Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Poetic Artifice, subtitled ‘A theory of twentieth-century poetry’, was published by Manchester University Press in 1978 and I bought my copy from a remaindered book-sale of University Press publications which was taking place at Austick’s in Leeds in May 1983. I seem to recall that I paid 50 pence for it. Nowadays I gather that copies of this hard-back first edition of what transpired to be a remarkable book are on sale for £60 and above. Thank goodness for Tony Frazer and Shearsman Books that can bring back into a public eye such a provocative and interesting survey of twentieth-century poetry at a price that is not prohibitive! And thank goodness for the expertise and dedication of Gareth Farmer who has edited this new edition of Poetic Artifice.
Farmer’s research-work on Forrest-Thomson, ‘Poetic Artifice and the Struggle with Forms’, contains one of the most clear and direct introductions to her world:
‘Throughout Poetic Artifice, Forrest-Thomson implies that the poem contains within itself a codified intent which it is a reader’s passive duty to identify. Her position is perhaps derived from the structuralist argument of Riffaterre who proposes the text’s self-sufficiency whereby, “the mythology we need for the text is entirely encoded in the words of text”. A reader need look no further than, as Riffaterre neatly puts it, the “necessary […] verbal artefacts” of the poem’s structure. In illustrating what she means by the function of the image-complex, for example, Forrest-Thomson describes the activity of interpreting the Shakespearean metaphor, “Out, out brief candle, / life’s but a walking shadow”. As she argues, a reader understands by the context of the passage that only certain features of candle are relevant (not that it’s waxy, but that it’s finite and frail). However, she also stresses that “the level of coherence” is “established by the lines” and that this “tells us that only certain features of empirical candles are relevant to the passage.”’
This statement concerning the ‘certain features’ of a candle in one of the most well-known of quotations from Macbeth appears in Forrest-Thomson’s own Preface to that 1978 M.U.P. edition of Poetic Artifice and, as Farmer points out, it illustrates what the author would later describe as the ‘latent intentionality of poetic language’.
Gareth Farmer opens this long overdue and most welcome republication of Forrest-Thomson’s theoretical stance in an engaging manner. He quotes from ‘an intriguing letter’ written by Forrest-Thomson to Paul Buck in July 1972 in which she says that she is in the middle of writing a book ‘centred on William Empson but very post-structuralist orientated, a sort of ars poetica…’. He then provides us with a very precise contextual picture: black-ink calligraphic handwriting, Forrest-Thomson’s typewriter on her desk in Flat 5, 17 West Road Cambridge, an audacious challenge to the claims of another poetic and critical Cambridge voice, that of William Empson. As Farmer puts it, ‘This 1972 letter affords us a window into a Cambridge literary world of the early 1970s’ and he provides us with a context within which to read this stimulating and energetic engagement with the art of reading poetry:
‘Poetic Artifice and Forrest-Thomson’s other writings from this time are useful historical documents registering shifts in literary-critical terminology, the type of questions being brought to bear on literary texts, as well as the role and function of language.’
Gareth Farmer’s serious academic interest in the work of Veronica Forrest-Thomson was evident when he edited some previously unpublished prose in Chicago Review 56 in the autumn of 2011. ‘His True Penelope Was Flaubert: Ezra Pound and Nineteenth-Century Poetry’ is a ‘condensed’ version of the project Forrest-Thomson was working on after Poetic Artifice. Those essays which Farmer edited in 2011 exist only in single versions and are clearly drafts of her application of poetic theory to nineteenth-century verse, something to which she alluded in the third chapter of Poetic Artifice:
‘One might say, in fact, that both the poetry Pound recognised, such as the Cantos, and the poetry he repudiated, such as early Canzoni, are relevant to our situation today. This matter must wait for another book, though, which will concern Pound, the ’Nineties, and the great fictionalisers, Tennyson, Swinburne, Rossetti, who lie behind them.’
In referring to the tracking down of some of Forrest-Thomson’s unreferenced quotations in her work Gareth Farmer again arouses our interest and intriguingly directs us to the Dame Ninette de Valois epigraph to the book’s second chapter:
‘I knew from talking to Jonathan Culler that Forrest-Thomson had been fascinated by ballet when they had met and had been attending classes in Cambridge. I had attributed this to the influence of Mallarmé and Baudelaire, but the concentration on form, perfection and mastery in the quotation also belies her restless pursuit and fetish of pure form. Indeed, the presence of the balletic body in Forrest-Thomson’s theory and work is a demonstration of both perfection and imperfection—the notion of pure and controlled form occurs at the same time as the presence of an irreconcilable body, gangly, impure, imperfect and never able to attain the perfection to which it strives. The ballet dancer reaching for perfect form, striving to control the unwilling and ever-impure contours of the body, is a figure which describes Forrest-Thomson’s own struggling aesthetics.’
The conclusion to Gareth Farmer’s major editorial work reflects not only the pleasure of having discovered the above aspect of Forrest-Thomson’s ‘ever-engaging and surprising’ critical focus but also contains an invitation to others ‘to find more and to let me know.’ Congratulations to the Farmer-Frazer partnership!
Ian Brinton 17th November 2016