Brentwood school uncovers works penned by teenage schoolmates in its sixth-form literary society
A poem written by a 17-year-old Douglas Adams, in which the Hitchhiker's Guide author manages to successfully pull off rhyming "futile" with "mute, while", and "exhausted" with "of course did", has been discovered in a cupboard at his old school.
Archivist Stacey Harmer was digging through piles of documents at Brentwood school last week when she came across a series of books featuring poems written as part of the initiation to the upper-sixth's literary society, Candlesticks. Noting that the poems, written between 1950 and 1983, spanned the period during which Adams attended the school, she managed to track down the late author's effort.
Written in January 1970, when Adams would have been 17, the poem is entitled "A Dissertation on the task of writing a poem on a candle and an account of some of the difficulties thereto pertaining", and stretches to two pages. "For nights I sat musing / And musing ... and musing / Whilst burning the midnight oil; / My scratchings seemed futile / My muse seemed quite mute, while / My work proved to be barren toil," writes the schoolboy who would go on to become one of the UK's most loved authors. "I puzzled and thought and wrestled and fought / 'Till my midnight oil was exhausted, / So I furthered my writing by dim candle lighting, / And found, to my joy, this of course did / The trick."
Tragedy lies ahead for the poet, however: "That which had ignited my literary passion, / Was about to ignite what my passion had fashion'd," he mourns. "And - oh! - all was lost in a great conflagration / And I just sat there and said 'Hell and damnation'."
Harmer said that the long-running Candlesticks society would only allow pupils to join if they wrote, and read aloud, a poem on the subject of a candle, which was then found to be sufficiently good by current members of the literary group. "The school at the time had various different cliques or societies," she said. "At Candlesticks, which admitted only a select few, they would get together and read plays. In order to join you had to write a poem on the theme of a candle, and read it aloud, and if they liked it you were allowed in."
Adams's attempt was "deemed good enough", she said, describing the author's entry as "a really good poem - quite witty".
Harmer also uncovered a poem by Adams's fellow pupil Griff Rhys Jones, "The Candle (A Lament)", in which the comedian writes regretfully of how "There was a time when Candle Light / Was pristine, pure and clean and bright", but how now, "Oh! Awful sight! / We turn to cold electric light."
"Candlesticks was a group of boys who would come together and read plays, that was the point," Rhys Jones told local paper the Brentwood Gazette, admitting he had quite forgotten his own poem.
"There were only around 10 of us but we rather considered ourselves quite clever boys. Douglas was at the preparatory as well and even as a junior schoolboy he was given a lot of stars for his creative writing, he always used to talk about that," said Rhys Jones.
Adams died in May 2001, aged 49, leaving behind him works including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Fans mark his passing every year with the international Towel Day, when they carry towels in honour of the Hitchhiker's Guide's assertion that the item is "about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have".
"A Dissertation on the task of writing a poem on a candle and an account of some of the difficulties thereto pertaining"
by Douglas Adams, January 1970
I resisted temptation for this declamation
To reach out to literary height
For high aspiration in such an oration
Would seem quite remarkably trite:
So I thought something pithy and succinct and clever
Was exactly the right thing to write.
For nights I sat musing
And musing ... and musing
Whilst burning the midnight oil;
My scratchings seemed futile
My muse seemed quite mute, while
My work proved to be barren toil.
I puzzled and thought and wrestled and fought
'Till my midnight oil was exhausted,
So I furthered my writing by dim candle lighting,
And found, to my joy, this of course did
The trick, for I flowered,
My work - candle-powered –
Was inspired, both witty and slick.
Pithy and polished, my writing demolished
Much paper, as I beguiled
Myself with some punning,
(My word play was stunning,)
I wrote with the wit of a Wilde.
At length it was finished, the candle diminished,
I pondered and let my pride burn
At the great acclamation, the standing ovation
Its first public reading would earn.
But lost in the rapture of anticipation
And thinking how great was my brilliant creation
I quite failed to note as I gazed into space
That incendiary things were about to take place:
That which had ignited my literary passion,
Was about to ignite what my passion had fashion'd.
And - oh! - all was lost in a great conflagration
And I just sat there and said 'Hell and damnation',
For the rest of the night and the following day.
(My muse in the meantime had flitted away
Alarmed, no doubt, at the ornamentation
My language acquired with increased consternation.
So unhaply the fruits of my priceless endeavour
Are lost to the literary world forever.
For now I offer this poem instead,
Which explains in itself why the other's unsaid.