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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

XENIA by Eugenio Montale Translated Mario Petrucci (Arc Publications)

XENIA by Eugenio Montale Translated Mario Petrucci (Arc Publications)

Montale’s sequence of twenty-eight poems written in response to the death of his wife in 1963 has, naturally enough, been compared to the Poems of 1912-13 written by Hardy after the death of Emma. Regarding those earlier responses to profound loss Mario Petrucci suggests that the Italian poet thought that the section from Satires of Circumstance was “one of the summits of modern poetry”. The comparison is interesting and F.R. Leavis referred to it in some detail in his recognition of the “direct simplicity of personal feeling” relating the two poets. In his introduction to G. Singh’s translation of Montale’s New Poems Leavis went on to question this simplicity in terms of the impersonality of art:

“Now I think that great art is necessarily impersonal, and that the true creative impersonality is what we have in the poignancy, the profound movingness, of Xenia…For a major poet such as Montale is, poetry is one’s profoundest response to experience. The theme of Xenia is as central, important and moving as any human theme can be, and the reticence it requires of the poet is not a refusal to recognise the full nature of what, intimately for him as a sufferer, it in reality portends; but the contrary.”

Leavis discusses the central idea of how can an “actual pondered sense of irrevocable loss” be defined and communicated and the derivation of that word irrevocable pushes us forward to think of how a voice of a “Woman much missed” can “call to me”. Leavis is not alone of course in recognising the appropriateness of a connection between Hardy’s poems, subtitled as Veteris vestigia flammae, and Montale’s elegiac words for his little Mosca. But he is perhaps unusual in his awareness of what Donald Davie also noted about Hardy’s Victorian diction and the quality of those elegies to the memory of Emma that took the poet beyond the world of the technician, “the laureate of engineering”:

“…a direct simplicity of personal feeling certainly relates the two poets…Montale is immensely more subtle, more supple and more diverse than Hardy. The fact is apparent at once in the texture (hardly a felicitous metaphor – but what better is there?) and the nervous life of their verse. Hardy had to fight an unending battle against Victorian ‘poetic diction’, and the evidence of it is there in the handful of his major victories…Montale, on the other hand, is, as poetic ‘practitioner’ (to use Eliot’s favoured term), clearly a master of living – that is, today’s spoken – Italian.”

Hardy’s yearning to create a bridge between the Now and the Then, to give voice to the irrevocable, leads Leavis to “recognise that she [Emma] exists only as posited by the poet’s nostalgic intensity”: she is the woman with whom he was in love forty years ago. “But Mosca in Xenia is the highly individual woman apart from whom daily life was inconceivable until the catastrophe of her loss, and is almost inconceivable now”. Almost…and yet Montale’s achievement is to make her “so compellingly actual” in the “evoked day-to-day ordinariness”.
I possess no great facility with the Italian language and my reading of translations of Montale’s work is dependent upon my sense of trust in the way in which they present themselves. Let it be clear: I think that these new poems by Mario Petrucci are remarkable in the way that they capture a profound response to experience. The translator’s introduction makes it clear to us that he knows very well indeed what is involved in this subtle and complex work:

“The familiarities of a shared life are allowed to brim but never to spill over, as they might under less dextrous or more assertive hands, into sentimentality. Those details, things as things in themselves, contain the emotion.”

William Carlos Williams would have course have recognised the centrality of this awareness of the ordinary out of which our lives are composed and Petrucci highlights for us how “Around household bric-a-brac and household oddments – a telephone bill, old books, his (as he elsewhere puts it) totem of a rusty shoehorn – Montale constructs a humble reliquary of loss”. As a translator Mario Petrucci presents a firm method of approach:

“I should add that I skirted, initially, the Matterhorn of Montale commentaries, not wishing to commence Xenia in the boa grip of academic conclusions or with that pressing sense of an author’s sanctified objectives. This might seem cavalier, even heretical, with someone as elusive and allusive as Montale can be; but it paid the language, as well as the poet, a different sort of respect. It allowed a fresh and unencumbered approach, one that (for all its dangers) facilitated a certain freedom to express and reinterpret the spirit of the verse. I was able to come to textual insights in my own way rather than second-hand.”

I find this focus upon the translator as reader and literary critic admirable and the living quality of the result is there for all to see.

