BOOK REVIEW: The 5 Heads of Humbert Wolfe: Poet, Wit & Civil Servant

The 5 Heads of Humbert Wolfe: Poet, Wit & Civil Servant. By A.D.Padgett. ADP Publishing, 2014. 181pp. £9.99. ISBN: 978-0-9572919-6-6

Humbert Wolfe

Humbert Wolfe was born in Bradford in 1885 and educated at Bradford Grammar and Wadham College, Oxford. He then worked for the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Labour, making ‘a significant contribution to the war effort as controller of labour regulation in the Ministry of Munitions during World War One’ (p.11). He became a CBE in 1918 and a CB in 1925. In 1938 he was appointed Deputy Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and responsible for equipping the country’s labour force for war. He died in 1940.

He was also a poet; a poet of considerable standing, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and one of the favourites to become Poet Laureate in 1930. In the Bibliography to this anthology of Wolfe’s work, compiler Padgett lists 26 published volumes of poetry, five of prose, seven poetry translations, ten of poetry criticism, seven poetry collaborations, and three ‘other works’ including the unpoetical, though lucid, Labour Supply and Regulation (1923) – two given! Also listed are three writings on Wolfe, six texts referring to him, and three texts inspired by Wolfe. This bibliography alone is a useful contribution to Bradford’s literary history.

Anthony Padgett is an award-winning sculptor and the great great nephew of Humbert Wolfe. In 2014 he sculptured five busts of Wolfe to represent five different phases of his life, cold-cast in bronze, pewter, copper, marble and granite to go in key cities associated with his life and work: London (two), Oxford, Bradford (located in the City Centre library) and New York. The impressive 153 selections of Wolfe’s literary output presented in this book is similarly divided, though some alchemy has transmuted pewter and copper into silver and gold!

  • Marble – Birth and International Career
  • Bronze – Youth and Bradford
  • Silver – Oxford and Literary Criticism
  • Gold – London and Literary Creativity
  • Granite – London Civil Service and Death

I focus here on Bradford and select just a few snippets:

There is an old loom, an old warp and woof,
older than the knitting fingers of the roaring machine,
older than the bales of cloth ranged in the dim warehouses.

(‘Bradford’ from Out of Great Tribulation, 1939)

The Grammar School building stands (or stood) at the bottom of Manningham Lane. … Its back loured over a large mud playground upon the railway-lines, and its two sides outfaced two rows of slum-houses. (‘On the Grammar School’ from Now A Stranger, 1933)

I heard two men in bowler-hats and leggings discussing not worsted nor shoddy but the misdoings of a bailiff. Sweeter far to me that talk than any adventure story in the world. The town-child was for a bewildering instant in the real, living, practical, winter country. But all too brief because he was hastily recalled by a snowball in the neck to life as it really is. (‘On Saltaire’ from A Winter Miscellany, 1930)

Walmer Villas is a grey street of semi-detached houses sloping up sharply from Manningham Lane. There used to be a certain grim quiet about it, as though stillness had been trapped between buildings that held hard onto anything they caught. You could, of course, hear in those days the rumbling of carts along the uneven stones of the Lane, and the occasional screaming progressions of the steam-tram. But the street was marked by that fierce reticence, which in Bradford, at least, converted the Yorkshireman’s home into his dungeon. (‘On His First Poem’ from Selected Poems by Swinburne, 1928)

The business-man opposite had lowered his Bradford Observer and was watching him with an amused grin. “It’s bright and early,” he said, “to be talking to yourself.” “I wasn’t talking,” he replied loftily, “I was reciting.” “Ay,” he answered, “but it’ll do you no good among them chaps at Oxford if they think you’re a softie.” “How did you know I was going to Oxford?” he enquired. “Seeing that you’ve had your ticket out ten times and asked porters at Laisterdyke and Halifax where to change, it was easy guessing. You’re Boogs Wolff, aren’t you?” “Yes,” he replied defensively, with an air of one who added, “ and why not?” “Well then, young Boogs,” he said, “don’t give yourself away. Sell yourself.” He saw at a glance that this was no mean commercial advice, but he could find no answer. The man still watched him. “You’ll have to try hard,” he said, “It won’t be none too easy for you.” “They don’t expect me to get a Scholarship,” he replied. “It’s not Scholarship I’m meaning,” he answered. “You’re clever enoof, they say. It’s being a Bradford Jew and thinking yourself a nob. Nay,” he said, seeing a movement of wounded pride, “Ah’m not meaning to offend you. Just warn you to go slow-like.” (‘On Leaving Bradford for Oxford’ from The Upward Anguish, 1938)

