Making an ass of yourself, with Geoffrey Bache Smith

I’ve just returned from the first-ever conference focusing on Geoffrey Bache Smith, his poetry, and his influence on his great friend, Tolkien. In a previous post, I spotlighted an under-appreciated aspect of Smith: his sense of humour. In this new post, I will offer some more evidence – in a video this time – and simultaneously make good on a promise I made in that earlier post.

Geoffrey Bache Smith in The Frogs by Aristophanes at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, 1913
Geoffrey Bache Smith and others in The Frogs by Aristophanes at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, 1913

On the serious side, Smith persuaded Tolkien to become a poet and was therefore truly instrumental in turning him into the author we know. Smith sent Tolkien a letter from deepest danger in the trenches of the Great War to declare himself a ‘wild and whole-hearted admirer’ of the first Middle-earth writings, and to urge him to publish them. One of the many ironies of that world war is that although Tolkien could find no publisher for his own poetry, he was able to edit Smith’s poems for publication (A Spring Harvest, 1918). You see, Smith had been killed on the Somme battlefield in 1916, and (as Dr Stuart Lee made clear in his conference paper) there was a demand for good poetry by dead soldiers.

But when Smith wasn’t being serious (and often when he was, too) he could also be very, very funny. His friends knew and loved this about him, and I provide some evidence of this in Tolkien and the Great War. But I knew of nothing beyond the occasional quip… until I realised that an anonymous piece in their old school newspaper was actually Smith’s work. You can read that in earlier blog post, The dream of Geoffrey Bache Smith.

At the conference I grabbed the opportunity to unburden myself of an embarrassing secret that I’ve kept for 20 years. Now don’t get too excited – it’s not embarrassing in that way. It’s a research error that I corrected quietly as soon as I realised what I’d done. But I think it’s a useful cautionary tale for researchers in general. This is what I intended to write about when I said in that previous G.B. Smith post that ‘a mildly embarrassing tale hangs thereto, which I will save for another blog post’.

However, having now told the story at this week’s conference, with all the essential illustrations, I have decided to share the video right here… The link picks up where my seven-minute contribution begins.

The final slide doesn’t seem to have made it into the streaming video, so I reproduce it below. It relates to my final question: whether G.B. Smith (pictured top left as an adult) is one of the cadets in the same 1907 King Edward’s School photograph that Tolkien has been identified in. Tell me what you think. And note that Smith, just 13 at the time, had a 16-year-old brother at the school, Roger. Roger Smith is not known to appear in any surviving photograph, but Tolkien scholar Kris Swank has perceptively noted that the face at top centre in the picture below might actually be his.

Videos of all the talks and discussions at this week’s conference have been shared on YouTube by Corpus Christi College, which hosted the delightful event. Links have been handily gathered here by Trotter of the Tolkien Collector’s Guide.

One of the revelations was that Smith had actually managed to publish more of his poetry during his lifetime than we had ever realised, as Oronzo Cilli demonstrated after some serious detective work. Another was that during his brief Oxford University undergraduate life, he had spent much energy and enjoyed some success at the Oxford Union Debating Society, as Grace Khuri showed. In my own talk, I offered fresh information and insight on Smith’s background, friendships and prospects – including a glimpse of his roots in Mordor (!) and a surprise secret nod, in one of his poems, to his local football team, West Bromwich Albion.

I mention here only the biographical and bibliographical talks, but there was much more. Highlights for me included Allan Turner’s sober assessment of Smith’s poetry as literature – including an unexpected and beautiful rendition of one poem as a song – and Kris Swank’s exploration of a single motif from Longfellow to Smith to Tennyson. For the first time, this week A Spring Harvest received the attention it deserves. Giuseppe Pezzini, Douglas A. Anderson and Oronzo deserve many thanks for organising the conference.

This entry was posted in John Garth’s writing, Research tangents and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Making an ass of yourself, with Geoffrey Bache Smith

  1. Bruce Leonard says:

    I vote for Roger in that photo.

  2. And the moral of the story is: always caption your photos!

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