His Master's Verse; Noel Coward Hated Pretension and Pomposity - and Punctured Both with His Witty, Playful Poems; POETRY

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BY Barry Day (Methuen [pounds sterling]30 [pounds sterling]25)

THE name Noel Coward conjures up instant images of silk dressing gowns, Riviera patios, cocktails and laughter. His plays and films -- Hay Fever, Private Lives, Blithe Spirit among them -- are sophisticated and brittle, light and seemingly perishable.

But along with the wit and the small talk, there are, as Coward's leading lady Gertrude Lawrence sagely observed, 'other thoughts going on behind' -- to do with love, marriage, fidelity, loyalty and vanity. Who can fail to be moved by the repressed and unspoken churning emotions in Brief Encounter?

Coward's dialogue was always crisp, precise, economic -- and the camp exaggeration was allied with an undeniable stiff-upper-lip Englishness.

Hence, Coward's ability to give an immaculate performance as Captain Kinross in the classic wartime picture, In Which We Serve. Coward wrote the script and co-directed with David Lean.

All these qualities, from playfulness to patriotism, are on display in The Complete Verse Of Noel Coward, admirably edited by Barry Day, who has tracked down unpublished fragments of His Master's Voice from postcards, telegrams and correspondence.

'Verse' is the correct word, too, for none of this is poetry as such. There are no Keatsian rhapsodies; there is no Shakespearian sonneteering. What Coward possessed was a 'compulsion to make rhymes' -- and the keynote of this indispensable book is fun.

Barry Day reminds us Coward was raised in lower middle-class Teddington -- suburbia remained 'a context he instinctively understood'.

He was born at the end of the Victorian era 'and brought up as a typical Edwardian' -- so not for him the modishness of Modernism.

'There's nothing more old-fashioned than being up-to-date,' he once announced.

COWARD said it was hard to take Picasso seriously if all you can see is 'a square lady with three breasts and a guitar up her crotch'. Another of Coward's targets was Edith Sitwell, who he called Hernia Whittlebot. Osbert Sitwell was Gob Whittlebot and Sacheverell Sitwell was Sago Whittlebot.

Coward took immense pains to satirise their 'affected and probably bogus poetry', printing pamphlets of elaborate Whittlebotiana.

Here are a few gems: 'Rain, rain, pebbles and pain/ Trickle and truckle and do it again'; or 'Griberty, Grap/ Voberty, Viberty/ Drib, Drob.'

Edith Sitwell was so offended she didn't speak to Coward for 40 years. Then she converted to Catholicism, acquired a forgiving nature and invited him to tea in Hampstead. They got on famously after that.

Other poetical pseudonyms Coward invented -- the better to conduct his one-man private battles against pompousness and pretension -- were Crispin Pither, Albrecht Drausler and Jane Southerby Danks. …