to Samarkand, without an attribution to Flecker. (This is in fact a misquotation, the original reads "...what should not be known").
Saki's short story "A Defensive Diamond" (in Beasts and Super-Beasts, 1914) references "The Golden Journey to Samarkand".
Agatha Christie quotes Flecker several times, especially in her final novel, Postern of Fate (1973).
Jorge Luis Borges quotes a quatrain from Flecker's poem "To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence" in his essay "Note on Walt Whitman" (available in the collection Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952):
O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.
Nevil Shute quotes from Hassan in Marazan (1926), his first published novel, and in the headings of many of the chapters in his 1951 novel Round the Bend.
The Pilgrims' Song from Hassan and its setting by Delius play a pivotal role at the beginning of Elizabeth Goudge's novel The Castle on the Hill (1942).
Tracy Bond quotes an amended stanza from Hassan in the 1969 film On Her Majesty's Secret Service as she looks out of the window of Piz Gloria at the sun rising over the Swiss alps:
Thy dawn, O Master of the World, thy dawn;
For thee the sunlight creeps across the lawn,
For thee the ships are drawn down to the waves,
For thee the markets throng with myriad slaves,
For thee the hammer on the anvil rings,
For thee the poet of beguilement sings.
The original in Flecker's play is more romantic, and makes clear that the Caliph is being addressed, not the Almighty:
Thy dawn O Master of the world, thy dawn;
The hour the lilies open on the lawn,
The hour the grey wings pass beyond the mountains,
The hour of silence, when we hear the fountains,
The hour that dreams are brighter and winds colder,
The hour that young love wakes on a white shoulder,
O Master of the world, the Persian Dawn.
That hour, O Master, shall be bright for thee:
Thy merchants chase the morning down the sea,
The braves who fight thy war unsheathe the sabre,
The slaves who work thy mines are lashed to labour,
For thee the waggons of the world are drawn –
The ebony of night, the red of dawn!
In Flashman at the Charge (1973), author George MacDonald Fraser concludes a final scene with a decasyllable quatrain pastiche in Flecker’s style. Following many misadventures suffered by the book’s picaresque hero Harry Flashman, brother-in-arms rebel leader Yakub Beg waxes poetic and evokes the mystique of middle Asia with its concomitant voyage of self-discovery and friendships hard-won by reciting:
To learn the age-old lesson day by day:
It is not in the bright arrival planned,
But in the dreams men dream along the way,
They find the Golden Road to Samarkand.
Flecker's poem "The Bridge of Fire" features in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, in the volume The Wake, and The Golden Journey to Samarkand is quoted in the volume World's End.
In Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy", the young English Literature lecturer Dr Pran Kapoor attempts to reduce colonial influence in the syllabus and suggests removing Flecker (to make room for James Joyce). Professor Mishra disagrees and quotes from "The Gates of Damascus"
Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing. Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird.