Poem of the Week / The Secret Lives of Squirrels

The furry creature, writes Humbert Wolfe, is 'not all he should be.'

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The Grey Squirrel
Humbert Wolfe

Like a small grey
coffee-pot,
sits the squirrel.
He is not

all he should be,
kills by dozens
trees, and eats
his red-brown cousins.

The keeper on the
other hand,
who shot him, is
a Christian, and

loves his enemies,
which shows
the squirrel was not
one of those.
(1924)

***

Born Umberto Wolff in Milan to a prosperous German-Italian Jewish family, Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940) grew up in Bradford, in northern England. There he attended Sunday school at a Reform synagogue and experienced, according to his autobiography, “a faint shamefaced Judaism.”

At Oxford he considered joining the Church of England – “a step which a desire to be like other men tempted him to take” – and eventually did so in 1908. He married a Scotswoman with whom he had a daughter, and from whom he was legally separated in 1938 owing to his long affair with novelist Pamela Frankau.

For important work in the civil service during World War I, in 1918 he was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), which is when he Anglicized his name.

In the 1920s he began his simultaneous literary career – becoming the best-selling author of more than 40 books despite criticism from modernists for his defense of traditional poetics. W.H. Auden once said of him, “If anyone needs kicking … it's that little ass.”

When war broke out in 1939, noted The Guardian, Wolfe helped draw up “a list of writers who could better serve as propagandists than in the army ... prompting previous critics such as John Betjeman and Dylan Thomas to throw themselves upon his mercy.”

A pro forma Christian, Wolfe maintained an interest in Jewish culture and translated works by Heinrich Heine (also a convert), Hungarian-Jewish writer Heltai Jeno and French Jewish writer Edmond Fleg.

In an obituary, The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury reported that Wolfe read his last poem at “a dinner given by the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning in support of the work for exiled scholars and scientists at the Hebrew University.”

That poem exults: “Somewhere in Jerusalem where Titus storms in vain / The Temple God commanded is risen up again.”

“The Grey Squirrel” is remarkable both for the visual simile comparing the coffeepot and the invasive grey rodent that Victorian animal lovers brought from North America to Britain, where it is still causing devastation to the native red species; and for the poem's wry take on moral notions regarding the appropriate treatment of animals.

Musings:
*Can – or should – this poem be read as a political parable?

*Update: A reader of last week’s poem has pointed out that “white” in Hebrew, as in English, can also mean “cocaine.” 

Walter Benington