Eight blue steel blades
carved surging holes
in mid-tide Father Thames.
Nine Dark Blue men
rode will and pride,
and played no childish games,
but plyed their craft
with furious bent,
and, leaving naught to fail,
brought Sexton Cup
(now let us sup!)
back home to Mother Yale.
The above poem, by Thomas Eliot Weil, is a ‘doggerel’, he writes. Tom, who is mostly famous for being a rowing historian and collector, can, however, claim a poetry streak. He is related to a well-known poet, the recipient of the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature, T.S. Eliot, who, Tom writes in an e-mail, ‘is my first cousin, twice removed (i.e. my grandmother was his first cousin; his grandfather was my great-great grandfather…)’. Tom continues, ‘next to his poetry, my childish attempt must be consigned to … the wasteland’.
The only thing of Eliot’s that I understand is ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’. I particularly like ‘Growltiger’s Last Stand’ with it’s many references to places associated with rowing. Here is the first verse:
Growltiger was a Bravo Cat, who lived upon a barge;
In fact he was the roughest cat that ever roamed at large.
From Gravesend up to Oxford he pursued his evil aims,
Rejoicing in his title of “The Terror of the Thames.”
If I ever get a cat or a sculling boat, it will be named ‘Growltiger’.
Eliot rowed both at Harvard and Oxford.
‘Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land’ by Robert Crawford says that Eliot put his name down for the Harvard Freshman crew of 1907 but was not selected. ‘Later he did take up rowing in a wherry – traditionally a gentleman’s rowing boat – and finally worked up to a single scull’.
‘The Letters of TS Eliot, Volume 1′, notes that at Harvard, Eliot was ‘chided about his frail physique’ which prompted his ‘regular attendance at August’s Gymnasium, as well as boxing lessons, rowing and small boat cruising’.
Tom Eliot also pulled an oar while at Merton College, Oxford. In a 1914 letter to Conrad Aiken he wrote:
University towns, my dear fellow, are the same all over the world…… Only the most matter of fact people could write verse here…… But life is pleasant in its way, and perhaps I also am contented and slothful, eating heartily, smoking, and rowing violently upon the river in a four-oar…..
A footnote in ‘The Letters’, notes:
His crew, of which he was the stroke, beat the only other four-oar that could be mustered in wartime Oxford. Later his prized pewter mug was stolen during a removal.
’T.S. Eliot: The Making of an American Poet’ by James E Miller quotes another American at Merton, Brand Blanshard, who spoke of Eliot being ‘at home on the water’:
He recalled ‘a race between two Merton fours in which Eliot stroke one boat and I was in the other. His boat won handily. He pulled a good oar’. Blanshard concludes with the observation: ‘I don’t think he found much more fun that I did in this sort of rowing; one could easily become a galley slave; and on a cold and rainy day it could be miserable. Still, it helped keep us fit, and it made an excellent preface to tea and talk before a fire’.
“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
T. S. Eliot’s famous quote about the rowing stroke!
Tim and Greg – Thank you for these delightful additions to my hitherto sparse collection of rowing Eliotania. Now where might that mug have possibly gone …