- Edgell Rickword: A Poet at War by Charles Hobday
Carcanet, 337 pp, £16.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 85635 883 5
‘The greatest men grow so long as they live.’ There is a touch of bravado about this assertion. Rickword was in his middle twenties when he made it, and he may have thought differently before his death at the age of 84. Be that as it may, he would almost certainly have stood by the reflection with which he concluded his sentence: ‘no one,’ he said, ‘has ever changed the fibres of his character.’ Through all the ups and downs of fortune recounted in Charles Hobday’s biography, the essential stuff of the man remains the same.
Vol. 11 No. 23 · 7 December 1989
C.H. Sisson (LRB, 9 November), following Charles Hobday, may well be right in saying that, broadly speaking, Edgell Rickword’s poetry ‘virtually ceased in 1931’, but what this broad speaking leaves out is the powerful and substantial satire on the occasion of the Spanish Civil War, ‘To the Wife of a Non-Interventionist Statesman’. This was published in the Left Review for March 1938 and saw the light of day again in Lucie-Smith’s Penguin book of Satirical Verse twenty years ago. Couplet after couplet shows faultless touch in its controlled vehemence and its lucid definition of atrocity. Like all classic satires, the poem argues cogently and deploys information in the mode of trenchant imagery. The first blitzes (or carpet-bombing of working-class housing) are unsparingly evoked:
Five hundred dead at ten a second
is the world record so far reckoned;
a hundred children in one street,
their little hands and guts and feet
like offal round a butcher’s stall,
scattered where they’d been playing ball.
The exact facts are used to forecast (accurately) what history had in store for our own country, in a passage both precise and nightmarish:
Euzkadi’s mines supply the ore
to feed the Nazi dogs of war:
Guernika’s thermite rain transpires
in doom on Oxford’s dreaming spires:
in Hitler’s frantic metal haze
already Hull and Cardiff blaze,
and Paul’s grey dome rocks to the blast
of air-torpedoes screaming past.
This is very public poetry, but it presses it home to the core of personal involvement when the poet rounds on the imagined wife and asks her how she can justify, or tolerate, ‘co-habitation with a beast’.
The whole piece is an unforgettable example of what Rickword had called, in a key essay in the Calendar of Modern Letters, ‘the use of negative emotions’. This was written at a time when gush, uplift and soft positives in general were still felt to be poetry’s true domain and worldly mockery, whether focused on personal relationships as in Donne or on public issues as in Pope, was regarded by teachers and critics as a decidedly lowly quality. That Rickword could be so fertile in the vein of satire shows us that his creativity lasted well into the most political phase of his life.
Burton in Kendal, Lancashire
Vol. 11 No. 24 · 21 December 1989
David Craig (Letters, 7 December) makes a fair but not overwhelming point about Edgell Rickword. The lines ‘To the wife of a non-interventionist statesman’ are worth reading, and have a significant place in Rickword’s oeuvre. They have not – in my view – the singular life of the best of the earlier poems: I would go so far as to say that they bear marks of the contracting perceptions of Rickword’s later years. Whether all this justifies Hobday’s judgment, and mine, that Rickword’s poetry ‘virtually ceased in 1931’ is open to a free vote, as far as I am concerned.