Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Sonnet To R.C. Lehmann

A Sonnet to R.C. Lehmann,
the Poet Laureate of Rowing

Hail you, the ‘Poet Laureate of Rowing’!
Your pen gave us quick, beautiful light verse
Of an old oar, oarsmen, and crews swinging;
Dear Father Thames was your soul’s universe.

Your name was not on any Henley cup,
You followed crews from both Isis and Cam;
And coaching Crimsons to get the blade up
- the old English style was on the programme.

Listen to the cox’n’s cry: “Let her go!”
Then to move the boat with a ‘happy slide’,
To do the catch without a splash, to row
And feel her smoothly on the water glide.

Rudie, are you from heaven’s distant shore,
Still searching, gazing for that ‘Perfect Oar’?

Rudolph Chambers – known as ‘R.C.’ or Rudie – Lehmann (3 January 1856 – 22 January 1929) was a poet, man of letters, humourist, oarsman, rowing coach, and sat in the Commons as a Liberal MP from 1906 to 1910. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was the president of the Union Society in 1876. Although a keen rower, he never made it to the Cambridge Blue boat. Lehmann rowed at Henley Royal Regatta in several races from 1877 to 1888, and has the noteworthy record of finishing last in every heat he participated in. In spring 1889, he began editing the undergraduates’ magazine Granta, and had his first piece published in Punch in the winter that year. Four months later, he was hired by the magazine to be on the editorial staff. His writings appeared in Punch until 1919.

Lehmann was the finishing coach for either Oxford or Cambridge during 1891-1903 (for both in 1892!). He also coached Leander Club, Trinity College, Dublin, Berlin Ruderklub, and Harvard University. Lehmann arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts in November 1896 to coach Harvard, who at the time was in despair. He returned to England for Christmas, but came back to the US in the spring of 1897. In June that year, he was awarded an honorary degree at Harvard. In December, Teddy Roosevelt gave a dinner in Washington in honour of Rudie Lehmann’s services for rowing in England and the US. Lehmann also coached Harvard the next season, in 1898, and in September, he married Alice Mary Davis in Worcester, Massachusetts. Miss Davis was 24 years old, and Rudie was 42. They had four children, Helen, Rosamond, the novelist, Beatrix, the actress, and John, who also became a famous man of letters. Rudie Lehmann is still remembered today for his two books on rowing, Rowing (1897) and The Complete Oarsman (1908); his little pamphlet Tubbing (1882) is today impossible to get hold of. Among his most well-known light verse on rowing are “The Oarsman’s Farewell to his Oar”, “A Trinity Boating Song”, “Style and the Oar”, and “The Perfect Oar”.

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