“At the Saint James, Paris, I’ll request
a single room. (No love lost there
for the uncoupled client). So, too,
in the mock Byzantium of your
Venetian hotel; then quick on the scent
of those friends of yours in their
switchboard hutch; only to start
again, my clockwork charge all spent,
with that longing to have you back if
only in some gesture, or knack.”

The power of Hardy’s Poems of 1912-13 is held in the architectural magnificence of a structure such as the opening stanza of ‘The Going’:

“Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here…”

And the musical yearning, the echo, is caught then with the rhyming “Where I could not follow / With wing of swallow” before the last line draws out as the vibrant ‘g’ sounds merge into open air:

“To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!”

Petrucci’s Montale attempts a more matter-of-fact record of loss:

“No glasses, nor antennae,
poor insect – such wings
you possessed only in fantasy –
a bible broken and much less
believable, this night-blackness,
a flash, a clap and then
no – not even the squall. Perhaps
you never left so soon without
speaking? Though it’s laughable
to consider you still had lips.”

For anything equivalent to Mario Petrucci’s Xenia we must turn perhaps to Simon Marsh’s STANZE (c.f. my review from 7/3/16) to read

“you promised me Dante after supper
the circumstances no longer exist
only changes in air scent
intensely captured light
page-bound radiance of individual days
when we last scooped vacant autumn oysters
from low tide silt at Minnis Bay”

And, as if to bring some wheel round full circle, I am delighted to announce Riccardo Duranti’s translations of Marsh’s poems into Italian, a versioni italiane, published by his own Coazinzola Press which has also just produced a beautifully presented version of John Berger’s Collected Poems available from http://www.coazinzolapress.it

As this moment of the year’s turning let us raise a glass not only to the fine poets, whose sensitivity to what they read and experience makes their publications so worthwhile, but also to their publishers such as Arc (www.arcpublications.co.uk) and Coazinzola.

Ian Brinton 30th December 2016

Jongleur in the Courtyard by Mandy Pannett (Indigo Dreams Publishing)

Jongleur in the Courtyard by Mandy Pannett (Indigo Dreams Publishing)

At some point last year after I had written a review-blog about a recently published book of verse about which I was not especially ecstatic I was accused by a friend of the author of being one of those critics who refer to other poets whilst ostensibly focusing upon the subject of the review. Guilty m’lud! And I intend to continue to do that. Perhaps it is part of the legacy I received from being at university in the era that followed on from the world of F.R. Leavis whose staple diet often consisted of placing a poem by one author side-by-side with a poem by another. For instance in the ‘Judgement and Analysis’ section of The Living Principle Leavis put a piece of A.E. Housman next to one by Edward Thomas and concluded that it is a difference in movement that most strikes the reader: ‘whereas Housman’s depends on our being taken up in a kind of lyrical intoxication that shall speed us on in exalted thoughtlessness, satisfied, as we pass, with the surface gleam of ostensible value, Edward Thomas’s invites pondering…and grows in significance as we ponder it’.

On the reverse side of Mandy Pannett’s new book of poems Roger Elkin alerts us to the musical quality of the work:

‘At the heart of the collection lies Mandy Pannett’s skill with sound—these, after all, are songs of the Jongleurs! The chimings of internal rhyme, and assonantal and alliterative sound patternings help to underpin the exquisite, sensitive and varied rhythmic pulse of the collection.’

Well, it was T.S. Eliot who wrote an essay in 1942 titled ‘The Music of Poetry’ and he made a point that must not be overlooked:

‘So, while poetry attempts to convey something beyond what can be conveyed in prose rhythms, it remains, all the same, one person talking to another; and this is just as true if you sing it, for singing is another way of talking.’

Jongleur in the Courtyard is a delightful volume, which brims with literary reference; erudite and careful, it also spills over with a very human voice that fulfils Eliot’s criteria. There are references to Keats, Hardy, Neruda, Kafka, Blake, Cynewulf and, of course, Eliot. The poet of ‘Preludes’ is re-created in ‘Six O’Clock’, a poem which also echoes the feline fogs of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. In Pannett’s modern take the fog is now ‘yellow as bile’ and it ‘thickens over a skyline / that’s low, industrial, hot; / red as Whitechapel blood.’
There is a very human voice thrilling down the ribs of these poems and an enviable sense of self-doubt reassures the reader that we can be in a position to share the doubts:

‘There is not an original bone in your frame—
only burlesque, pastiche
and lampoon.’

