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Tag Archives: Muriel Prynne

Shaping Spirits 1948-1966 Janet Montefiore (Shoestring Press)

Shaping Spirits 1948-1966  Janet Montefiore (Shoestring Press)

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

In Memoriam: Charles Tomlinson

In Memoriam: Charles Tomlinson


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

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