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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

In Memoriam: Charles Tomlinson

In Memoriam: Charles Tomlinson

III

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

Sabots by John James (Oystercatcher Press)

Sabots by John James (Oystercatcher Press)

When Peter Hughes wrote to me last month to say that there was a new John James chapbook on the cards he intimated that it was ‘very unusual’ and was to be titled Clogs, ‘Pastoral dialogues from the deep south (of France)’. My reaction was one of keen anticipation on account of considering the Equipage volume from last year, Songs in Midwinter For Franco, one of the most important and moving sequences of poems I had read in a long, long time. I recall reviewing that volume for Shearsman on-line magazine and saying that what moved me was contained in the absence of the self-regarding nature that can act as an intrusive shadow looming over poems of loss. In those ‘Songs’ (for Franco Beltrametti who had been published alongside John James by the Tim Longville, John Riley & Gordon Jackson enterprise Grosseteste Books) there were references to a culture of reading and recalling as well as comments on the necessary sharp eye of the wine grower who looks out for a ‘bud break yet to come’. When I read Sabots for the first time this morning I was not in any way disappointed in my great expectations.
The opening dialogue between Peadar and Alphonse, both resident wine growers on the land of South West France, confirms that steady voice that John James has acquired over years of poem-making:

‘ah bon I don’t begrudge you in fact I marvel
at your calm in the face of our abjection it
besets us all this fear of fear & discontent
& there was I gathering in my grapes each year
till the Mairie dropped me with their flood defence
oh I sometimes think I should have seen it coming
but was too entranced perhaps by the reverie
induced by days of pleasure working in that field’

Reading these lines I was prompted to look up a book which I have admired since its first appearance in 1979 from the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, John Berger’s Pig Earth, the first of three books with the overall title INTO THEIR LABOURS. In the final chapter Berger points to the survival of peasant communities:

‘Peasant life is a life committed completely to survival. Perhaps this is the only characteristic fully shared by peasants everywhere. Their implements, their crops, their earth, their masters may be different, but whether they labour within a capitalist society, a feudal one, or others which cannot be so easily defined, whether they grow rice in Java, wheat in Scandinavia, or maize in South America, whatever the differences of climate, religion and social history, the peasantry everywhere can be defined as a class of survivors.’

Within James’s dialogue Alphonse says

‘I thought in my youthful ignorance everyone
was like my parents bitches bore their tiny pups
kids grew up to be such dams but now a monster
grows to enormous size & threatens all of us.’

The pun on ‘dams’ is hallmark John James. As also is the convincing sense of the here-and-now, the immediate moment caught as it passes, as Alphonse confirms not only that ‘sooner will the hind graze on the air or barbel / lie on the bare stones of the beaches of the Orb / than I’d allow my steadfast gaze give up this place’. Looking back on that earlier review I had written I notice that I referred to a poem from James’s Dreaming Flesh (Street Editions 1991), ‘The Conversation’:

‘Threading its careful path through these poems is a meticulous concern for a palpable ‘now’, an attention to detail that echoes an earlier poem, ‘The Conversation’, in which the importance of Jeremy Prynne’s leafing through pages of a book ‘gave some new sense of strengthening regard for common things.’’

Section two of this sequence, allows historical and geographical presences of this land to speak and ‘Les Randonneurs’ trace a path through what changes in the unchanging. The wines of ‘Les Grillères’ for instance mutter

‘who lives here now as that spy George Borrow might say
the house & barns & spread of land all up for sale
the crumbling old stone wall is broken by sweet bay
some leaves for a civet to perfume the cheval’

Or, of course, ‘good apothecary’ to ‘sweeten my imagination’!

The third and final section is spoken by John Le Poireau as he, Alphonse and Peadar take up the final lines of Alphonse’s comment in Section One:

‘& we still have our strength & the power to walk
tomorrow let’s call on John Le Poireau & hike
three together on the trail to Pech Saint Vincent’

As if echoing the enduring world of Edward Thomas’s agricultural world when faced with the distant wars of northern France in 1916 the ‘leek-man’ says

‘La Tramontane will crumble the broken clods as we stumble
on the rising ground Le Marin will ruin the bread & weaken the vines
but this year we’ll beat the weedy grasses & the tares
not let them hamper our shins in passage through the ranks
let the moist soil cleave to our boot soles’

Sabots is an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and ‘targets’. It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!

Ian Brinton 17th August 2015.

Nerve Cells by Colin Winborn (Knives, Forks, Spoons Press)

Nerve Cells by Colin Winborn (Knives, Forks, Spoons Press)

Some fifteen years ago, in Tears 42, Colin Winborn wrote an intriguing piece comparing lines by the metaphysical poet John Donne with lines from the lyrics of the Kentucky-born singer-songwriter Will Oldham:

‘…Donne reaches for a transcendent fusion of spirit and flesh, rising above the laity, [whilst] Oldham presses back to earth, refusing transcendence’.

The contrast suggested here came back to my mind when I started looking at Nerve Cells, published in 2012 by the wide-ranging and central small poetry press, Knives Forks and Spoons. There is an account of this press of course, written by Juha Virtanen in Tears 59 and I have included an update in the Afterword for the forthcoming Tears 61.

The movement mentioned by Colin Winborn is caught exquisitely in one of the opening poems of this substantial volume. A poem which clearly takes a Brueghel painting of hunters returning in the snow as its starting point opens with the lines

‘The hunters
returning see themselves
in faint silhouette, woodsmoke
curling inwardly’

The playing with light and self-awareness conjures up a moment from Dante’s Paradiso and that ‘quïete in foco vivo’ is taken up again by Winborn in the carefully cadenced piece ‘Edward Thomas’:

‘that dusky
brightness that child
crying for the bird of
the snow’

*

He paused
by the clearing
watched as the cold
rain unquoted

The delicacy of movement taking shadow beneath the watcher in the clearing notes the shift from a feathery lightness to a cold quota of the more tangible. With an echo of Robert Grosseteste writing about how light of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of any size whatsoever and confirming the Lincoln theologian’s attitude concerning light being the corporeity of form we read here

‘A thought divides
itself, multiplies

the world: Let
there be lights!’

Further comments upon this remarkable collection will appear in my forthcoming book about Dulwich College Poets since 1950. After all, the College was fortunate enough to have Colin Winborn on its staff in the first decade of the present century.

Ian Brinton 16th February 2015

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