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Nichols, Robert

Category: Poet

Robert Malise Bowyer Nichols by
Augustus Edwin John chalk, 1921

Robert Malise Bowyer Nichols (6 or 16 September 1893 – 17 December 1944) was an English writer, poet and playwright.  He wrote numerous poems, a number of plays, and some distinguished journalism, including a series of articles and broadcasts on the cinema, and on meaning in music. Nichols also edited the Anthology of War Poetry, 1914-1918 (1943).

His first books were widely known: Invocation (1915) and Ardours and Endurances (1917). His other volumes of poetry include Aurelia (1920) and the fantastical satire Fisbo, or the Looking Glass Loaned (1934). Nichols himself gradually turned to other projects, including prose works such as Guilty Souls (1922) and Under the Yew (1927).  Nichols wrote several other prose fictions, including The Smile of the Sphinx, a fantasy set in the Middle East and Golgotha & co. These were collected in Nichols' book Fantastica.

The Telegraph July 2003

Of all the poets of the First World War, Robert Nichols was the one who best epitomised the idea of the poet. He not only looked the part, handsome and magnetically attractive to women, but he also behaved like a poet, swinging from unstoppable rhapsody to floods of tears. …. for Robert Graves he was a poet of "faith and fire", and on Edmund Blunden (a loyal friend) he "rained influence".
Nichols is probably the least read of all the First World War poets commemorated on the stone in Westminster Abbey; what makes the story of his life (well told in this biography by his niece and her philosophy lecturer husband) a compelling and tragic one is not that he was talentless and deluded, but that his considerable talent, to which he sacrificed everything and everyone (especially the women) in his life, was poorly directed and husbanded.

Life

 

Nichols was born into a prestigious upper-class family from Essex and studied at Winchester College and Trinity College, Oxford. He left Oxford at the outbreak of World War I and served as a second lieutenant in the Royal Field artillery. Nichols was one of the earliest recognized “soldier-poets” of World War I.   He served in the Royal Artillery as an officer in 1914, in the fighting at Loos and the Somme and was invalided out in 1916, after suffering from shell shock.

From 1921 to 1924, Nichols was chair of English at Tokyo Imperial University, where he was an energetic lecturer and translator of the 17th century Japanese poet Chikamatsu Monazemon. Nichols eventually left Tokyo and moved to Hollywood, where he advised Douglas Fairbanks and wrote plays. The play Wings over Europe (1928), with Maurice Browne, was a Broadway hit.

When he returned to England, in 1926, Nichols continued writing, working for fifteen years on a never-finished epic about Don Juan. Portions of this work were published in Such Was My Singing (1942), a selection of his poetry.

The Telegraph July 2003

maybe the worst disaster in Nichols's writing life was his obsession with his unstageable and pretty much unreadable verse drama Don Juan, which absorbed much of his energy in the last 15 years of his life.

 
 
 

Aldous Huxley became a long-term friend and correspondent, which may indicate Nichol’s interests and the observation we have for him shows his spiritual leanings.  Nichols's prose works include a dystopian satire of the future, Golgotha & Co, which predated his friend Aldous Huxley's Brave New World by a decade. It shrewdly attacked the evils of both capitalism and Bolshevism.

Nichols lived in Germany and Austria in 1933–34. He then settled in the south of France until he left in June 1940. He wooed Nancy Cunard with sonnets, but married Norah Denny.

The Telegraph July 2003

Those last years make increasingly sad reading. Having left his devoted wife, Norah, Nichols was unable to make a commitment to the equally devoted Vivienne Wilkinson. He died at 51, prematurely frail, in lodgings in Cambridge.


 Nichols was buried at St Mary's, Lawford, Essex next to the family home, Lawford Hall.

On 11 November 1985, Nichols was among 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. The inscription on the stone was written by a fellow Great War poet, Wilfred Owen. It reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."

The Telegraph July 2003

In some ways this is a cautionary tale, whose epigraph could be Wordsworth's
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.
Anne and William Charlton [his biographers] sometimes seem a little harsh on Nichols, berating him for placing his poetic vocation above dynastic duties (as the eldest son of a distinguished family). But at the same time, they persuade the reader of the reality, and the tragedy, of that vocation. Nichols's finest poetic nuggets, collected in the 1941 selection Such Was My Singing, though not in the least modernist, are made of the true, refined, passionate, lyrical metal.

 Lawford Hall, Essex

References

  • Invocation (1915)
  • Ardours and Endurances (1917)
  • A Faun's Holiday & Poems & Phantasies (1917)
  • Sonnets to Aurelia (1920)
  • The Smile of the Sphinx (1920)
  • Fantastica : being the smile of the Sphinx and other tales of imagination (1923)
  • Twenty Below (1926) with Jim Tully
  • Wings Over Europe (1928) play
  • Fisbo or the Looking Glass Loaned (1934) verse satire aimed at Osbert Lancaster
  • A Spanish Triptych (1936) poems
  • Such was My Singing (1942) poems

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