Friday, March 14, 2014

St. John Lucas Pogson in Hell

I posted the Ernest Bramah story "While You Wait" several days ago.  A magazine employee named Pogson was mentioned in passing at the end of the story.  And then today, by an odd coincidence, I ran across a story by the poet and writer St. John Lucas (1879-1934) featuring a man named Pogson.

Judging by his poetry, St. John Lucas was something of a free spirit as a young man; but perhaps an overheated sensibility was expected of Edwardian poets.  Here are two short poems from his 1904 collection Poems.  [Note: nenuphars are water lilies.  Like this one:

It appears that Mr. Lucas had to sweat to find a word with the right rhythm that rhymed with "stars."]


Not mine the tacit vigil of the stars
Watching unmoved the passion and sleep of men;
I am the vagabond fire that haunts the fen,
The wraith that skims the reeds and nenuphars.

I mimic no unswerving sun that sails
From dawn's dim port to evening's purple shore,
But I must whirl and wander evermore,
Like a torn leaf adrift in angry gales.


The world is pleasant, I admit;
The frownless sky, the flashing sea,
And children's faces in the street
Once seemed the flower of life to me.

Yet since you left me, I behold
With dull contempt the pomp of June;
The best-loved songs are stale and old,
And all the winds are out of tune.

And in this waste of sun and song
Alone, disconsolate, I stray,
Like a deaf mute who threads a throng
Of lovers keeping holiday.

I ran across a laudatory review of St. John Lucas' 1911 short story collection Saints, Sinners, and the Usual People in Punch magazine.  Unfortunately, only about a dozen copies of the book are currently available in the WorldCat world-wide library network.  The chance of borrowing a copy is nil.  However, I found a long excerpt of a story — the coincidental Pogson story — in a New Zealand newspaper.  The theology is faulty, but the psychology is ingenious. 
From the New Zealand Herald, Volume XLVIII, Issue 14786, 30 December 1911, p. 4:

Under the title of "Saints, Sinners, and the Usual People" (Blackwood, Edinburgh), St. John Lucas gives a collection of generally amusing and always acceptable short stories, which are altogether above the usual standard.   In the "Three Grotesques" we learn how Pogson died and was buried, and found himself in hell:

He was immensely relieved to find that it greatly resembled London, especially that part of London where he had lived.  There were the same long rows of prim, flat-faced houses with their front gates and their tradesmen's entrances and their obese stucco flower-pots; an odour that recalled innumerable Sunday dinners arose from their areas, and the steady clank of a thousand pianos came from their drawing rooms.  The streets were full of motors and fierce errand-boys on bicycles, and men in tall hats and women with painted faces.  Dismembered carcases hung in the open windows of the butchers' shops; over-driven horses fell down and died; gusts of fetid air arose from underground railways; in fact, it was all delightfully homely.  The soul of Pogson revived; he rubbed his ghostly hands together.  'Why, it's just like the world!' he cried; 'it is the world — no difference at all.'

'No,' said the devil, 'it is the same environment in which you have always lived.  You will find an admirable house, reserved for you, resembling your own in London; a wife like your wife; an office in every respect identical with your office in the city. You may continue your earthly work here, and you may lunch at an aerated bread shop.  You may even meet friends like your friends on earth.

'But this is very pleasant!' cried Pogson. 'When one thinks how frightened one was of hell!  Everything, then, is exactly the same as in the world!'

The devil looked at him for a moment, and smiled slightly.  'One thing,' he said, 'is not quite the same.'

'Oh! one thing doesn't matter, said Pogson airily. 'What is it?'

'Your own soul,' answered the devil.  

Pogson stared at him.  'What do you mean?' demanded Pogson.  He felt completely master of the situation.  'Please explain yourself,' he added curtly; 'I have a great dislike of mystery."

'This is what I mean,' answered the devil.  'Your life here will be the same in every detail as your life on earth.  You will marry money, grow fat, and be dreadfully respectable. There will be only one difference.  You will have the kind of soul which might have been yours in the world: the soul of a poet, a dreamer, adventurer, full of ideals, of mighty schemes, of thrilling fantasies and yearnings, of immense lusts for beauty and freedom. But you will not be free, Mr. Pogson. You will never be free.'

The devil took off his hat to Pogson.  Then he hailed a motor omnibus and drove away on the top of it, smiling.  And even then Pogson felt that what the devil had said was the truth, for the new soul that was born in him struggled and quivered, and loathed the motor omnibuses and the fat reek of domestic altars and the level lines of respectable residences that extended interminably, and cried aloud for limitless plains where the air was clean, for passion, for great adventure and the shock of armies, and mighty dawns seen from the edge of the world.  And Pogson told his soul to be quiet, but it would not obey him.

Then Pogson knew that he was in hell.

P. G. Wodehouse selected another of Lucas's stories "Expeditus" from Saints, Sinners, and the Usual People for his 1934 anthology A Century of Humor.  Here is Wodehouse's introduction and the first three paragraphs, to give something of the flavor of the piece.

St. John Lucas is a barrister by profession, but his chief interests have always been literary.  During the war he was attached to the staff of the British Military Mission to Italy, a country which he knows well and which provides the setting for this entertaining tale of an abbess and a saint.


Concerning the fatness of abbesses, ecclesiastical history has much to tell us,and legend has been busy with the same theme.  Tertullian, in his melancholy treatise De Jejuniis, has a terrible description of the anguish endured by a saintly female of Philadelphia, whose girth was too great to permit her to pass the door of heaven until St. Peter rolled back his sleeves and tugged her in as he would have hauled an overweighted net at Galilee; the learned and severe Aldhelm devotes a page of his De Laudibus Virginitatis to the peculiar temptations that beset or are caused by plump persons, with examples that are unquotable; and the strange case of the prioress of the Tor de' Specchi oblates, who flew into a passion and stamped on the floor, which straightway opened (either by act of God or because she was of prodigious bulk) and admitted her with great rapidity to the cellar, is well known to the wise.

That her fall was broken and her death averted by the body of the cellarer, who had observed the feast of St. Martin of Tours by eating the greater part of a goose and drinking much crude wine, has afforded argument to many jolly schoolmen and sophisticated topers, from the grand Rabelais to the long-winded Redi; and it is rumoured that the curious and erudite author of The Path to Rome has written a monograph on the affair.  It were, indeed, a nice theme for the speculative, whether fatness in woman has not some eternal co-relation with holiness.

Instances to the contrary are not lacking, such as the wives of some Methodists and Calvinistic men, who are commonly gaunt and bleak, and a certain notable fat nun of Caen, who of pure malice and devilry did immure the present writer for the space of two hours in a nasty and filthy subterranean cell, whither he had descended to gaze on an antique sarcophagus.


  1. Late on the scene, but the book is available to read here:;view=1up;seq=7

    1. Many thanks! I acquired a ragged used copy of Saints, Sinners, and the Usual People. But its musty smell worried me, so keep it zipped up in a plastic freezer bag. It's far more convenient (and more hygienic) to read the book on Hathi Trust.