Received Accents

Peter Robinson

  • Collected Poems by Charles Tomlinson
    Oxford, 351 pp, £15.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 19 211974 5
  • Selected and New Poems: 1939-84 by J.C. Hall
    Secker, 87 pp, £3.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 436 19052 4
  • Burning the knife: New and Selected Poems by Robin Magowan
    Scarecrow Press, 114 pp, £13.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 8108 1777 2
  • Englishmen: A Poem by Christopher Hope
    Heinemann, 41 pp, £4.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 434 34661 6
  • Selected Poems: 1954-1982 by John Fuller
    Secker, 175 pp, £8.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 436 16754 9
  • Writing Home by Hugo Williams
    Oxford, 70 pp, £3.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 19 211970 2

Charles Tomlinson has a poem called ‘Class’ about the Midland pronunciation of the first letter of the alphabet. In the last chapter of Some Americans, the poet tells how for a short time he was Percy Lubbock’s secretary at a villa near Lerici. In ‘Class’, he says he tried to pronounce the ‘ah’ of received English, but couldn’t and, because ‘I too visibly shredded his fineness,’ was released from the post. The version of this incident in Some Americans indicates that his encounter with ‘the author of The Craft of Fiction’ left a wound. The poem is more openly dismissive of his one-time employer:

          I’d always thought him an ass
which he pronounced arse.

‘Class’ is, with the exception of one sentence, written in the first person.

Referring to Lubbock’s title, with its tricky second word, Tomlinson neatly introduces the sense of ‘class’ meaning ‘quality’ – ‘that title was full of class’ – and observes:

You had only to open your mouth on it
to show where you were born
and where you belonged.

Tomlinson’s lineation says that you don’t necessarily belong where you were born. If you don’t remain there, but retain some of your native accent, your identity may be partially defined by ambiguous relations to places, class positions and the sounds of your own voices. Many people’s speech is unstable in just this way, and when poets are congratulated by reviewers for having ‘found a voice’, I wonder whether their poets have been discovering something about themselves or inventing for themselves a new accent.

Relations between accent and identity involve, among many things, the uses of pronouns. Imagine those three lines from ‘Class’ in the first person, rather than that impersonal but also self-addressing ‘you’. ‘Tramontana at Lerici’, a poem from about the time of the Lubbock incident, begins in the second person. This ‘you’ with ‘might’ and ‘should’ in attendance allows speculations about the sort of experiences anyone could conceivably have. In the third stanza the poem introduces a present perceiver, but makes him sound rather posh:

At evening, one is alarmed by such definition
In as many lost greens as one will give glances to recover.

This impersonal pronoun, which can be used as a personal pronoun with an intent to exclude not hearable in ‘you’, cannot easily express warmth between people. The poem’s last stanza begins crisply: ‘And the chill grows.’ In the final lines, the pronoun’s social tone and the wind’s effects appear to be working in concert so as not to receive the perceiver:

                                One is ignored
By so much cold suspended in so much night.

Yet to think of wind and pronoun as concertedly cold would be to miss the presence of a voice saying the poem. This voice, when it says, ‘One is ignored,’ turns itself away from the door of its own self. Kenneth Allott admitted to feeling put off by the fineness of ‘Tramontana at Lerici’ when anthologising the poem in 1962. Understandably, though mistakenly, he wrote that ‘human beings and their awkwardnesses have been squeezed out.’ Yet there is a world of human awkwardness in Charles Tomlinson’s shifting pronouns. When Allott added that Tomlinson was ‘an aristocratic mutilé of the aesthetic war’ he saw that the conflict was also about class: but Tomlinson is not aristocratic – rather, in ‘Tramontana at Lerici’ he shows a wound inflicted by seeming to have to sound as if he were.

I once thought Tomlinson’s uses of ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘one’, and of impersonal abstractions such as ‘the eye’ and ‘the mind’, were conscious tactics for foisting assent on readers without obliging the poet to become fully embroiled in the poem’s matter. That was ungenerous and untrue, because the self in Charles Tomlinson’s poems is not the source of perceptual and moral insight that it might appear. ‘Against Portraits’ and ‘A Self-Portrait: David’, both from later collections, make such insecurity their theme. The poet prefers here

a face half-hesitant,
face at a threshold.

Still, his poems remain preserved, for reasons given in ‘Against Extremity’, from more threatening instabilities of the self.

Charles Tomlinson’s pronouns are also more unstable than I had granted. He acknowledges in ‘Over Elizabeth Bridge ...’

                                that uncertainty
And restless counterpointing of a verse
‘So wary of its I’, Iván, is me.

In his 1978 collection, ‘The Scream’ has the poet dragged out of sleep by a scream: it proves to come from a hedgehog which a badger has mortally hurt but failed to finish off; the poet, going outside with a torch and discovering it, dramatises the altering condition of the perceiver. The poem begins, ‘A dream so drowned my mind,’ and seems secure in the first person singular. Yet within a dozen lines a sound meets ‘the ear’ and the narrative slips for a sentence into the second person. I struck uphill,’ it continues, but as the enigma of the scream grows more intense, another shift occurs:

                                 A dream
Had delivered me to this, and a dream
    Once more seemed to possess one’s mind,

and soon thoughts

                            crowded together
To appal the mind with dream uncertainties.

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