I first came across the poetry of Charles Tomlinson in 1970 when I was studying English in Cambridge at Gonville and Caius. My supervisor, J.H. Prynne, gave me a copy of ‘At Holwell Farm’ to write about as an exercise in Practical Criticism and I was immediately struck by a tone of measured quietness that I recognised as belonging, in my own mind, with the poems of Edward Thomas that I had studied for A level eighteen months earlier. In the way coincidences work, seeming sometimes to offer a haunting sense of woven tapestry, my English teacher at Sevenoaks had been a St Dunstan’s pupil just after the war. I was to learn some years later that my supervisor at Caius was also a St Dunstan’s product who had dedicated his first book of poems, Force of Circumstance, to his teacher there, Basil Harvey. I suppose that some of my liking for the Thomas poems also came from my living at the top of the hill overlooking Sevenoaks Weald where Thomas had lived in Else’s Farm in the early years of the twentieth century. But it was the tone of quietness which spoke to me most nearly.
‘It is a quality of air, a temperate sharpness
Causes an autumn fire to burn compact,
To cast from a shapely and unrifted core
Its steady brightness.’
Prynne pointed out the quotation in that first line and I recall hurrying back to my digs to look up the letter Keats had sent to J.H. Reynolds on 21st September 1819 from Winchester. After all, I had the two-volume Hyder Rollins letters which had been on the reading list Prynne had sent out to prospective undergraduates:
How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.
The ‘composition’, of course, was titled ‘To Autumn’. Tomlinson’s image of the fire, presumably of leaves and weeds, struck another chord with me because it brought back the number of times I had helped my father rake together fallen leaves in Autumn before pulling them all together and lighting the slow-burning, smouldering, fire. That was in Keston, not very far away from the first school I attended which was run by Muriel Prynne, the mother of the teacher who introduced me to Holwell Farm!
Prynne’s first collection of poems contained ‘Before Urbino’ which opened with lines that were clearly written after reading Tomlinson:
‘House next to house; tree next to tree; a wall
Tokens a winding road. The air across
The distant slope is palpable with light,
A clarid flood of silence.’
On December 24th 2002 Tomlinson wrote me a card:
‘Prynne’s use of the word ‘clarid’ makes me think he had been reading Stokes as well as CT. I see there is at last a new edition of Adrian Stokes Stones of Rimini, a marvellous book on limestone & sculpture CT was also reading long ago. Details in TLS last week—plus news that CT has won the New Criterion Poetry Prize, N. York.’
In May 1961 Prynne had indeed written to Tomlinson about Stokes and I referred to this in some detail in my article published in Salt 2 six years ago, ‘Prynne in Prospect’:
‘Immediacy for Stokes is the simultaneous apprehension of a two-dimensional surface in space: this seems to me to be his primary concern. Elements of recession and protuberance, texture and contrast, are allowed to articulate our awareness, but not to violate its separateness and lucidity. Music and the dimension of succession generally is an arrière-pensée, draining the impact of this confrontation by insisting on the context of a linear dimension through time. Stokes manages in spite of this arbitrary self-impoverishment (he has lost, after all, effective use of two out of four dimensions), both to see with accuracy and to feel the full emotional relevance of what we see—the Cortile d’Onore at Urbino (seen almost completely through his eyes) was an extraordinary experience, and one in which I felt a full deployment of my entire capacities for response.’
Ian Brinton August 28th 2015