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Edward Thomas: Prose Writings Volume V Edited by Francis O’Gorman (Oxford University Press)

Edward Thomas: Prose Writings Volume V  Edited by Francis O’Gorman  (Oxford University Press)

When I reviewed the first volume of O.U.P.’s ambitious project to produce six substantial volumes of the prose of Edward Thomas I remember being struck by the meticulous and engaging introduction by the editor Guy Cuthbertson. That review appeared in The English Association’s Journal The Use of English in the autumn of 2011. The same held true for the second volume edited by both Cuthbertson and his partner in the whole project, Lucy Newlyn. As I read through this fifth volume, edited by the Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh, the undoubted professionalism of the whole O.U.P. project becomes sparklingly clear.
In his prose work Timber, or Discoveries, Ben Jonson presented us with the way in which language reveals our identity:

“Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind. No glasse renders a mans forme, or likenesse, so true as his speech.”

In the introduction to this finely-crafted book containing not only Edward Thomas’s critical studies of Swinburne and Pater but also some of the reviews the poet wrote between 1904 and 1909, O’Gorman suggests that “A critic’s identity is always some part of what he or she presents as knowledge of someone else’s”. For Edward Thomas, a writer troubled with trying to get words exactly right so that he could present his readers with the shades of reality that constituted his thoughts “readings of Pater and Swinburne are peculiarly dense with the literary conundrums for which he was seeking an answer, the problems of his professional relationship with words, the troubles of making a living from language while not betraying it”. For O’Gorman these two book-length monographs on Oxford-educated poets “provide a broken narrative of an as-yet voiceless poet journeying towards himself.”
In a subsection of his introduction, the editor directs us to Chapter 8 of the book on Swinburne and makes a convincing case for the chapter’s distinctive qualities in terms of Thomas’s own progression from prose to poetry. He notes the intensity of Thomas’s absorption, “his detailed enumeration of the many turns of Swinburne’s language that figure a mystery”. He conjures up for us a picture of Thomas “entranced by a poet on the edge of theology; a poet handling what might loosely be described as unsolved or numinous ideas that avoid mere clarity and summon possibility without adjudication”:

“Thomas is drawn to Swinburne’s capacity to write in ways that suggest rather than inform. He calls attention to Swinburne’s ability to compose poetry that contains ideas but is not reducible to them. He describes the ineffable objects of Swinburne’s imagination.”

In this chapter Thomas mused on ways in which poetry was able to communicate differently than merely through the literal sense of words:

“His criticism points to an aspiration for poetry that trades in un-paraphrasable moments of understanding, luminosity, emotional poise, mystery, or even – to borrow the title of a book he never wrote – ecstasy.”

When we read Thomas’s poetry we recognise time and again that reach for some meaning that lies beyond the empirical, that concern for trying to catch, as F.R.Leavis expressed it in 1932, “some shy intuition on the edge of consciousness that would disappear if looked at directly”.
The sixty page introduction to these two important prose works of Thomas, both written in the two years leading up to the outbreak of war, relies upon imaginative use of manuscript material from the Thomas archives in order to present us with what amounts to a portrait of Thomas himself. Or, as O’Gorman puts it, “They are, in significant ways, versions of Thomas as he was and as he imagined he could have been. They are certainly versions of his literary problems, solved and unsolved”. Tracing this path of the poet’s life in which his acumen and honesty as a literary critic of considerable renown was brought to bear on two writers of substantial importance to the late nineteenth-century and the early years of the twentieth O’Gorman dwells intriguingly on Thomas’s early years as an Oxford student of History and the disappointment to himself of his second-class degree. We are directed to the seemingly easy judgement made by the poet’s widow in her biographical account of their lives, World Without End, as she refers to the birth of their first child:

“As was natural his work suffered a good deal during this last term, and it was no surprise to David [Edward], though a bitter disappointment to his father, when he got only a second-class degree.”

O’Gorman suggests that the use of the word “natural” is apt in one sense, after all the arrival a baby is bound to interrupt the study for Finals, but it is also a cagey one:

“Its sense of normality, of what is merely to be expected, throws into the shade the aftermath (perceived or real) of not taking a higher class of degree; of not having made the most of that last Trinity term; of not being free from the responsibilities of marriage and children. Behind that ‘as was natural’ is the sad history of a man who felt he had had to live unnaturally.”

I remember writing that review in 2011 after reading the first volume of this superbly presented series, ‘Autobiographies’, and commenting upon one of the central themes haunting the work of Edward Thomas: the inability to ever go back; the inaccessibility of a past which haunts and beckons whilst always being one step away from actualization. This new volume complements the two earlier publications and I wait with considerable anticipation for the next volume to appear.

Ian Brinton, 30th May 2017

Love’s by Lou Rowan (Oystercatcher Press)

Love’s by Lou Rowan (Oystercatcher Press)

In his 1640 publication of prose, Timber: or, Discoveries, Ben Jonson suggested that ‘Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind.’ It brought to the fore a sense that the words we use are an integral aspect of who we are: the language we use gives our audience a picture of what is lying hidden in our minds. I recall telling Year 7 pupils that no one can see inside your mind and that therefore language, moving like a shark’s fin carving its path through the waters, gives an indication to the observer of what lies beneath the surface, hidden. I am also old enough to remember that Penguin Modern Poets 10, The Mersey Scene, which appeared in 1967. It contained glimpses of the world made new by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Adrian Henri’s accumulation of one-line pictures of the new world of sexuality, nostalgia and urban isolation:

‘Love is feeling cold in the back of vans
Love is a fanclub with only two fans
Love is walking holding paintstained hands
Love is’

Lou Rowan’s merging of memory and desire, which has the effect of stirring dull roots with spring rain, is an altogether more serious affair than Adrian Henri’s and one which must be returned to time and again as the layers of meaning yield themselves to engaged reading. When Toby Olson wrote about Rowan’s Reality Street publication of stories, Alphabet of Love Serial, he referred to the ‘weave’ of stories, the ‘haunting sense of connection between them’ and the way that the ‘imagined emerges into autobiography’ presenting the reader with something ‘brand new, often wonderfully coming forth in their syntax and development…as if…writing in a new language.’ Perhaps those qualities hinted at above can be seen with increasing clarity in ‘Fights’, the opening poem of this new Oystercatcher:

‘won’t dim your eyes harden
your lips flatten my chin
or abort this spring

days will stretch and nights strain
there will be blood and sobs
I doubt we’ll die…

twined kittens,
I’ll lick your whiskers

so close we blur
eyes widen in the dark
tails twitching’

As the negatives of the first stanza, the denials, move towards the embracing gesture of expansiveness in line four there is a sharpening of focus which concludes with a wry smile. The closeness of the relationship in the last two stanzas has required language’s magnifying glass to focus upon a movement of particularities: twining and licking moves to widening and twitching.

The second poem in the collection, ‘Vain Letters’, with its double sense of both vanity and uselessness (these letters are in vain!) weaves the names Jocelyn, Ann and Rowan into a musical jamboree of ‘Jas, roc, an’ simfanny’. A later piece of lyrical effusion concerning the closeness of love offers us something far beyond that world of Adrian Henri’s distant twist of ironic lips. The fourth stanza of Henri’s ‘Love Is…’ dwells upon loss, regret and a sweet sense of nostalgia:

‘Love is white panties lying all forlorn
Love is a pink nightdress still slightly warm
Love is when you have to leave at dawn
Love is’

Lou Rowan’s poem opens with a greater sense of clarity and thought:

‘I can’t want
to know where I begin or
you don’t end

soft and smooth you lie back
flesh rising to me at each breath
hips solid like sea-clams
dream-limits to my desire’ [.]

This is a poetry where the personal and the public entwine as they might have done in late sixteenth-century songs or sonnets and it comes as no surprise to read the metaphysical idea which opens one page

‘a line is formed by two planes or
it’s a set of points connecting two points
the most directly

there have to be laws
so each touch engenders
a sheaf of lines right there
lines joining feeling longing knowing wanting
and each sheaf
set awhirl
bouquets of grasses and stems
at each touch
the atom kernel whole point or crux [.]

These are thoughtful and playful poems: a delight to the mind.

Ian Brinton 13th March 2016

Homage to Charles Tomlinson

Homage to Charles Tomlinson

I

Winter Encounters

House and hollow; village and valley-side:
The ceaseless pairings, the interchange
In which the properties are constant
Resumes its winter starkness. The hedges’ barbs
Are bared. Lengthened shadows
Intersecting, the fields seem parcelled smaller
As if by hedgerow within hedgerow. Meshed
Into neighbourhood by such shifting ties,
The house reposes, squarely upon its acre
Yet with softened angles, the responsive stone
Changeful beneath the changing light:
There is a riding-forth, a voyage impending
In this ruffled air, where all moves
Towards encounter. Inanimate or human,
The distinction fails in these brisk exchanges—
Say, merely, that the roof greets the cloud,
Or by the wall, sheltering its knot of talkers,
Encounter enacts itself in the conversation
On customary subjects, where the mind
May lean at ease, weighing the prospect
Of another’s presence. Rain
And the probability of rain, tares
And their progress through a field of wheat—
These, though of moment in themselves,
Serve rather to articulate the sense
That having met, one meets with more
Than the words can witness. One feels behind
Into the intensity that bodies through them
Calmness within the wind, the warmth in cold.

