Nathan Percy Graham portrait
Percy Graham, 1920,
a posthumous portrait
by Estella Graham

The Graham Family

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Nathan Percy Graham – 'Percy'
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by Benjamin Ifor Evans, 1920

NATHAN PERCY GRAHAM was born in London on August 30th, 1895. He entered the Classical side of the City of London School in 1907, and remained there 'til the summer of 1914. It was characteristic of his versatility that he obtained first the Sir William Tite Scholarship in Classics, which he declined, and then the John Travers Scholarship in Science with which he proceeded in October 1914 to University College, London, and where he joined the Faculty of Engineering.

Early in 1915 he joined the Officers' Training Corps, and later in the year obtained a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He went to France with his battery in August 1916 and was present at the Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele and Messines. At this last place he sustained shell-shock and went into hospital at St. Omer. He was later removed to the Denmark Hill Hospital and after two months' convalescence at Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, was invalided out of the army in December 1917. But he never recovered – his health had been permanently undermined.

Graham left the army a changed man, his whole mental and spiritual outlook completely transformed by the experiences through which he had passed.

In March 1918 he re-entered the Engineering Faculty at University College and immediately threw himself with all his energy into the work of reorganising the student life.

Within a few weeks he was elected Editor of the Union Magazine and brought to that journal at once more seriousness and more wit. His own contributions were a solid background to the literary matter he so successfully introduced. The poem Piccadilly Circus illustrates adequately the tone and thought he maintained, while a more ephemeral revue of topical matters, Hullo Ukrainia, buries with its lost illusions a large amount of too transient humour. His success as an Editor induced his fellow students to elect him President of the Dramatic society. The result was a production of Prunella, executed with taste and vigour. He was now among the best-known figures in the life of the college and when the Union Society, a mere wraith of its pre-war solidity, sought again a student President it was to Graham that it turned. He organised again with quietness and tact, and built up once more those pleasant undergraguate groups which had meant so much to students in the sunny pre-war days. He became Treasurer too of a newly-formed Socialist Socity. He was attracted to this movement more as an idealist than as a politician – more by the Republic of Plato than by Das Kapital of Marx. He became interested too in local politics and was elected Propaganda secretary of the Stoke Newington Labour Party. He followed Socialism and Labour, together with so many of his young contemporaries, not as a creed or a party, but because it seemed that the Vision of Truth had led him here, though not to rest.

Percy (sitting right) and engineering colleagues c.1914 or 1918-20

Graham did not allow his political and other activities to interfere with his reading. He was not only familiar with the chief English and Classical authors, but his amazing energy made it possible for him to read widely in modern French, German, Italian and Spanish, whilst the catholicity of his taste is sufficiently illustrated by the fact that at the time of his death he had made some progress in both ancient Egyptian and modern Welsh! I was during his college career too that he wrote ,ost of his shorter poems.

In the meantime, in June 1919, he had obtained an Honours B.Sc. Degree in Engineering and after a few months' private study he passed the intermediate Examination in the Faculty of Arts.

In April 1920 he took up the post in as engineer Bolton, Lancashire. He found the work and the atmosphere uncongenial and he formed the intention of abandoning engineering, for which he had never cared, and of settling in some quiet cathedral city where he could devote himself entirely to literature. But death overtook him before he could carry it into effect. He succumbed to an attack of heart failure on June 20th, 1920.

Percy (circled) and colleagues at University College, London, c.1914 or 1918-20
(Click photo to enlarge)

Graham was among that heroic generation which went into the war because it believed that the principle of Freedom was at stake. He lived long enough to realise that the simple faith which inspired men in 1914 was never to be realised. The sight of youth's sacrifice becoming but a counter of the political game stirred in him a strain of iconoclasm foreign to his real nature.

"After all," he wrote, "the Latin trado means I betray as often as it means I hand down." Passionately he dedicated himself to the cause of Youth, for Youth alone could regenarate the world.

He found a newer, harder faith in no recognised creed, nor in any established church. During the last few months before his death he worked at a long poem, Phaethon. His belief and thought are seen there remodelling themselves, through sorrow and passion and the heavy experience of many things, into an organic, a creative faith that Truth must be discovered by each man in the travail of his own soul.

"No man's religion," he wrote, "can be complete 'til he dies. The duty of a father or a teacher is not to pump in creeds or faiths but to plough and fertilise the soil in which growing consciousness can sow its own seeds." It was not a belief in any materialist conception of history, but a desire to make man free for spiritual progress that made Graham a socialist. He desired to emancipate men from the economic servitudes which prevented them from giving full play to their creative energies; he desired to break down the barriers which stood between men and their vision.

In Phæthon he has reached a vision of life not unlike that of Shelley in his Italian period. He is still sensitive to the cruelty and pain which wreaths Life in its embrace, but he sees standing out magnificently clear some one, unchangeable purpose. He writes:

Oh God, or poesy, or great ideals
Oh, they are one – this mighty trinity.
One bond of life above three diverse seals,
One stream through different springs!

And if it should be false – the God, the poesy and the ideals, the fear sweeps over him for a moment – life would still be worthwhile, the dream would in itself suffice:-

Dream on – and thou,
Thou meek handmaiden pale and timorous,
Poor Poesy! dear Poesy! Tho' brief
My feeble flight, tho' week my wings unfurled
Across the rainbow sky, tho' death await
And darkness be my meed, oh aid me now.

He felt, as did Shelley, that men were following the transitory, worthless things, and that the Spirit of Life was left solitary and neglected:-

If but the music of the songs I sing,
If but the fragrance of the flowers I wind
Into a heavenly coronal, can bring
The vision of my God, so long a wraith
Unseen by tributary minds.

He closes his envoi to Phæthon with a recapitulation of his poetic faith:-

If but the dreams I dream, and thro' the skies
Send earthwards, clothed in majesty of song
Unwound from the magic weaving of thy lute
Oh Poesy, should wake a chord along
The world's wide resonance, that hearts now mute
May seize some wandering tremor from its sound
And organ-like, give back an answering note
If but in stagnant souls and visions bound

With bonds accurs
èd and with vows immote
To one fixed image, graven of spiritual stone
Some wandering thread of song at last should seek
And with a godlike instinct find the throne
Of God who is within.

Phæthon is an intensely subjective poem, as unintelligible in itself as Shelley's Alastor, yet although he speaks here of himself and his beliefs, the portrait is not complete. Phæthon, a serious philosophic poem, gave no scope for that gentle sense of humour which lightened his thought and made his company so evenly pleasant to his friends. He delighted in words themselves, to trick and play with them, and some of his puns would have made even an Elizabethan blush. It is thus perhaps that he should be remembered, sad with much that he has seen, strong in faith which demands Life and not Rest, quiet as in thought, but with his whole being ready to catch every glance of a smile. He saw the Ideal and dedicated to it a splendid loyalty, and in its service his ardent spirit flamed itself away.


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Nathan Percy Graham – 'Percy'
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by Benjamin Ifor Evans, 1920