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First published in 1930 and now reissued by Penguin Classics, Poet’s Pub tells the story of an Oxford poet named Saturday Keith and the lively cast of characters who stays at the pub he runs in Downish, England.
As the novel begins, Keith’s fledgling literary career has suffered a severe setback. Reviews of his second book of poems, the unfortunately titled February Filldyke, range from condescending to dismissive. This negative reaction is very much at odds with Keith’s own estimation of his work and his pride is deeply wounded. Despondent, he heads off on a hundredmile walk at the end of which he is quite unexpectedly offered the chance to run the Downy Pelican, a pub owned by Lady Cotton, the mother of his novelist friend Quentin. He welcomes the opportunity to step away from the harsh light of literary scrutiny and the chance to become a good landlord. “For malt does more than Milton can / to justify the ways of God to man,” he says aloud to mark the occasion (p. 11).
The Downy Pelican quickly gains notoriety as the “Poet’s Pub” and soon fills with a lively and eccentric cast of characters, not all of whom are who they claim to be. Chief among them are the supercilious Professor Benbow and his beautiful daughter Joan, with whom Saturday falls in love; the redhaired vixen of a maid, Nelly Bly, who casts a spell over Quentin; Mr. Wesson, a rather unconvincing book collector; the irritable literary critic Sigismund Tefler, who despises Keith’s poetry; the American entrepreneur Mr. van Buren, who has developed a potentially lucrative and highly secret technology for extracting oil from the earth; and the bartender Holly, who is likewise guarding an important invention: a blue cocktail.
Eric Linklater shines a gentle but nevertheless piercing satirical light on each of these characters, and once they start interacting with one another, the plots thicken in delightfully outlandish ways. Passion, possible espionage, multiple deceptions, secrets kept and stolen, towering poetic ambition, and a hilarious car chase through the English countryside carry the reader along to a very satisfying conclusion.
A wonderfully fluid story itself, in many ways the novel is about the act of storytelling. Several of the main characters are writers (Saturday, Quentin, Nelly, and Sigismund) but nearly all of them are storytellers of one kind or another participating in imaginative selfperformance and selfinvention. Author Eric Linklater exhibits brilliant humor, a gift for quick and vivid characterization, and an ability to satirize his characters’ foibles without reducing them to stereotypes. From a failed poet’s dream of glory to an American businessman’s dreams of wealth to an aspiring novelist’s desperate attempts to find material to a barman’s puffedup pride, Poet’s Pub gives us the whole range of the human comedy.
Eric Linklater was a Scottish writer born in Penarth, Wales, on March 8, 1899. Although Linklater initially studied medicine, he later became interested in journalism. Much of his writing is based on his experience in the military and his extensive world travels. During World War I, he served as a sniper with a Scottish infantry regiment and after suffering a severe head injury he was hospitalized for several months. In the 1930s he became a fulltime writer, publishing novels, poetry, short fiction, satires, travel pieces, children’s books, war histories, and two volumes of autobiography. The satirical Juan in America examines the catastrophe that was Prohibition, while Private Angelo humorously recounts the postwar reorganization in Italy. His children’s novel The Wind on the Moon was awarded the Carnegie Medal. Poet’s Pub was adapted into a British comedy film in 1949.
- In what ways is it appropriate that Poet’s Pub begins with Saturday Keith waking from a dream about a menacing literary critic in the form of a centaur?
- Professor Benbow tells his daughter Joan: “I’ve taught you to recognize mealymouthing as one of the signs of bad writing. . . . I’ve taught you to be suspicious of girls’ school enthusiasm for pureminded, thinlipped, ladylike editions of the great authors” (p. 20). He proclaims that literature ought to be an adventure. In what ways does Poet’s Pub avoid being pureminded and mealy mouthed? In what ways is it an adventure?
- Why does Saturday Keith leap at the chance to manage the Downy Pelican? What appeals to him about running a pub?
- Poet’s Pub is a delightfully comicat times almost farcicalnovel. What are some of the most humorous moments in the book? What makes them so funny?
- Quentin says he wants to write a new kind of novel that treats events realistically. “Say what people actually did and felt, manage your story so as to give form to the events and relate them with proper regard for a climaxuse art, that isand you’ll get something with all the glamour that the romantic reader wants, and yet preserve the truth that more exacting critics demand” (p. 79). Does Poet’s Pub itself conform to Quentin’s conception of what a novel should do? Does it satisfy both the romantic reader and the exacting critic? Do other novels immediately come to mind that meet this criteria?
- What conditions does Professor Benbow impose on Saturday before granting his blessing to the young poet’s marriage proposal to Joan? What are his reasons for this demand? How does it complicate the plot of the novel?
- Lady Keith loves “just looking at things,” especially birds. “What shambling twilight horrors we human beings appear in comparison with birds!” she exclaims (p. 233). What virtues does she see in birds that she finds lacking in human beings? In what ways do some of the characters in Poet’s Pub behave like “shambling twilight horrors”?
- George, one of the servants at the Pelican, remarks of Saturday Keith, “An’ fancy a man like the guv’nor writing poetry. . . . A big upstanding fellow with all ’is wits about him, an’ strong as an ox, an’ as nice an’ simple to talk to as any one of us. . . . An’ yet ’e goes an’ writes poetry.” To which Maria replies, “It’s something people can’t ’elp. Like being seasick” (p. 97). In what ways does the novel poke fun not only at Saturday, but at poets and writers in general?
- In what ways does Poet’s Pub satirize the pretensions of the Giggleswade Literary Society, as well as the irritability of literary critics like by Sigismund Telfer?
- Do Linklater’s satirical barbs seem goodnatured or meanspirited? How does he regard his characters?
- What makes the car chase scenein which Wesson and Joan are pursued by Saturday and Quentin, by Nelly Bly, and by Professor Benbow and Hollyso hilarious?
- After apprehending Mr. Wesson, Saturday tells Joan, “He’s a sportsman in his own way. Do you know, he never complained about being shot at. He seemed to take it as quite an ordinary occurrence.” To which Joan replies, “Of course. He’s an American” (p. 205). What other satirical shots does Eric Linklater fire at America and Americans in the novel?
- What are the most unexpected turns in Poet’s Pub? What makes these turns so surprising?
- Nelly Bly thinks that “acting a story was much more amusing than writing one” and wonders “why so many people did write stories when, if they had only a scrap of initiative, it was so diverting to make them real” (p. 112). In what ways is Poet’s Pub about the act of storytelling, both on paper and in life? Who are the novel’s most convincing storytellers?
- The conclusion of Poet’s Pub is intriguingly openended. What do you think will happen with Saturday’s poem? Will he get it back? Will it be wellreceived? Will Saturday and Joan get married? Will Quentin find Nelly Bly again?