I shall not need chastity in heaven,
For I shall be with Oliver Thynne,
And alternando we shall go
In and out and out and in.
Maurice Bowra’s notoriously scabrous satirical poems on his contemporaries have long been the subject of gossip, mostly based on glimpses of small specimens. John Sparrow, Warden of Oxford’s All Souls College, said of his friend: ‘his prose was unreadable and his verse was unprintable’. And unprinted it has largely remained, though Bowra did give occasional after-dinner readings to carefully chosen friends.
Now at last the time has come to make these wonderful poems public. Enormously learned, brilliantly versified, exhilaratingly witty, unashamedly lewd and scurrilous, these soaring fantasies about his friends and enemies, based on the very slimmest of facts, are masterpieces of their genre. They will immediately take their place in the canon of the thinking person’s light verse.
This edition has its roots in a plan formed by Isaiah Berlin and John Sparrow to explain the many allusions the poems contain – allusions that are becoming increasingly obscure as time goes by. Unfortunately, the necessary editorial work was scarcely begun in their lifetimes. Now it has been completed, and the sometimes esoteric cast of characters is identified and put in context. This leaves the reader free to luxuriate in the virtuosity of Bowra’s acid pen.
The playwright Julian Mitchell, as an undergraduate at Wadham College in the 1950s, came to know the author well during Bowra’s long Wardenship, and provides a perceptive introduction to this long hidden department of his œuvre – one which, some think, may well be remembered for longer than his more ‘serious’ works.