Edgell Rickword

Edgell Rickword

John Edgell Rickword was born in Colchester on 22nd October, 1898. His father, George Rickword, was the borough librarian. He attended Colchester Royal Grammar School. As a teenager he was converted to socialism by reading the works of William Morris, Jack London, Frank Norris, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells.

On the outbreak of the First World War Rickword was only 16 years old. He therefore had to wait until September 1916 before he could join the Artists' Rifles. Other members of the regiment included Charles Jagger, Bert Thomas, Robert Sherriffs, Barnes Wallis, Edward Thomas, Paul Nash, John Nash and John Lavery.

Rickword later recalled that the decision to join the British Army reflected "our state of mind" at the time. "We were inured to colonial wars, pacifications of backward peoples (our toy soldiers had signiificantly light armaments), which only differed from the more risky and expensive forms of sport in the degree of danger and hardship involved."

After training at Hare Hall Camp in Guidea Park. As his biographer, Charles Hobday, points out: "Having learnt the rudiments of military drill in his school cadet corps, he found some of the training course easy, though boring, but as he was not deft with his hands the winding of his puttees and the folding of his blankets to meet the army's standards of neatness were something of a nightmare."

In December 1917, Rickword was gazetted to the 5th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment. He did not reach the Western Front until 21st January 1918. His stay on the front-line at Fleurbaix lasted only seven days and the battalion's official war diary records that their was little action with only two men receiving wounds that week.

Rickword returned to the front-line and during February the German Army gradually increased its shelling of the area. On 19th March, Rickword and James Rowe, were put in charge of a working party and during their duties, a shell exploded nearby. Rowe was killed and Rickword suffered a wound to the soldier and was able to rejoin his regiment on 24th March. He later wrote: "It was not the suffering and slaughter in themselves that were unbearable, it was the absence of any conviction that they were necessary, that they were leading to a better organization of society."

On 12th May 1918, Rickword was again wounded. This time his injuries were bad enough to be sent to a military hospital in Reading. After recovering his health he arrived back in France in September, 1918. The following month his regiment was deployed to Vimy Ridge. On 14th October he volunteered to swim across the Haute Deule Canal in order to reconnaissance German positions. This information enabled his regiment to take three villages in the area, Malmaison, Leforest and Cordela, and was part of the advance that forced Germany to retreat.

Rickword later wrote: "Our rulers were not war-weary, but the ordinary people who were suffering on the home and battle fronts were thinking: Not another winter of this! I know that was the feeling among the troops in Flanders in October 1918." The following month the Armistice was signed.

On 4th January 1919, Rickword developed an illness that was diagnosed as a "general vascular invasion which had resulted in general septicaemia". His left eye was so badly infected that they thought it necessary to remove it to prevent the infection from spreading to the other eye. As Charles Hobday points out: the infected eye was removed and replaced by a glass one (for which he was charged three guineas), and the other remained in working order for nearly sixty years, although with impaired vision."

Rickword went up to Pembroke College in September 1919. Over the next few months he met the poets Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Roy Campbell, L. P. Hartley, Louis Golding, A. E. Coppard and Edmund Blunden. Sassoon was at that time literary editor of The Daily Herald and he helped Rickword get some of his poems published. This included Winter Warfare in the weekly Land and Water.

In November 1919 Rickword became the lover of an Irish woman named Margaret McGrath. It inspired Intimacy, according to Charles Hobday "one of the great English love poems of the twentieth century". Rickword's poems appeared in Oxford Poetry (1920). The book also included the poems of other students such as Roy Campbell, Robert Graves, L. P. Hartley, Edmund Blunden and Louis Golding. His collected early verse appeared in Behind the Eyes (1921).

In 1921 Rickword met Douglas Garman through Roy Campbell, the husband of his sister Mary Garman. As Cressida Connolly has pointed out: "He (Rickword) was slight and fair-haired, with a very quiet manner and a soft voice. His post-war lyrics - the erotic poems in particular - show a debt to Donne and the metaphysical poets as well as to Baudelaire and the symbolists."

Rickword's friend, Edward Wishart, established a new publishing house, Wishart & Company, after leaving university. Rickword went to work for the company and with Douglas Garman, published a quarterly literary review, Calendar of Modern Letters from March 1925. It included the work of Robert Graves, E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, A. E. Coppard, L. P. Hartley, Cecil Gray, Hart Crane, T. F. Powys, Allen Tate, Roy Campbell, John Holms, Edmund Blunden, Percy Wyndham Lewis, Siegfried Sassoon, D. H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell and Edwin Muir.

