BJ. William Plomer

27. Letters. Quoted in Alexander (40), 1989.

    Leonard Woolf, Laurens Van der Post, Rupert Hart-Davis, Benjamin Britten. Images: .  

a. To Leonard Woolf. The letters noted and others to Woolf from Japan are in the Hogarth Press Archives at the University of Sussex; copies are among the Plomer Papers at Durham (28a).

1. 20 November 1926 (p. 130). Written from the Kikufuji Hotel, home in the winter of 1926 both to Plomer and to Blunden (see BD166j). Publicly Plomer had only warm words for Blunden (see 6, 10b, and Plomer’s notes in BD180), but here his praise is undercut. Plomer believes Woolf ‘will be amused to hear’ that he is staying in the same hotel as Blunden. He finds Blunden ‘a careful scholar and a decent little man with good sense’, but his verse is ‘too much like The Blunden Mercury’ (see BD1), and Plomer does not share his ‘enthusiasms for village cricket and Leigh Hunt’. Still, Blunden has been ‘amiable’ to him, and so Plomer does not ‘want to cut his throat’ even if he and Blunden are ‘horses of different colours’.

2. 20 June 1927 (pp. 140-41). Plomer notes that he has been reading Hearn (D9), whom he finds ‘an intelligent, industrious & tender-hearted journalist’ with a ‘second-rate mind . . . neither wide enough, nor properly sharpened’. He was ‘one of the few writing outsiders who have had any comprehension of the Japanese character’, Plomer believes, but was ‘afraid of the future’. Two years later Plomer announces that he has no interest in being the ‘second Hearn’ others want him to be (3a), but here he seems up to the task: ‘[Hearn’s] future is my present’, he writes, ‘so I have a job to do’. The novel-in-progress mentioned in passing would be Sado (5). The letter accompanied Plomer’s submission to Woolf of the manuscript of Notes for Poems (2).

3. 14 December 1929 (p. 163). Less than a year after his return to England Plomer writes that he has been invited to return to Japan, to the chair of English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University. The salary is good, 900-1000 a year, more than he has ‘ever been offered or [is] ever likely to be offered again’, and the appointment would include ‘travelling expenses both ways and the chance to make an additional 200-300 without much effort’. As he would do again twenty years later with a similar offer, however, he declined. Oddly, both invitations would have been to replace a departing Blunden (see 40). According to Alexander, Plomer was invited to Japan in 1957 as well, as part of a ‘literary delegation’ sponsored by the British Council (40, p. 308), but again he declined. Van der Post writes of other, personal, invitations, from Mori (see 7 and 10a) and ‘the host of [Plomer’s] old pupils who remembered him with love’, but Plomer ‘would not heed’ them, and his ‘refusal to go back’ saddened Van der Post (38, pp. 336-37).

b. To Laurens Van der Post, 25 February 1927 (pp. 132-33). From his new lodgings at Kami Nerima (see 10b) Plomer writes to Van der Post of the Kikufuji. He ‘had a bad time there for various reasons’, chief among which were that he ‘was without friends, books, clothes, or money’. He had been ill between Christmas and the New Year and the cold had been ‘intense’. For evidence that the move to Kami Nerima had Plomer in better spirits about the coldest winter on record in Tokyo, see 2b.

c. To Rupert Hart-Davis, 28 February 1945 (pp. 246-47). Plomer takes a ‘black view’ of the ‘Japanese war’. He is ‘inclined to think’ that the Japanese ‘will have to be killed one by one’, though he hopes he is wrong. In 1989, according to Alexander, the letter remained in the possession of Rupert Hart-Davis.

d. To Benjamin Britten. The letters noted and others from Plomer to Britten are in the Britten-Pears Museum, Aldeburgh. In addition to those noted others quoted in Alexander include details of the preparation of Curlew River (18, see index). For notes about Britten’s letters to Plomer see 40.

1. 14 May 1956 (p. 300). The previous day Britten, just back from Japan, had written to Plomer of his enthusiasm for the country and, specifically, the nô. Plomer responds that ‘it is a very great pleasure’ for him, though ‘not . . . a surprise’, that Britten’s reaction had been ‘instant & strong’, and then comments about his own response to the country: ‘You see now how fortunate I was to be able to live there for a couple of years in my twenties. It struck me as a gong or bell is struck, & the vibration set up in me will last till I drop.’

2. 2 October 1958 (p. 301). Busy schedules from 1956 to 1958 had prevented Plomer and Britten from working as they would have liked on the planned adaptation of Sumidagawa (see 18), but in late 1958 the work began to take shape. Plomer notes here that his ‘mind begins to run on Sumida River’, and he discusses the use of Japanese personal and place-names in the libretto. At this stage, as is clear here and also in Britten’s letters to Plomer (see in 40), the plan was to retain the Japanese setting.

3. 21 October 1958 (p. 302). Plomer writes that he has progressed with the libretto, beginning with a rapid rewording of the Japanese original, and he has found the language ‘assuming great simplicity’.

4. 17 April 1959 (p. 303). In his letter to Plomer of 15 April, Britten had abruptly changed his idea about retaining the Japanese setting of the adaptation of Sumidagawa, fearing that the work would seem ‘a pastiche of a Noh play’, and suggesting that it should be transformed into a ‘Christian’ setting. Plomer is not surprised here that Britten has decided to ‘[set] fire to [their] kimono’, and agrees that the work with a Japanese setting would likely become a ‘pasticcio grosso’, but he finds ‘electrifying’ the thought of ‘transposing the story to Christian terms’. The letter proceeds, however, with insightful suggestions about how such a ‘transposition’ might be undertaken.



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