I wish that I could go back
to Spring Wood below Hawksworth – yes!
I wish I might sleep, and wake
under the branches of those loved trees.
But Bradford lies far away,
and the wood beyond Bradford far;
and never between night and day,
not under sun, nor cool star,
shall I go back to Bradford,
to Spring Wood below Hawksworth Hall.
There is no way back at evening;
there is no way back at all.

(‘Spring Wood’) from This Blind Rose, 1928)

The book also contains brief chapters on the life and work of Wolfe. The author’s prose could have done with editing, but I’m grateful for his wide selection and for bringing us an introduction to a neglected ‘son of Bradford’.

Bob Duckett

Review reprinted from the Bradford Antiquary, 2016, courtesy of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.

Copies are available in Bradford Libraries

 

Note: Readers of our blog may recall that in December 2015 a sculptured head of Humbert Wolfe was presented to City Library by Anthony Padgett. This is on display on the first floor of City Library.

Humbert Wolfe, Bradford Poet

On 5th December the sculptured head of Humbert Wolfe, Bradford poet, was presented to City Library by Anthony Padgett, Sculptor. The sculpture was unveiled by the Lord Mayor of Bradford, Councillor Joanne Dodds, with a reading of Humbert’s poems by poet Stephen O’Connor.

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Humbert’s poem ‘Requiem’, published in 1927 is often read at Remembrance events.

Requiem: The Soldier

Down some cold field in a world outspoken
the young men are walking together, slim and tall,
and though they laugh to one another, silence is not broken;
there is no sound however clear they call.

They are speaking together of what they loved in vain here,
but the air is too thin to carry the things they say.
They were young and golden, but they came on pain here,
and their youth is age now, their gold is grey.

Yet their hearts are not changed, and they cry to one another,
‘What have they done with the lives we laid aside?
Are they young with our youth, gold with our gold, my brother?
Do they smile in the face of death, because we died?’

Down some cold field in a world uncharted
the young seek each other with questioning eyes.
They question each other, the young, the golden hearted,
of the world that they were robbed of in their quiet paradise.

I do not ask God’s purpose. He gave me the sword,
and though merely to wield it is itself the lie
against the light, at the bidding of my Lord,
where all the rest bear witness, I’ll deny.
And I remember Peter’s high reward,
and say of soldiers, when I hear cocks cry,
‘As your dear lives (’twas all you might afford)
you laid aside, I lay my sainthood by.’
There are in heaven other archangels,
bright friends of God, who build where Michael destroys,
in music, or in beauty, lute players.
I wield the sword; and though I ask nought else
of God, I pray to Him: ‘But these were boys,
and died. Be gentle, God, to soldiers.’

Bradford Local Studies library has an extensive collection of books and news cuttings by this best selling poet.

  • London sonnets (1920)
  • The Unknown Goddess (1925) poems
  • Humoresque (1926)
  • News of the Devil (1926) poems
  • Requiem (1927) poems
  • Cursory Rhymes (1927) poems
  • Others Abide (1927)
  • Dialogues and monologues (1928) criticism
  • This Blind Rose (1928) poems
  • Troy (1928) Faber & GwyerAriel poems
  • The Uncelestial City (1930)
  • George Moore (1931)
  • Snow (1931) poems
  • Signpost to poetry (1931)
  • Now a stranger (1933) autobiography
  • Portraits by inference (1934)
  • X at Oberammergau : A poem (1935) drama
  • The Pilgrim’s Way (1936)
  • The Upward Anguish (1938) autobiography
  • Out of Great Tribulation (1939) poems
  • Kensington Gardens in War-Time (1940) poems
  • Catalogue of printed books: the library of the late Humbert Wolfe (Sotheby)
  • Harlequin in Whitehall: a life of Humbert Wolfe by Philip Baggeley