1893 - 1944
Robert Nichols (1893-1944) was the wartime author of Ardours and Endurances; Also, A Faun's Holiday and Poems & Phantasies, a collection of war poetry published in 1917.
Nichols, who struck up friendships with fellow war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke (the latter was killed in action in 1915), was a Winchester and Oxford-educated Georgian poet.
Nichols' First World War military service - which lasted from from 1914-16 - saw him participate in the Battle of Loos in 1915 in the role of artillery officer.
His front-line service was however brief - after just a few weeks serving in the trenches he was invalided home with shell shock; an illness which caused him to be sent home to England in 1916. Subsequently serving with the British Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Information, he went on to pen war poetry that he often read to large gatherings, which included tours of America.
Ardours and Endurances; Also, A Faun's Holiday & Poems & Phantasies, published in 1917, perhaps Nichols' best known collection, represented his attempt to paint a canvas of the war on an epic scale.
The name of Robert Nichols has its place on the memorial in Westminster Abbey to poets of the First World War, and his first collections, Invocation (1915) and Ardours and Endurances (1917), speaking directly to the mood of a nation in the throes of war, achieved real popular success.
He went on to produce three more volumes of poetry, four plays that reached the London stage, and two novels. But these works of his maturity have been out of print for fifty years and until recently there was no biography of him.
Now Anne and William Charlton have produced an authoritative study, Putting Poetry First: A Life of Robert Nichols 1893-1944. This is based on an extensive archive of unpublished papers and letters to and from him which had been preserved by the Nichols family.
It starts with his childhood in a literary and artistic household privileged socially but overshadowed by his mother’s mental ill health. Nichols was a rebel at school but at Oxford and in later life came to be on friendly terms with many of the best known writers, composers, artists and actors of his day.
Although his health was always poor he was accepted for the Field Artillery in September 1914. After a year’s training he reached the Western Front just before the Battle of Loos in September 1915. He was shell-shocked and the following year invalided out; and this gave him more time for writing and reflecting on the war than other poets who were either killed or kept in the trenches.
In 1918 he was sent to America as a kind of representative of British war poets and artists. The book shows that the end of the war was not the end either of Nichols’s creative work or of his adventures.
An affair with Nancy Cunard was the inspiration for his next book Aurelia (1920). He taught English Literature in Tokyo from 1921 to 1924, and took part in one of the most exciting periods in the development of the cinema in Hollywood from 1924 to 1926.
In 1928 his play Wings Over Europe, which foretold the splitting of the atom and the consequences that would follow, was a success in New York. In 1933-4 he was in Austria and Germany, and quotations from the long weekly letters he wrote to Henry Head, the neurologist under whose care he had been for shell-shock, give a graphic eye-witness account of the rise of Hitler.
As a result of chronic disorder both in his emotional and in his financial affairs, at the end of the 1930s he settled in France just in time to see the German occupation, and in June 1940 he was on the last ship to carry British refugees from the Cote d’Azur.
Finally the book describes his work as a writer, broadcaster and inventor in the Second World War down to his death in 1944 at the age of 51. His life had been a turbulent one with alternating moods of infectious elation and deep unhappiness and indecision; but this book shows that one thing remained constant, his determination to pursue his vocation as a poet.
He believed he was born to write poetry and for him that always came first.
Nichols died in 1944.