In 1926 Rickword decided to move to Penybont to live with his girlfriend, Thomasina, and Douglas Garman and his new wife, Jeanne Hewitt. Both men were socialists and later that year attempted to support the miners during the General Strike. Rickword was very disappointed when the Trade Union Congress called off the strike.

Rickword continued to edit Calendar of Modern Letters. However, the journal folded in 1927 but Ernest Wishart made sure that there was other editorial work to do for his company.

For many years Rickword had been a member of the Labour Party. However, in 1934, he decided to join the Communist Party of Great Britain. His two closest friends, Ernest Wishart and Douglas Garman, also joined. Along with Randall Swingler and Jack Lindsay he was considered as one of the most important intellectuals in the party.

Early in 1934 a meeting was held of the British section of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers. Among those present included Rickword, Tom Wintringham, Ralph Fox, John Strachey, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Montagu Slater, A.L. Lloyd, Hugh MacDiarmid and Amabel Williams-Ellis. This meeting decided to publish a new Marxist journal. The Left Review first appeared in October 1934. Contributors to the journal included A. L. Morton, Nancy Cunard, F. D. Kingender, Valentine Ackland, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Edward Upward, Cecil Day-Lewis, Storm Jameson, Randall Swingler, Jack Lindsay, Margaret Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison, Winifred Holtby, Henry Hamilton Fyfe, Eric Gill, Herbert Read and George Barker.

In 1934 Rickword persuaded Ernest Wishart and Douglas Garman to publish Negro, an anthology of pieces by 150 writers on black politics and culture, collected and edited by Nancy Cunard. As Edgell Rickword said later: "We all three felt to some degree that literature must be understood and practised as a part of a culture wider and deeper than any single art form, because culture was the essence of the way in which people lived and thought and felt."

In 1935 Ernest Wishart merged his company with another publishing house to form Lawrence and Wishart. The new company moved to offices in Red Lion Square and became the press of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Roy Campbell and Mary Campbell went to stay with Ernest Wishart and Lorna Wishart in December 1937. The Wisharts organised a dinner party that including Rickword, Peggy Guggenheim and Douglas Garman. A discussion on the Spanish Civil War caused a major rift in the family. Rickword later commented: "He (Campbell) was very good fun, by no means a fool. But where he got this crappy, hysterical sort of fascism from, I don't know." Campbell responded by describing Wishart's home as "Bolshevik Binsted".

During the Second World War Rickword became editor of Our Time. For the next three years he published the work of Christopher Hill, Charles Hobday, Mervyn Jones, Jack Lindsay, David Holbrook, Randall Swingler, E. P. Thompson and Doris Lessing.

John Edgell Rickword died on 15th March, 1982.

Primary Sources

(1) Edgell Rickword, Literature and Society (1940)

It was not the suffering and slaughter in themselves that were unbearable, it was the absence of any conviction that they were necessary, that they were leading to a better organization of society.

(2) Charles Hobday, Edgell Rickword: A Poet at War (1989)

On 19 March Rickword and Rowe, who had been put in charge of a working party, were talking together when a shell exploded nearby. Both were hit by flying splinters. They were taken to the base hospital at St Pol, where Rowe died on 17 April, although the wound in the shoulder which Rickword had received was found to be comparatively slight. St Pol was some miles behind the lines, but it still came under fire. Rickword later recalled that "the Germans were bombing the railway station by day, testing, with fair success, a long-range gun on the church in the square, and brightening our evenings with air-raids on the dumps surrounding the hospital". He also remembered a visit to the hospital by a concert party, and commented: "For the courage which faced these dangers and the skill which organized it no praise could be extravagant".

(3) Edgell Rickword, Literature and Society (1940)

Our rulers were not war-weary, but the ordinary people who were suffering on the home and battle fronts were thinking: Not another winter of this! I know that was the feeling among the troops in Flanders in October 1918.

(4) Edgell Rickword, Intimacy (1919)

Since I have seen you do those intimate things

That other men but dream of; lull asleep

The sinister dark forest of your hair

And tie the bows that stir on your calm breast

Faintly as leaves that shudder in their sleep;

Since I have seen your stocking swallow up,

A swift black wind, the flame of your pale foot,

And deemed your slender limbs so meshed in silk

Sweet mermaid sisters drowned in their dark hair

I have not troubled very much with food

And wine has seemed like water from a well;

Pavements are built of fire, grass of thin flames;

All other girls grow dull as painted flowers,

Or flutter harmlessly like coloured flies

Whose wings are tangled in the net of leaves

Spread by frail trees that grow behind the eyes.