In January 1914, six poets drove from London to Sussex to eat an afternoon meal with a seventh, much older poet. Two of the six, W B Yeats and Ezra Pound, are among the truly great poets of the age, though at the time they were yet to write most of their major works. The other four are barely remembered today. The man they visited, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, has his place in history as a very colourful late Victorian: a Sussex landowner of literary inclinations who chose the active life and became known as an Arabist, anti-imperialist, bullfighter, horse-breeder and husband to Lord Byron’s granddaughter. He was also a seducer famous for his good looks – the sort of faintly absurd figure with whom Lytton Strachey could have played havoc in Eminent Victorians. As a poet, Blunt’s achievement now seems negligible, but the purpose of the meal was for the younger men to honour his work. The poets ate roast peacock and roast beef. Speeches were made and they drove back to London at around 5pm.
This may not seem like the most promising material for a scholarly book of just over two hundred pages. But for Lucy McDiarmid the ‘peacock dinner’ is the hinge on which hangs a story running across almost seventy years. It started in 1882, when