ON MAY 12, 1952, Ian Fleming was seated at a London restaurant opposite his friend William Plomer. Suddenly he produced a startling question. How, he enquired of Plomer, do you "get smoke out of a woman once you've got it in?" Though Plomer claimed to be "always alert to the caprices of the human race," he felt considerably bewildered, until Fleming proceeded to assure him that the question had a literary motive. You couldn't say that your heroine "exhaled" her cigarette-smoke -- that would be insufferably pompous -- while "puffed it out" sounded downright silly. Then a flash of enlightenment crlssed Plomer's mind. "You must have written a book," he said. Fleming agreed; and Plomer, being a publisher's reader, suggested he should see the manuscript, with the result that Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale , appeared in April 1953.
I quote this incident because it may help to illustrate both Plomer's professional versatility and his gift of human understanding. Though he had himself a well-established reputation as a poet and a highbrow novelist, he immediately grasped the popular appeal of his old friend's shocking thriller, and, when Ian had entered the best-seller class, continued to encourage and advise him. For Plomer was, above all else, a deeply sympathetic man; and Rupert Hart-Davis' posthumous selection of his occasional verse and prose shows the range of his intelligence. During his literary career, he published two volumes of verse, five novels, five collections of short stories, two autobiographies, a quartet of libretti for Benjamin Britten's operas, and an entertaining children's tale. He also edited a number of books, among them Francis Kilvert's famous diary of clerical life in mid-Victorian England.
Electric Delights , which owes its title to a phrase taken from Charlotte Bronte's Shirley , "the electric delight of admiring what is admirable," contains besides poems, stories and travel sketches, a series of essays that the editor calls "Admirations," each an appreciative portrait of some fellow artist he particularly valued. The best perhaps is his study of Edward FitzGerald; though why the translator of Omar Khayyam should be discussed under the heading "Prose Writers" is a problem that I cannot solve. FitzGerald, however, seems to have interested him more as a splendid letter writer and curious human being than as a remarkably accomplished poet; and I suspect that Plomer's affection for FitzGerald may have had something to do with the fact that their temperaments were much akin.Plomer's selfepitaph includes the revelatory lines:
Sometimes thinking aloud He went his own way.
He was joky by nature, Sad, sceptical, proud.
He shared not only FitzGerald's scepticism, but his "jokiness," his loneliness and his taste in odd companions. The Victorian writer's strongest attachment was to a simple fisherman he nicknamed "Posh"; and he and Posh spent happy days "knocking round" the North Sea, aboard a lugger that FitzGerald had bought and the good-looking Posh sailed. A somewhat similar association gladdened Plomer's last years.
For one glimpse of FitzGerald's character I feel particularly grateful to Plomer. As a middle-aged man, he decided that he ought to get married, and chose a tall, big-boned woman, with a loud, deep voice. It was an unwise step. According to Plomer: "The wedding-day did not show Fitzgerald in any haste to be ruled or reformed. He turned up in a slouch hat... and during the wedding-breakfast only spoke once. This was when he was offered some blancmange. He looked at it, and then waved it away,... saying as he did so, 'Ugh! Congealed bridesmaid!'"
Among Plomer's other "admirations" is an essay on the Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy, of whom E. M. Forster said that he stood "at a slight angle to the universe." Many of the other artists discussed and praised here evidently stood at such an angle, a little outside and in opposition to the accepted social system -- Herman Melville, George Gissing, Christina Rossetti, even the ingenuous country clergyman Francis Kilvert.
Of Kilvert, while he edited his diaries, Plomer seems to have grown extremely fond; and he writes on him with special feeling.Born in 1840, the diarist spent his whole adult existence at a succession of remote parsonages, far from London and urban literary life, where he divided his time between his parishioners, their attractive wives and daughters, and the radiant beauties of the natural world. Kilvert adored nature, which inspired the finest passages in his diary. (He was a Wordsworthian romantic). He also worshipped, and fervently though innocently pursued, a series of fascinating local girls, whom he often kissed, now and then embraced, but, so far as we can make out, mever embarassed or offended.
Like his 20th-century editor, Kilvert was an individualist; and it is that same individualistic quality in Plomer's essays that makes them always worth reading. They convey his personal response to life and art in evocative yet unaffected prose.