Untouched by Eliot

Denis Donoghue

  • Rounding the Horn: Collected Poems by Jon Stallworthy
    Carcanet, 247 pp, £14.95, September 1998, ISBN 1 85754 163 4

‘Why should the parent of one or two legitimate poems make a public display of the illegitimate offspring of his apprentice years?’ Jon Stallworthy asks in the afterword to Singing School. His short answer is: ‘because, to the best of my knowledge, no one else has done so, and the schooling of poets seems a potentially rewarding subject.’ The longer answer is that ‘in the early chapters of their autobiographies, Coleridge, Hardy, Yeats, Sassoon, Graves, Day Lewis, Spender and MacNeice have a good deal to say about the external circumstances of their family lives, but little about their internal or “writerly” lives.’ That is true, though some of these poets have left us evidence of their methods of composition, which we can interpret. Yeats left not only the Autobiographies, the Memoirs and personal poems, but drafts of many poems, and these have enabled scholars to study his artistic processes, as Stallworthy did in Between the Lines.

It is not unusual for a poet to comment on his own work or even to lead his readers through a particular poem. Valéry, Allen Tate, William Empson, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and Robert Lowell were instructive in that way. But it is rare for a poet to lead readers through a poem, draft by draft, or explain how he settled for one word rather than another. Yeats did not offer to explain how he got to ‘the indignant desert birds’ in ‘The Second Coming’. The afterword to Singing School implies that Stallworthy thinks he has elucidated his schooling as a poet by such means. But he hasn’t. The book has a good deal to say about the external circumstances of his life, but it reveals little about the growth of a poet’s mind or the schools in which it grew. Even when he quotes one of his uncollected poems, he gives it in word-perfect form; we know when and why he wrote it, but not how he got from his first notes to the achieved poem.

Stallworthy was born in January 1935. (Rounding the Horn ends with his family tree, starting with ‘John Stallworthy d. 1744 and Ann d. 1771’ and running to ‘Jon b. 1935 and Jill b. 1938’ and the new generation, ‘Jonathan, Pippa and Nicolas’.) His father was a surgeon who settled down to a practice in Oxford. His mother was a housewife with a gift for music and a good ear for poems. Or for rhymes: she schooled her son on nursery songs, and he gradually found his way from A.A. Milne to Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Masefield and Betjeman. Father and mother provided a most genial home. Stallworthy was fortunate, too, in his schools: the Dragon in Oxford, followed by Rugby. Most of his teachers were helpful, and leisure time included rugby, horse-riding and sailing. (I’m trying to keep my jealousy under control.) Military service in the Royal West African Frontier Force seems to have been an extended vacation in Ibadan and Lagos: he kept himself busy with ceremonies, polo, hockey and a mild love affair. Coming back to Oxford, he went to Magdalen College. Again his teachers were splendid, he had Jack Bennett for Anglo-Saxon and Emrys Jones for Shakespeare. I’m sure he spent many hours in the Bodleian, but more on the rugby pitch. In Singing School he doesn’t mention his literary prizes, but he gives the scores of the rugby matches in which he played and quotes favourable reviews of his performances from newspapers of the day.

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