With the Woolwich

C.H. Sisson

  • New and Collected Poems: 1934-84 by Roy Fuller
    Secker in association with London Magazine Editions, 557 pp, £14.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 436 16790 5
  • The Sea at the Door by Sylvia Kantaris
    Secker, 70 pp, £3.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 436 23070 4

Roy Fuller was born in 1912, under what conjunction of planets I do not know, but the place of his birth was somewhere between Manchester and Oldham. His next stop was Blackpool, where he attended the High School until the age of 16. He might even in those distant days have been expected to go on at the age of 17 or 18 to a university, but, whether through parental or his own native caution or some other cause, he was instead articled to a local solicitor and was admitted in 1934. His real career began in 1938 when he was appointed Assistant Solicitor to the Woolwich and Equitable Building Society, a post to which he returned after serving in the Navy from 1941 to 46. In 1958 he became Solicitor to the Society, and in 1969 a director, as he apparently still is. Respectable as this career is in itself, his public distinction has come from another source. In 1968 his employers, as he has himself recorded, ‘understandingly’ consented to his being nominated for the Chair of Poetry at Oxford; it was on his election that he relinquished his full-time employment and became a member of the board. Other marks of favour followed: a CBE and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1970; in 1972 he became a Governor of the BBC, and in 1976 a Member of the Arts Council. Might one not assume, of such a man, that he never gave anyone in authority a moment’s uneasiness? His record at the Arts Council shows that it is not as simple as that.

The first of the poems reprinted in this collection of half a century were written in 1934, and most of those in the first part of the volume – ‘From Poems (1939) and other sources’ – will be, for those who remember the period, redolent of the Thirties. Had the young Fuller been reading Graves? It is clear after a few pages that he had read Auden and one might even say that, after that encounter, all else was forgotten. But the scent of the Thirties is in the subject-matter as well as in the words. There is the elegy for a young man killed in Spain – the mythology as well as the melancholy facts of that conflict were much in the air at the time. The bombings in the Peninsula awakened, belatedly, aprehensions of the Luftwaffe over London, and youthful imaginations dwelt readily on the fall of cities. Something of this perhaps enters into Fuller’s ‘Birds in the pattern of a constellation’ and ‘Silence of country without inhabitants’ – such lines are, anyhow, much in the mood of the generation in which they were written. At times the mood issues in images of melodrama:

Here walk with open lips the pale persuaders
Of doom, over the concrete near the river.

The vague tone of menace, which suited the times, would not have found that expression without Auden, whose blending of private dilemma and public disaster was the more powerful for not being explicit. Fuller was not behindhand in solemn endorsement of the suggestion of hysteria that was in the air:

The common news tells me
How I shall live:
There are no other values.

Fuller was caught in the wind of Auden-Spender-Day-Lewis Communism – hardly surprising for, susceptibility to rhetoric apart, some such politics were then a mark of respectability among the intellectual young and the Woolwich and Equitable were not afraid.

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