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T. P. Cameron Wilson

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by Merryn Williams

The yellow-tinted paper on which this little book is printed gives a period feel to it, and it is in many ways an old-fashioned piece of work. This is in keeping; it does not take long for the reader to recognise that T P Cameron Wilson was an old-fashioned man, even for his time. Brought up in a family of Anglican clergy, he had a firm religious faith and a dislike for obscene language and dirty jokes – of which there was no shortage in the army ranks where he suddenly found himself in 1914.

The treatment of Wilson as a person does not probe as far below the surface as I would have liked. We are told, for example, of the "mystery" of his pre-war romance, implied by a poem about a milkmaid. Unfortunately, no attempt is made to pin down how, when and where this might have happened. Surely, then, it could equally well be explained as a fantasy affair on the part of a sexually-repressed young man? Some have speculated on the possibility that he had an illegitimate child. Again, this is based on the slimmest of evidence in his poetry, and there is no hint of it in his private correspondence.

Wilson was, it is certain, a man full of contradictions. He loathed the whole idea of war, calling it a "great dirty tragedy" and other, worse, names; yet he joined up immediately it was declared. He presented a brave and good-natured face to his comrades, yet his letters and private writings disclose his complete revulsion for everything that was going on around him. Most tellingly, he felt himself to be ugly, and depicted himself as such in an autobiographical novel, yet other people considered him a particularly fine physical specimen.

Wilson was not quite thirty when he was killed in action in 1918. He is remembered for a single poem, Magpies in Picardy, written in 1916. What Merryn Williams does succeed in doing is to let Wilson’s writing speak for itself, demonstrating that not only was he an able and sometimes inspiring poet, but he had aspirations to be as great a prose writer as his contemporary Siegfried Sassoon later became, and he would probably have achieved this, had he survived the First World War. Ms Williams notes, also, the similarities to some of Owen’s work, written from a comparable viewpoint. Wilson’s versatility shows through; in the summer of 1917, he even took to writing humorous articles for Punch.

He has been classified as a Georgian poet, though he was never included in their anthologies. Like Brooke and others of the period, he wrote of an idyllic England. There is a difference, though. Wilson recognised the other side of the coin, and the analysis of what is now considered his masterpiece is the best part of this book. The two verses missing from the version originally published by Harold Monro make a considerable difference to its significance, as Merryn Williams points out. She describes it as a poem that "fits into no categories" – very much like the poet himself.

 

ISBN 1 897967 59 4
Cecil Woolf, 2006
28pp, pamphlet
Retail price 5

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher