Celebrating Humbert Wolfe

5th June 2015

News, Student news, Alumni news

A bust of the distinguished poet, civil servant and Wadham scholar Humbert Wolfe CB CBE FRSL (1885 – 1940) was generously presented to College this week.

  • The bust of Humbert Wolfe CB CBE FRSL (1885 – 1940)

    The bust of Humbert Wolfe CB CBE FRSL (1885 – 1940)

  • Inscription on the bust

  • Inscription on the bust

    Inscription on the bust

  • The bust with a copy of the 1931 painting of Wolfe by his friend Sir William Rothenstein

    The bust with a copy of the 1931 painting of Wolfe by his friend Sir William Rothenstein

Award-winning sculptor Anthony Padgett (Wolfe’s great, great nephew) presented the gift to College in the presence of the Warden, Ken Macdonald QC and Fellow and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Personnel and Equality), Dr Stephen Goss.

Padgett has cast five different sculpture heads to reflect the five main areas of Wolfe’s life and work. “Most people would have just one bust but Wolfe lived so many lives, each with great intensity and productivity, that it seemed appropriate to have one associated with each life”, he said.

Padgett’s sculpture of Wolfe was cold-cast in bronze, silver, gold, marble and granite, each going to key cities associated with his life and works; Bradford, Oxford, London and New York. Padgett has also edited and published a collection of quotations from Wolfe’s works - The 5 Heads of Humbert Wolfe

2015 is the 75th anniversary of Wolfe’s death and the 135th anniversary of his birth.

Humbert Wolfe was a best-selling poet in the 1920s and 30s and published over 40 books of his own poetry and prose, 10 books of literary criticism, and numerous anthologies and literary translations.

In 1931 he became a Fellow of Royal Society of Literature and was one of the favourites to become the Poet Laureate against Rudyard Kipling, Edith Sitwell, W.B.Yeats and others. His work was put in the same anthologies as Siegfried Sassoon, P.G. Woodhouse, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare and G.K.Chesterton,

In 1938 Humbert was appointed Deputy Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and he was responsible for equipping the country’s labour force for war. On the outbreak of the Second World War Wolfe was one of those responsible for drawing up a list of writers who could better serve as propagandists than in the British Army. Humbert Wolfe died in 1940 without, as Philip Bagguley notes in his biography, receiving the knighthood that was confidently predicted for him.

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to.

Humbert Wolfe

  • Award-winning sculptor Anthony Padgett

    Award-winning sculptor Anthony Padgett

Biography of Humbert Wolfe

Wolfe was a pupil at Bradford Grammar School, then Wadham College Oxford where he gained a 1st, then rose to a high position in the Civil Service at Whitehall, with the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Labour. Wolfe made a significant contribution to the war effort as controller of labour regulation in the Ministry of Munitions during World War One, became CBE in 1918 and CB in 1925 and also became the British representative on the International Labour Organisation. From 1935-40 he was also the 1st president of the Society of Civil Service Authors.

In 1938 Wolfe was appointed Deputy Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and he was responsible for equipping the country’s labour force for war. On the outbreak of the Second World War Wolfe was one of those responsible for drawing up a list of writers who could better serve as propagandists than in the British Army. Humbert Wolfe died in 1940 without, as Philip Bagguley notes in his preface to his biography “Harlequin in Whitehall”(1997), receiving the knighthood that was confidently predicted for him.

Wolfe began publishing poetry in the 1920s to great acclaim. His poems, in particular  “Requiem: The Soldier” (1916), are read at Remembrance Sunday events and the first half of this poem was the epigraph to “Captain Corelli's Mandolin” by Louis de Bernieres. Wolfe's verses were also set to music by a number of composers, including Gustav Holst in his 12 Humbert Wolfe Settings, Op. 48 (1929).

In 1931 he became a Fellow of Royal Society of Literature and was one of the favourites to become the Poet Laureateship against Rudyard Kipling, Edith Sitwell, W.B.Yeats and others. His work was put in the same anthologies as Siegfried Sassoon, P.G. Woodhouse, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, and  G.K.Chesterton.

Biography by Philip Bagguley

Wolfe, Humbert  [formerly Umberto Wolff]  (1885-1940), poet and civil servant, was born of Jewish parents in the via Fatebenefratelli, Milan, on 5 January 1885. He was the younger son and third of the five children of Martin Wolff (1845-1894), of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and his wife, Consola (1859-1926), daughter of Vita (Haim) and Orsola Terracini of Genoa. That same year Martin Wolff became a partner in a Bradford wool business, obtaining British nationality with his children in 1891. Umberto was educated at Bradford grammar school, and became a scholar of Wadham College, Oxford, where he obtained a second class in classical moderations (1905) and a first class in literae humaniores (1907).

In 1908 Wolff entered the Board of Trade as senior clerk in the harbour department, where his speed and brilliance of mind caught the attention of William (later Lord) Beveridge who in 1912 enticed him into the newly created department of labour exchanges and unemployment insurance. With the outbreak of war he became secretary to the munitions of war committee, and from 1915 to 1918 was controller of labour regulation in the newly formed Ministry of Munitions, serving under Lloyd George (whose favour he briefly enjoyed and mysteriously lost) and subsequently under Winston Churchill. According to the 'Introduction' to the History of the Ministry of Munitions, Wolfe's account in Labour Supply and Regulation (1923) '[has] not been superseded'  (Hazlehurst, 9). His nationality was called into question when he was appointed CBE in 1918 for his contribution to the war, described later by Lord Beveridge as 'of first-rate importance’ (The Times, 9 Jan 1940). Churchill loyally, but erroneously, tried to demonstrate that Wolff's father was a citizen of Schleswig-Holstein; Wolff chose this moment to change his name to Humbert Wolfe.

After the armistice Wolfe reverted to employment exchanges, incorporated in the new Ministry of Labour. From 1920, as head of the general department and a principal assistant secretary, he was responsible for international labour questions. Until 1931 he was a regular member of the British Empire delegation to meetings of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, where his eloquence, his skill as a negotiator in explosive situations, and his witty interventions in French and English earned him respect and often affection. But he never achieved his ambition of becoming secretary-general of the League of Nations or director of the ILO. At home he strove to humanize labour exchanges, and to bring able men and (preferably attractive) women from varied backgrounds into the administrative class of the ministry. He was appointed CB in 1925. In 1931 Wolfe became director of services and establishments in the ministry, and from 1934 until 1938 he headed the department of employment and training, where his methods proved so effective that other ministries copied them and often turned to his department to fill critical vacancies. In March 1938 he was appointed deputy secretary to the ministry.

Wolfe's wisdom and experience were invaluable, his energy and commitment boundless, in identifying and largely resolving the problems of manpower and the needs of home defence raised by the threat of impending war. High blood pressure, advanced arteriosclerosis, and sheer exhaustion took their toll, as he knew they would, and he died at his home, 75 Eccleston Square, London, on his birthday, 5 January 1940. The funeral took place on 11 January at St Martin-in-the-Fields. His grave, marked only by a hawthorn tree at his own request, is in Kensal Green cemetery.

Wolfe was baptized into the Church of England in 1908, and married on 29 March 1910 his childhood sweetheart, Jessie Chalmers Graham (1883-1956), elder daughter of Joseph Chalmers Graham, rector of the Knox Institute, Haddington, East Lothian. They had one daughter, Ann. After his long-standing love affair with the successful young novelist Pamela Frankau  (1908-1967), Wolfe and his wife were legally separated in 1938.

Wolfe's was a many-sided, even chameleon-like personality. Ambition coupled with a superabundance of nervous and intellectual energy enabled him to pursue with equal ardour a career, a lively social life, and the writing, production, and editing in the space of twenty years of more than forty books of verse and prose, in addition to innumerable reviews in newspapers and periodicals.

Wolfe's many voices-ironic, lyrical, satirical, romantic-displayed his mastery of poetic technique. Though the core of his writing was autobiographical, his compulsion to simultaneous self-revelation and concealment found expression in the use of the third person in the prose accounts of his early childhood, Now a Stranger (1933), and of his Oxford days, The Upward Anguish (1938). In the chronological sequence of prose sketches, Portraits by Inference (1934), and his travel stories, P.L.M. (1936), Wolfe plays the observer in the wings but effectively occupies centre stage. A number of poetic works were indirectly or covertly autobiographical: Humoresque (1926), a harlequinade about lost love, a theme taken up and developed in the dramatic fantasy Reverie of Policeman (1933) and the unpublished verse play 'The Publicist' (1927), in which the writer, both author and character, comes to terms with his own tangled life; and The Uncelestial City (1930), a dying judge's review of his past, which borrows heavily from Wolfe's own life.

Exclusively satirical writings were News of the Devil (1926), which pilloried Fleet Street, Don J. Ewan (1937), in which an American newspaper magnate scourged the modern world in Byronic stanzas, and the slighter volumes Lampoons (1925), ABC of the Theatre (1932), Stings and Wings (1935), and Truffle Eater (1933), an anti-Nazi pastiche of Struwwelpeter.

Volumes of occasional verse included London Sonnets (1920), Shylock Reasons with Mr. Chesterton (1920), The Unknown Goddess (1925), This Blind Rose (1928), Snow (1931), and Out of Great Tribulation (1939). Some had a central theme, as in the sonnet sequence The Fourth of August (1935), and notably the winners and losers in Requiem (1927) and the re-enactment of Christ's passion under Nazi tyranny in X at Oberammergau (1935). Wolfe's daughter was the focus and inspiration for Kensington Gardens (1924), Cursory Rhymes (1926), Kensington Gardens in War-Time (1940), and the cautionary tales of Circular Saws (1923).

Wolfe wrote as critic and interpreter in Dialogues and Monologues (1928), Notes on English Verse Satire (1929), Tennyson (1930), George Moore (1931), Signpost to Poetry (1931), Romantic and Unromantic Poetry (1933), and Ronsard and French Romantic Poetry (1934). His translations ranged from the Greek anthology-Others Abide (1928) and Homage to Meleager (1930)-to Portrait of Heine (1930), Edmond Fleg's Wall of Weeping (1929), Ronsard's Sonnets Pour Helene (1934), Cyrano de Bergerac (1937), and a version of a romantic comedy by Eugene Heltai, The Silent Knight (1937).

He edited a number of collections and anthologies: Augustan Books of English Poetry (1926-7), A Winter Miscellany (1930), The Pilgrim's Way (1936), Personalities (1936)-selections from A. A. Baumann-and wrote introductions to other editions: The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick (1928), Selected Poems by Swinburne (1928), and The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1933).

Requiem made Wolfe famous, and his verse remained popular despite attacks from the critics, but his posthumous eclipse thanks to the war and changing literary fashion was undeserved. While he consistently and unashamedly proclaimed his faith in beauty, goodness, and the power of poetry to transform the world, at the heart of his genius lay a satiric stance, and the ability to sum up an event or a person in a pungent phrase or a couplet, and in this he bears comparison with Herrick, Dryden, and Pope as much as with Heine.


Sources  P. Bagguley, Harlequin in Whitehall (1997) + The Times (6 Jan 1940) + The Times (9 Jan 1940) + The Times (12 Jan 1940) + The Times (28 March 1940) + private information (2004) + Lord Beveridge, Power and influence (1953) + C. Hazlehurst, Introduction to the history of the ministry of munitions, HMSO (1976) + S. J. Kunitz and H. Haycraft, eds., Twentieth century authors: a biographical dictionary of modern literature (1942) + CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1940) Archives Bradford grammar school, contributions to the school magazine and MSS juvenilia + NYPL, Berg collection + U. Nott., Hallward Library, The Bagguley Bequest, typescripts + U. Nott. L., letters received; literary papers and corresp. + Wadham College, Oxford, literary MSS and unpublished material | BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 63351 + BLPES, letters to Sir William Beveridge + U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Thomas Moult + U. Reading, letters to Bodley Head Ltd, MS 2606 + U. Reading, corresp. with Jonathan Cape Ltd SOUND BBC WAC Likenesses  W. Shackleton, drawing, 1924, Bradford City Art Gallery · O. Lazar, sketch, 1927, repro. in Bagguley, Harlequin · I. Opffner, chalk drawing, 1930, NPG · W. Rothenstein, pastel drawing, 1931, priv. coll. · H. Coster, photographs, 1934, NPG · BON, cartoon, repro. in Heraldo de Madrid (1925) · D. Low, pencil caricature, NPG; repro. in Evening Standard (28 April 1930) · W. Rothenstein, two sanguine drawings, NPG · photographs, International Labour Office, Geneva, archives Wealth at death  £4989 16s.: probate, 20 March 1940, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · under £300: further grant, 8 April 1940, CGPLA Eng. & Wales