Jokes

Donald Davie

  • In the Circumstances: About Poems and Poets by Peter Robinson
    Oxford, 260 pp, £35.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 19 811248 3

It seems now that there was always something odd about Peter Robinson’s being the editor, in 1985, of Geoffrey Hill: Essays on His Work, from the Open University Press. Robinson’s sensibility, particularly as one had encountered it in his poems, pointed away from the aloofness of Hill’s attitude to his public, and away from Hill’s lofty and recherché diction, towards something plainer, more demotically awkward, more (the word presented itself) Wordsworthian. Perhaps I’m being wise after the event: at any rate the event –this collection of nine demanding and tough-minded essays –bears me out. Wordsworth is its presiding presence; his poetry is the bar before which other poets –Auden and Eliot, Hardy and Robert Lowell and Browning. Pound and, yes, Hill – are brought to judgment.

This is not overt. Robinson can’t, any more than the rest of us, come on like a latter-day Leavis, a fearlessly normative critic; instead, psychologists and moral philosophers are wheeled in to support the decorous illusion that Robinson is pursuing an investigation, not sitting in judgment. But he is sitting in judgment, all the same; and more power to his elbow, I say.

There aren’t a lot of Wordsworthians around, when you come to look. Oh of course there is the Grasmere industry, a solidly thriving concern; editors of the Wordsworth texts won’t soon go out of business, and the tourists will doubtless continue to flock in gratifying numbers. But if we look for Wordsworth as a live presence in the poetry of this century, we come up with Norman Nicholson and Basil Bunting, and who else? In a tight spot Wall-ace Stevens appealed to the famous line from ‘Michael’, ‘And never lifted up a single stone’ (drawing from it unwarrantable inferences, as Robinson points out): but Stevens’s admirers know they are on safer ground if they appeal to Coleridge or Keats, Blake Or Emerson. It takes some nerve, in fact, to offer as prime exhibit ‘The Sailor’s Mother’:

  One morning (raw it was and wet –
  A foggy day in winter time)
  A Woman on the road I met,
  Not old, though something past her prime:
  Majestic in her person, tall and straight;
And like a Roman Matron’s was her mien and gait.

   The ancient spirit is not dead;
   Old times, thought I, are breathing there;
   Proud was I that my country bred
   Such strength, a dignity so fair:
   She begged an alms, like one in poor estate;
I looked at her again, nor did my pride abate.

   When from these lofty thoughts I woke
   ‘What is it.’ said I, ‘that you bear,
   Beneath the covert of your Cloak,
   Protected from this cold damp air?’
   She answered, soon as she the question heard,
‘A simple burthen, Sir, a little Singing-bird.’

The next line is in the same strain, less than marmoreal: ‘And, thus continuing, she said ...’ How can this not offend now, as it did in 1807 when it first appeared and dismayed Coleridge? Is this what we understand as poetry, we who have relished Lowell transforming Montale’s ‘South winds have lashed the old walls for years’ into For years the sirocco gunned the dead stucco with sand’? Peter Robinson boldly and admirably demonstrates that in context Wordsworth’s line, lame and tame as it is, not only equals but surpasses Lowell’s inventive fire and finish.

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