The ‘encounters’ here are a mixture of the permanent and the transient and are perhaps best captured by the phrase ‘shifting ties’. Ties are those connections we feel towards each other as well as the way one thing is linked by complement to another. The solidity of ‘House’ is tied with the vaguer and more echoing ‘hollow’ and the human group of habitations in ‘village’ is tied with the landscape of ‘valley-side’. The way everything is linked together in this poem is held by the pairing of one thing with another and although the ‘properties are constant’ the way the pairing is perceived is dependent upon the fluctuating and shifting quality of light and season. The tie of one thing to another is seen as a parcelling and a meshing, itself a criss-cross weave of connections. At the heart of the poem there is a steady permanence with the phrase ‘The house reposes’. That reliable permanence of peaceful existence is delightfully caught by the relaxed meaning of repose and is given a solidity of structure by the geometrical presence of ‘squarely upon its acre’ and yet even this solidity is shown as dissoluble by the effect of ‘the changing light’ and one is aware that all the landscape is moving ‘towards encounter’. Distinctions fail because of course they don’t remain static and the ever-shifting encounters register life moving. However, even in this world of movement there are those reliable certainties which allow the mind to ‘lean at ease’ and one becomes aware of the attractive repetitive conversation between farmers as to the likelihood of rain, of the effects of tares growing wild in the field of wheat. ‘Calmness’ taking up from ‘repose’ has a settled strength which throughout the poetry of Charles Tomlinson becomes a matter of expressing a dearly held set of moral values, a code of mutual dependencies between man and his landscape which owe something to that measured world of urbane generosity which one comes across in Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ or ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’.

Ian Brinton, 24th August 2015

It Looks Like An Island But Sails Away by Ralph Hawkins (Shearsman Books)

It Looks Like An Island But Sails Away by Ralph Hawkins (Shearsman Books)

On the back of this deliciously fast-moving collection of poems by Ralph Hawkins there is a quotation from Peter Riley’s 2005 review of a previous Shearsman Books collection of his work, The Moon, The Chief hairdresser (Highlights):

Hawkins is a very literary poet, very aware of the written artefact as something with a long history and a mass of material accrued to it, and determined to re-invent the whole thing.

That review also contains the phrase about Hawkins’s ‘dazzingly virtuosic performance’, a quality that is also fully evident in this new book.
Two literary echoes came to my ears when I read this book: Ben Jonson and Sir Thomas Wyatt. Jonson’s Epigramme CXVIII is titled ‘On Gut’

Gut eates all day, and lechers all the night,
So all his meate he tasteth over, twise:
And, striving so to double his delight,
He makes himselfe a thorough-fare of vice.
Thus, in his belly, can he change a sin,
Lust it comes out, that gluttony went in.

Ralph Hawkins opens this new Shearsman with ‘Gut’:

Down in the tubes like corridors of blood he lived. His name was Gut and
his body had many rooms.

To the right was the Giant’s room and his name was Git. Is Git a short giant? If Git and Gut have children it will be a miracle as they don’t eat together. This would be a gustatorium. A windy palace of gables and false starts. Huge butterflies hung from Eve.

The dry and mischievous humour here is witty. As readers we move from the London Underground to the well-known joke about the difference between a penis that is flaccid and then erect. The word ‘gustatorium’ blows us towards those Tennysonian plains of Troy and ‘false starts’ take us back to the mordant humour of Jonson who could see himself as the lover who has gone beyond his sell-by date in ‘A Celebration of CHARIS in ten Lyrick Peeces’ or whose ‘Picture’ left in Scotland reveals ‘My mountaine belly, and my rockie face.’

John Muckle referred to Hawkins’s poems as a ‘version of New York school poetics’ and highlighted his ‘light-fingered touch’ where the very phrase suggests the snapper up of unconsidered trifles. ‘Since in a net I seek to hold the wind’ is a collage to live with:

a siskin and then a bunting
two killers in a red circle
the cop (un flic) knows everyone, is bad

I am not a catholic but it rains
Jean-Pierre holds his Stetson in a January wind

they rip buds and pick nuts

the (stolen) diamonds are stuffed into a holdall

you are my angel in the wind
noli me tangere
you restoreth my soul

four pills and a tube of ointment
is all it takes

Wyatt…taken from Petrarch…all diamonds are stolen and a poem is a fine ‘holdall’.

Ian Brinton 10th June 2015

The English Pub and Poets

I have just enjoyed a literary meal at my local pub, where the landlord is fond of his ale, women and poetry. It is good to share a pint with him and chew the fat. He will drop in a line of poetry and look at me for verification. I smile back as I am hopeless at attributing some of the most famous lines! It links us though to an important literary and cultural tradition. One that poets have needed and used going back to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and John Donne at the Mermaid Tavern. It is a great tradition. Dylan Thomas, Norman Cameron and George Barker wrote poems in the pubs of Fitzrovia. George Orwell drafted essays in pubs and saw their role in defining Englishness. Louis MacNeice and Roy Campbell famously came to blows in a pub as have other living poets that I shall not name. A few nights before he died, Barry MacSweeney told me of a poem that he drafted in the late 1970s in a Canterbury pub with H.R. Keating and John Arlott after watching a county cricket match. He was going to send the poem but never did. Sadly, pubs are closing at an alarming rate thanks to cheap alcohol in supermarkets and other factors. Poets and writers need pubs and community. There are always stories to be heard and told. Support your local and not the likes of Tesco. Raise a toast to your landlord and read him a poem. It will do you both good! Long may we support our local pubs and keep the tradition alive.

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