Poet and playwright James Elroy Flecker was born in 1884 in Lewisham, London, and went to school in Cheltenham where his father worked as a headmaster. His verses were greatly influenced by the French style Parnassism which grew out of the positivist movement of the early 19th century and, despite his short life, he wrote a number of collections the most memorable being The Golden Journey to Samarkand.
Between 1902 and 1910 he attended both Oxford and Cambridge where he published the first of his books, The Bridge of Fire, in 1908. Whilst attending Oxford, Flecker was influenced by the last moments of the aesthetic movement and formed a close relationship with the classical art historian John Beazley who was professor of archaeology at the university.
When he left Oxford, Flecker went into the consular service and traveled for a while in the Mediterranean where he met his future wife Helle Skiadaressi on a boat to Greece. In 1910 he published the collection Thirty-Six Poems and a year later followed it up with Forty-Two Poems. His seminal work The Golden Journey to Samarkand appeared two years later. A passage from the poem is, to this day, used by the British military force the SAS, new recruits having to memorize it before they begin the rigorous training.
Flecker had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1910 and suffered attacks over the remaining years of his life but that did not stop him writing. After he married Helle in 1911 he taught for a while and continued to work on one of his passions, oriental literature. His consular travels across the Mediterranean led to him writing The Old Ships, a haunting, Ancient Mariner style work that offers echoes of the war to come.
Unlike Coleridge, in the poem Flecker manages to evoke the smells and sounds of the ship and his work is informed by an imagination that is steeped in the classics of Greece. Flecker presents an almost photo-realistic approach to the poem, published in 1915 when war had been raging for almost a year but the horrors of which were not yet entirely apparent.
At the time Flecker was likened to the great poet Keats and his early death was felt deeply within the literary community at the time. In subsequent years his work has been quoted in a wide variety of arenas from fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s Sandman to the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. His collected poems were published posthumously in 1916 and he remains one of the important players in 20th century poetry.
In 1914, Flecker published his second novel The King of Alsander but was already beginning to struggle with his tuberculosis. He finally succumbed to the disease in January 1915, dying whilst in Davos in Switzerland.