Perhaps to the reviewer one of the most disturbing and moving of the poems is ‘Some Woodworm’:

‘poor miserable atoms
choked with the fruits
of their soft plunderings

and wiped out
in all the darkness
that once
was chosen as home’.

But, for me, the more moving is the incorporation of a Middle English ballad into a genuine cry for love’s loss in ‘Raven, My Doom’:

‘I am weary of dreams
that offer reflection of my own self
but do not yield him back

though imagination
in these hours of sleep
may reel and spin in exquisite belief

that we might say
what we always intended to say
but never did.’

Ian Brinton 25th June 2015

Urban Pastorals by Clive Wilmer (Worple Press)

Urban Pastorals by Clive Wilmer (Worple Press)

When I heard Clive Wilmer read his Urban Pastorals last Monday evening in the Cambridge University Library I was moved. There was a quiet solemnity about the delivery but it was tinged with wistfulness and a gentle wry humour that had echoes of Alan Bennett talking of his Yorkshire childhood. Peter Carpenter’s Worple Press has published these short pieces of nostalgic insight into a childhood spent in the South London of Tooting Bec and I recommend everyone to get a copy. The Press is based at Achill Sound, 2b Dry Hill Road, Tonbridge, Kent TN9 1LX and is well-known for excellent productions (including volumes by Iain Sinclair).

When D.W. Harding wrote his seminal essay on nostalgia for the first issue of F.R. Leavis’s Quarterly Review, Scrutiny, in 1932 he referred to ‘simple homesickness’ being ‘an aspect of social life’ where the home that one yearns for ‘comprises the whole familiar framework—objects and institutions as well as people—within which one lives and in dealing with which one possesses established habits and sentiments.’ It is an established truth that no man is the author of himself and in moments of clarity, and humility, we can recognise how much we are the result of everything that has happened to us. This awareness is, of course, a far cry from some regressive tendencies that can be bound up within the world of nostalgia:

‘regressive because the ideal period seems to have been free from difficulties that have to be met in the present, and nostalgic because the difficulties of the present are seldom unrelated to the difficulty of living with an uncongenial group.’ (Harding)

Clive Wilmer’s beautifully poised writing never runs the danger of forfeiting its tone of recognition: the past’s importance is registered precisely because it is the past. Tooting Bec Common reappears before our eyes like some Proustian scene as the waters of time recede:

‘A boy playing on summer afternoons could forget that he did not live in a rural paradise. There were ponds and a boating lake and stretches of woodland, an Italian ice-cream cart and a swimming-pool. There were squirrels and songbirds, and you’d come home with sticklebacks in a jam-jar or a stag beetle in a matchbox.’

It was a time of hope: Clement Attlee, public drinking-fountains, Public Libraries, Socialist Ministers ‘whose lexicon was Morris and John Ruskin’ and who wanted ‘to build a paradise on earth’. When Clive Wilmer spoke about the background to this sequence of pieces he was clearly moved: the hopefulness of those years offered a glow just as the early ventures into the world of schooling centred around Miss Inkpen who ‘passed on her legacy’, a copy of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

‘She had already taught me to count and spell. That day, I held the English language in my hand.’

Clive Wilmer is a fine poet and I recall the short piece he wrote for the TLS in June 2007 when he referred to the world of translation. After pointing out that those who put themselves through the labour of learning a language deserve our respect and deference he made the central statement ‘but skill in languages is no guarantee of poetic accomplishment’. Urban Pastorals gives us the fruit of Miss Inkpen’s legacy as did the earlier volume from Worple Press, Stigmata. In the opening poem from that 2005 volume Wilmer’s lens of words clicks sharply and decisively:

‘A withered leaf that curls round its own form—
Though not resisting death, still on the tree,
Still of the world, simply by being there.’

‘Still’: time and quietness; a past reflected upon, mused upon; the light of Urban Pastorals when all that seemed to lie ahead is all that composes the now, the still, the still.

Ian Brinton 28th November 2014

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