Gipsy-night and Other Poems – Robert Hughes

Printed this week in 1922, the year Hughes graduated from Oxford, this was his first book and remarkably it was selected to be only the eighth title printed by what would become recognised as one of the finest Private Press publishers, Golden Cockerel Press. The image above is of the title page as my copy is missing its dust wrapper but that is not surprising in the one hundred years since it was published as the wrapper was quite delicate. Only 750 copies of this book were published by Golden Cockerel and it is one of the just fifteen titles published under its control of the original founder, Harold ‘Hal’ Taylor before his recurrent bouts of tuberculosis which eventually killed him in 1924. Before his death the press was sold to artist and author Robert Gibbings who transformed the business into a publisher of finely illustrated editions and really made the name of Golden Cockerel over the next nine years producing seventy one titles in that period before he too sold the business on. The press went through another couple of owners before ultimately closing down in 1961.

As I said at the beginning Robert Hughes had not been published before this collection but just two years later he was to be commissioned by the BBC to write ‘Danger’ which became the first ever play written specifically for radio broadcast anywhere in the world. In 1929 he also wrote ‘A High Wind in Jamaica’ which was filmed in 1965 starring Anthony Quinn and James Coburn so it’s clear that Hal Taylor had recognised some early talent in this young author. Hughes would later become a good friend of Dylan Thomas and his first book of prose ‘A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Dog’ was written whilst staying with Hughes. But enough of the history behind the press and the author, what of the poems themselves? Well as you would probably expect for a first collection from somebody who was still only twenty one when the book was published it’s a bit of a mixed bag, I tended to prefer the longer pieces, but of the ones that are short enough to include within the blog The Ruin is probably my favourite and gives a good overview of his style.

The Ruin

Gone are the coloured princes, gone echo, gone laughter:
Drips the blank roof: and the moss creeps after.

Dead is the crumbled chimney: all mellowed to rotting
The wall-tints, and the floor-tints, from the spotting
Of the rain, from the wind and slow appetite
Of patient mould: and of the worms that bite
At beauty all their innumerable lives.

—But the sudden nip of knives,
The lady aching for her stiffening lord,
The passionate-fearful bride
And beaded pallor clamped to the torment-board,
—Leave they no ghosts, no memories by the stairs?
No sheeted glimmer treading floorless ways?
No haunting melody of lovers’ airs,
Nor stealthy chill upon the noon of days?
No: for the dead and senseless walls have long forgotten
What passionate hearts beneath the grass lie rotten.

Only from roofs and chimneys pleasantly sliding
Tumbles the rain in the early hours:
Patters its thousand feet on the flowers,
Cools its small grey feet in the grasses.

Hughes doesn’t appear to have published another collection of poetry and apart from his plays wrote four novels although he was working on a fifth, which was supposed to be the final part of a trilogy, at the time of his death in 1976. Gipsy-Night and Other Poems itself is a good example of the work of a Private Press, using handmade paper and high quality letterpress printing and although it is dated the 24th March 1922 that is when printing was completed. The fact that only fifteen titles were published in the first three years gives some idea of the length of time it would take to print and bind the books using a relatively small hand press with often just two people working at a time. It was really a labour of love, Golden Cockerel never made much of a profit and some of the books in the Gibbings era definitely lost money despite their high initial purchase cost.

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