Obituary: Geoffrey Dearmer

Laurence Cotterell
Monday 19 August 1996 23:02 BST

Geoffrey Dearmer's must surely be a unique case of poetic resurrection. His verse, highly praised during and just after the Great War, was soon forgotten, and remained so for some 70 years - due mainly to his own almost painful modesty and self-effacement. Indeed, it was due to the efforts of others, somewhat to his embarrassment, that an unexpected wave of publicity greeted the appearance of a selection of his poetry, A Pilgrim's Song, published by John Murray on his 100th birthday in 1993.

Geoffrey Dearmer was born at Lambeth, in London, three days after the birth of Wilfred Owen, with whom he shared a background of religiosity. His father, Percy Dearmer, was a celebrated cleric, and was author or editor of numerous works on ecclesiastical themes. He was noted especially for his compilation of The English Hymnal. Geoffrey's mother, Mabel, was a well-known author of children's books, novels and plays in her day, being highly regarded by Bernard Shaw, among others, for her stage productions. She died of enteric fever while nursing wounded Serbs, in 1915, under appalling conditions. In that same year, Geoffrey's younger brother was killed at Gallipoli only days before Geoffrey landed there himself, as a subaltern in the Royal Fusiliers.

After Gallipoli, Dearmer served in France in the Royal Army Service Corps, with a very sticky job in the mud of Flanders. His war poetry, Poems, first appeared in 1918 to acclamation on both sides of the Atlantic, and a peacetime collection, A Day's Delight, in 1923. It was typical of the man that he hardly bothered to keep copies of what he wrote (including post-war novels and pageant scripts), or of press notices.

Dearmer saw at least as much action as Owen or Sassoon, yet his verse contains none of the inspired bitterness (amounting to sheer genius) that invested their poetry and the work of other notable contemporaries. They were long in a muddy world of war, and men could not be blamed for looking down and seeing realism in mud. Dearmer tended to look up and see the stars, as real as the bloodied mud of the battlefields swirling around his boots. His religious faith remained unwavering and he never allowed the horrors of war or the disillusionments of so-called peace to lead him into the iconoclastic (sometimes nihilistic) cynicism that beset so many minds during and after the First World War.

Between the wars Dearmer was variously engaged as Examiner of Plays for the Lord Chamberlain, in the days of theatre censorship, and as a religious programes scout for the BBC. He regarded the censoring job with intense amusement, being the least censorious of men. Concurrent with his censorship post, he became editor of BBC Children's Hour - watched by as many adults or children - from 1939 until the late Fifties.

Dearmer was married in 1936, and had been a widower for decades when he died. His sole child, Juliet Woollcombe, is an Anglican priest. Among other things, he was (in both age and membership entry) the oldest member of the Fusiliers Association, the Gallipoli Association, the Society of Authors and the Poetry Society; and was a Lieutenant of the Victorian Order.

When I was engaged on research in compiling the Dearmer collection, I found that almost all the literary folk had forgotten the man's name, or thought him long dead. However, the wide publicity and reviewers' plaudits that accompanied the book's publication on Dearmer's 100th birthday assured him of a belated place in the poets' pantheon, and it will be interesting to see what future generations make of his verse, particularly in relation to that of the long-recognised Great War poets.

Even in the years of obscurity, Dearmer's intensely moving poem "The Turkish Trench Dog" continued to appear in anthologies. It is worth an epitaphal glance:

Night held me as I crawled and

scrambled near

The Turkish lines. Above, the

mocking stars

Silvered the curving parapet, and


Cloud-latticed beams o'erflecked

the land with bars.

I, crouching, lay between

Tense-listening armies peering

through the night,

Twin giants bound by tentacles


Here in dim-shadowed light

I saw him, as a sudden movement


His eyes towards me, glowing eyes

that burned

A moment ere his snuffling muzzle found

My trail; and then, as serpents


He chained me with those

unrelenting eyes,

That muscle-sliding rhythm, knit

and bound

In spare-limbed symmetry, those

pefect jaws

And soft-approaching pitter-patter claws.

Nearer and nearer like a wolf he

crept -

That moment had my swift revolver

leapt -

But terror seized me, terror

born of shame

Brought flooding revelation. For

he came

As one who offers comradeship


an open ally of the human race,

And, sniffing at my prostrate form


He licked my face!

In conversation, when well past the century mark, Dearmer's reminiscences would bring stories of meetings with the likes of Bernard Shaw, Kipling, Robert Graves, Masefield, and a whole host of other luminaries drawn from widely differing milieux.

As an activist in the affairs of the Stage Society, Dearmer was the lone champion for the production of R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End, based on the experiences of a captain in the trenches in the First World War; and he had considerable influence on Robert Graves, advising him not to "over- diversify".

Geoffrey Dearmer's unfailing kindness, humour, hospitality and utter lack of cynicism formed an agreeable persona that impressed even the most hard-bitten interviewers. Sharp as a needle till the end, he would correct any literary misquotation in conversation, with diffident good nature, and was invariably proved right. An American radio interviewer once asked him "the secret" of reaching the century so mentally agile and in such comparatively good shape physically. He replied: "Bad temper shortens life. Even temper never does."

Geoffrey Dearmer, poet: born London 21 March 1893; married 1936 Margaret Proctor (died 1980; one daughter); died Birchington, Kent 18 August 1996.

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