If I had to pick two poems from Allott’s anthology to represent a more possible kind of voice, I would choose poems by Norman Cameron’s Naked Among the Trees and John Heath-Stubbs’s Epitaph.
Cameron’s poem begins with nostalgia for a lost way of life
Formerly he had been a well-loved god,In the middle two verses he paints a picture of burgeoning sensuality where the god “rose like barley-sugar round the lips” and shows what his society has done with it, turning it into “The drinking-bouts, the boasting and the bets.”
Each visit from him a sweet episode,
Not like the outrageous Pentecostal rush
Or wilful Jahveh shrieking from a bush…
The poem ends:
And these have made his cult degenerate,
So that the booted Puritan magistrate
Did right to spur down on the devotees,
Catch them and whip them naked among the trees.
It was Martin Bell who first showed this poem to his small poetry class at Leeds. The poem is about desire and chastisement, and comes down on the side of the chastiser without quite bending to the chastiser’s frame of mind. The chastiser – the booted Puritan magistrate – is understood if not liked, is understandable, and in his own way becomes part of the longing.. The voice is in the longing, the resignation, the pain and the irony. It balances these things within a severe formal structure that allows the sensuality to strain even more sensuously against the ropes of metre, rhyme and diction that bind it. Restraint and constraint balance out. The poem articulates a very complex feeling by way of form.
Form, I soon realised, was an important aspect of voice, probably the most open part. Form, working with complex feeling, pressing against a certain informality of tone, was, perhaps, the most governable, learnable, aspect of voice. It was the perception of the openness and availability of form that became vital to my own lunge at Englishness. Its architecture made things possible.
It is also an element in John Heath Stubbs’s Epitaph.
MR. HEATH-STUBBS as you must understand
Came of a gentleman's family out of Staffordshire
Of as good blood as any in England
But he was wall-eyed and his legs too spare.
His elbows and finger-joints could bend more ways than one
And in frosty weather would creak audibly
As to delight his friends he would give demonstration
Which he might have done in public for a small fee.
Amongst the more learned persons of his time
Having had his schooling in the University of Oxford
In Anglo-Saxon Latin ornithology and crime
Yet after four years he was finally not preferred.
Orthodox in beliefs as following the English Church
Barring some heresies he would have for recreation
Yet too often left these sound principles (as I am told) in the lurch
Being troubled with idleness, lechery, pride and dissipation.
In his youth he would compose poems in prose and verse
In a classical romantic manner which was pastoral
To which the best judges of the Age were not averse
And the public also but his profit was not financial.
Now having outlived his friends and most of his reputation
He is content to take his rest under these stones and grass
Not expecting but hoping that the Resurrection
Will not catch him unawares whenever it takes place.
There is, of course, a more overtly courteous address in this poem but it is clearly playful. The laughing, aristocratic, ironic, self-deprecation is, at the same time, self-declaration. It was a modern instance of the poetry of delightful passages and comedy that Voltaire had talked about. The double-negative at the end is one of those pieces of English manners that ensure a certain knowing distance between speaker and listener. It is distant yet complicit, knowingly bureaucratic and cautious yet faintly laughable. It is part of the oil in the works in the language. Epitaph is clearly English in tone – I could not imagine it being written anywhere else. Aspects of that Englishness – that tone and voice - could mediate between my alien material and the language it had to inhabit. I would try such archaisms and lapidarities in a serious poem called The Swimmers, about the death of my foreign mother in England. Irony was to do the work of pathos there.
In 1974 Faber published the last of Philip Larkin’s books, High Windows. There is enough written about Larkin and his politics to keep us busy for a very long time, and I don’t want to add to it here. Listening to the Larkin voice – the dominant voice of the time, a voice that extended down suburban streets, billowed through allotments, resounded in classrooms and common rooms, even as we were entering the three day week - was almost overwhelming. Beautiful as it could be it sang of the dull almost as a virtue and denied the exotic. It seemed in many ways to deny me and my experience. Vigorous and oppressive at once, it lay somewhere at the core of a language I could not get to. Larkin represented the impossibility of carrying through my self-Englishing project, a half-open door that would not open wide enough.
There was a whole life beyond the door, a life I recognised of ordinary people going about their lives but they were not my life and wouldn’t be. It was rather wonderful to see an excellent Irish poet, Dennis O’Driscoll, finding a workable synthesis between Larkin and European writing, writing at a rhetorical pitch that retained the best of both but O’Driscoll could do it out of confidence in his audience. I had no such confidence.
Donald Davie says something about confidence in his Purity of Diction in English Verse (full text available here), another book of the fifties whose ideas continued to animate English poetry into the early eighties. Why diction and purity? Because, in considering the texture, dimension and nature of voice, diction is of central importance. The features I have picked out in Cameron, Heath Stubbs and Philip Larkin are, beyond form, features of diction. Davie directs the reader to George Puttenham’s 1588 book The Arte of English Poesie (text available here) for an example of what may be attempted in the way of defining and purifying diction, then moves to Oliver Goldsmith and his notions of chastity as a guard against frigidity. That frigidity is defined by Goldsmith as ‘a deviation from propriety’. Davie adds: “It follows that hyperbolical and highly metaphorical language runs most risk of frigidity”.
I knew all that instinctively in those years I desired Englishness. That was the whole point of entering on the Anglicisation process. One must resist the temptation to employ "hyperbolical and highly metaphorical language. "
“When [the poet] lost confidence in his public,” Davie goes on, “[he] was thrown back upon confidence in himself. When this confidence too was shaken it masked itself as hysterical arrogance,” adding that, “if Wordsworth lost confidence in the readers of London and Cambridge, he still had confidence in the readers of Somerset and Cumberland.”
My confidence in my public was minimal. My public was the notional English ear. It was not London or Cambridge, and still less the readers of Somerset and Cumberland. How to avoid hysterical arrogance?
[concludes with Sándor Márai and back to Allott in next post