The Maladroit Muse

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When I attempted to look up D. B. Wyndham Lewis on the Internet, Google kindly asked me if I didn’t really mean Percy Wyndham Lewis. Emphatically not. The Vorticist painter (whose age, it was suggested, could be estimated by counting the rings on his collar) was not known for his sense of humour. His namesake, on the other hand, was the first ‘Beachcomber’ of the Daily Express, and the collaborator with Ronald Searle on the tales of that least conventional of ladies’ academies, St Trinian’s. But he was overshadowed by his successor, J. B. Morton, and likewise by Searle’s brilliant drawings.

DB, however, doesn’t deserve the oblivion into which time appears to be edging him, if only because he was one of the two begetters of an ‘anthology of bad verse’ which he and Charles Lee – a quiet and unobtrusive writer of Cornish novels – entitled The Stuffed Owl.

The title, I’ve always believed, was prompted by the prize for ‘the dullest literary work of the year’ awarded in the 1920s by Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell. The trophy was a stuffed owl, and its first recipients were J. C. Squire and Edward Shanks. (When it came to Harold Nicolson, they ran out of owls, and his prize consisted, so Edith Sitwell said, of ‘a curiously mangy cat, playing with some diseased mice and surmounted by a huge dome of glass’.)

In his Preface, Lewis suggests that there is Bad Bad Verse and Good Bad Verse: ‘Bad Bad Verse is a strong but inexperienced female child doggedly attacking Debussy’s Fêtes in a remote provincial suburb on a hire-payment pianoforte from the Swiftsure Furnishing Stores. Good Bad Verse is Rummel or Lamond executing Warblings at Eve at Queen’s Hall on a Bechstein concert-grand.’

One doesn’t have to look far to realize that he has got it right, with the anonymous hymn-writers and amateur poets gathered together in category one, and the great names of English poetry treadin

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About the contributor

Derek Parker’s biography of the first Countess of Strathmore was published in 2006.

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