Marilyn Hacker’s comment on the back of this collection of poems prompted me to look beyond the acute precision of Janet Montefiore’s record of a Cambridge childhood. She suggests that these sonnets shape
‘with astonishing economy, childhood and adolescent memories into a narrative of literary apprenticeship, limning a place, a time, a kind of life now disappearing, as vividly as any novelist.’
Sonnet XI, ‘EASTER GARDENS’ closes with a moment of parentally organised magic. Having started with the three children ‘looking for flowers to make the Easter garden’ Janet Montefiore closes the poem with an empty tomb:
‘Last, from our gravel
path we took stones to build a little cell
closed by a larger flint Mummy would move
that night, putting inside a piece of fabric
to be Christ’s white shroud folded in the tomb.’
Well, almost empty! The body has gone but the shell remains; childhood moves to adolescence but the whiteness of a sheet of paper records the sense of what was there, the outline, ‘limning a place’. When towards the end of Antonia White’s Frost in May Nanda Grey is warned by her father of her imminent move from Lippington Catholic School ‘She was overwhelmed…Even now, in the shock of the revelation of her dependence, she did not realise how thoroughly Lippington had done its work. But she felt blindly she could only live in that rare, intense element’. In the closing pages of the novel as the adolescent girl faces what is, in effect, her expulsion from the school she becomes aware that
‘In its cold, clear atmosphere everything had a sharper outline than in the comfortable, shapeless, scrambling life outside.’
Elizabeth Bowen wrote about that ‘atmosphere and that outline, their nature, and the nature of their power over one being, Nanda’ as being the ‘stuff and the study of Frost in May’. That ‘outline’ is what comes to mind in Marilyn Hacker’s use of the phrase ‘limning a place, a time, a kind of life now disappearing’.
The literary references which thread their way through these fifty carefully-crafted sonnets become themselves a clear indicator of the lasting power of an educational home in which books formed a central role. The opening poem sets a scene:
‘In that cold house on the edge of Cambridge
she’s reading alone while we two sleep,
toddler Teresa and me, the new-born baby.
Windows shake and rattle in blasts of sleet
but she’s deep in Coleridge’s poem
‘Dejection’, hearing how his wind rose higher
wailing through the night like a lost child
screaming loud to make her mother hear.
Our father is in college, miles away,
ordinands aren’t allowed to live at home
although he comes to visit us, some days.
As the days lengthen she wheels our pram
through dark-brown gardens ringing with unheard
children at play and cries of nesting birds.
The references range from Sir Thomas Malory to Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Homer to Shakespeare and from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to Donald Davie, Director of English Studies at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. The fabric of this Cambridge childhood comes alive as the interlinking personalities appear so firmly placed. ‘Our father’ is not only the pater noster of the Christian Church but also the poet’s father, the Rt. Reverend Hugh Montefiore, who became Dean at Caius in 1954 and remained there until 1963. When Donald Davie left Caius he was replaced by J.H. Prynne and it was in a short poem from 1988 by Muriel Prynne, the poet’s mother, that a domestic loss was recorded:
‘I sometimes wish so much
My father had not died when I was young.
I think what I have missed
And all the joys unsung –
He, tall and dark and strong
Little daughter small and fair.
He took my hand in his
And helped my steps along,
But then he was not there.’
Sonnet XXX is titled ‘ENGLISH LITERATURE’ and it opens with an evocation of a genuine literary educational experience:
‘Lessons in English Literature were pure
enjoyment – lovely Christabel undressed,
Madeline in her charmed sleep, Wordsworth’s hare
racing in joy to raise a sparkling mist
from the moorland where the leech-gatherer
met by a pond, entered the poet’s dream’
The excitement of imaginative engagement with poetry is something that ‘nothing could dim’ and even the dreary world of the examination question which asks the candidate to ‘Paraphrase the following twenty lines / of Hamlet’ cannot destroy the sheer love of literature which informs the growing mind. One of the best evidences of this long-lasting in-formation is there in ‘FAMILY PRAYERS’ which concludes
‘and curses that she wouldn’t let us read,
let them fall, let them consume away
like a snail, roared from their silent page
of promises kept by a jealous God.’
The italicised words echo the Old English Charm about how to get rid of warts!
This is a delightful sequence of autobiographical poems which prompts the past to emerge from mist.
Ian Brinton 20th December 2016