Patricia Beer

Patricia Beer’s Collected Poems is published by Carcanet. She died in 1999.

Poem: ‘Where’er You Walk’

Patricia Beer, 2 September 1999

Jove and Semele were not well-matched. She was spoiled and silly. He was clever. The things she really wanted from him were A literal god-child, and to live for ever.

Folie de grandeur, Congreve called it. She Sang about endless pleasure, endless love Only to vex the ones she left on earth. She met with touching tenderness from Jove

Who charged the weather that where’er she walked It...

Two Hares and a Priest: Pushkin

Patricia Beer, 13 May 1999

‘Who do you think will close the door after you? Pushkin?’ The question, which Elaine Feinstein quotes in her introduction to this excellent biography, is one which apparently might still be asked by a Russian mother of a careless child. No British mother would say anything like it, if only because she could not think of a figure with comparable evocative power: writers here are hardly household names. She would certainly not use that of the greatest Russian of them all. Some of us call our cats Pushkin but that is about as far as it has gone.‘

Sequence: Seven Poems

Patricia Beer, 19 June 1997

Private Wing in July

Night with its epileptic dreams Is over, and for once there seems

To be some flavour in the day. Outside my room – my territory

Where the seasons do not enter – The dawn chorus of the nurses (banter

About the night and how it went) Seems to give off a kind of scent.

Consultants come round early here. Out-of-doors must be getting near.

And here they are,...

For a Lark

Patricia Beer, 21 March 1996

We have just lived through nearly two years of vox populi. The 50th anniversary of VE Day and, to a lesser extent, VJ Day provoked a massive assemblage of what people had actually said in the course of the Second World War. It was as though these voices had been held back for half a century and were now bursting out. Martin Gilbert in The Day the War Ended, a recent account of the year 1945, showed how inexorably this could happen. In appealing to the public for material from those times, he had imagined that such replies as he might receive ‘would provide an interesting if essentially minor element to the book; a sideline to history’. He was wrong. In the end he had to change the balance of the whole work to accommodate the hundreds of relevant contributions sent in.

Poem: ‘From Wilfred Owen 1918’

Patricia Beer, 2 November 1995

Dear Mother, now I am no more A fighting man, I warm the plates And make some bugler black the grates. We are all soldiers far from war.

The foremost object in our minds Is blacking out the Scarborough lights. I turn back from the sea at nights To check the drawing-down of blinds.

Dearest my Mother, I can scare The Mess by going to their dance. They heard that I was killed in France. Ashes...

Poem: ‘Art History’

Patricia Beer, 7 September 1995

I am the man in the pink hat Who catches everybody’s eye And is not really there.

In the preparatory version My hat was dowdy, I was older. Now I am ‘Who is that good-looking man?’ My brim is wide and bumptious.

I am immune, though hemmed in By people working miracles, Waving their arms about In paeans of caring.

I am better dressed Than goody-two-sleeves, Francis Xavier. My...

Full of Teeth

Patricia Beer, 20 July 1995

‘It is obviously the same person.’ The words of Lady Bracknell, one of the wisest characters in English literature, may eventually be echoed by readers when and if they have worked their way through the four, totally diverse, biographies of Graham Greene which originally appeared in the summer and autumn of last year. The biographers are Norman Sherry, Anthony Mockler, Leopoldo Duran and Michael Shelden. The actual information they provide must by now be common knowledge among those who are at all interested in Greene, including those who have simply read the many highly communicative reviews, and in the basic respect of the facts imparted there are relatively few discrepancies.

Poem: ‘Small Talk at Wreyland’

Patricia Beer, 9 February 1995

In memory of Cecil Torr

It is hard to believe that he lived till the rise of the Nazis And the General Strike and nine or ten Armistice Days And that I was a child putting flowers on my grandmother’s grave Three churchyards away on the day that he died.

His forebears had gossiped their hold on the centuries. One of them spotted Napoleon on the Bellerophon, Moored in Torbay, with its...

I Should Have Shrieked

Patricia Beer, 8 December 1994

I was less than fifty pages into this first volume of John Betjeman’s Letters when I felt I must be in for an attack of tinnitus. I kept hearing shrieks of laughter. This condition was caused not by the poet himself but by the editor or Candida Lycett Green, his daughter, who seems to value nothing so much about her father as his ability to make people split their sides. She establishes that this was the way he first got on in the world. In his student days, invited to the august homes of his friends, he confronted hosts who considered him to be ‘not quite a gentleman’; one of them was Lord Rosslyn, but his guest’s ability to make Lady Rosslyn laugh saved the day, and the Rosslyns’ young daughter was won over by the same method. And on and on it goes. Anthony Powell remembers that when they were both staying with the Longfords ‘John made everybody laugh.’ ‘Betch made me laugh,’ attests Pamela Mitford. ‘Throughout our lives, whenever we met, we always burst out laughing,’ corroborates John Summerson.

Period Pain

Patricia Beer, 9 June 1994

Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats has set out from its publishers with claims beyond even what one expects of conventional hype. There is much to admire in the book, particularly the industry that must have gone into its compilation: the examination of huge family archives which contain, apart from what one might expect in the way of letters and journals, everything from death certificates to poems. There is much to enjoy too, as there would be in any lively historical novel, past or present. But the eulogy pronounced by the great Simon Schama, author of Citizens, calls for comment: ‘A dazzling achievement,’ he writes, ‘an extraordinary story told by a phenomenally gifted writer’. This strikes me as over-ecstatic.

Two Poems

Patricia Beer, 24 February 1994

Autumn

Weeds start up out of the wall now that summer has ended. Holiday-makers already begin to turn yellow. Shadows look brave but have lost the bone-marrow of August.

Introducing two recently heartbroken friends to each other How we hope they will mate, how we know that they will not. The season is over. Young blood has gone into the ground.

In the church a low sun stabs away at the wings...

Memories are made of this

Patricia Beer, 16 December 1993

I was well into Giles Gordon’s Aren’t We Due a Royalty Statement? before I noticed that other readers were taking the book seriously, often to the point of denunciation. Up to then I had been assuming that it had set out to be an ingenious spoof, a sort of hoax or parody which had failed to make its intentions thoroughly clear; and that was nothing to be censorious about. But ail leg-pullers have to declare themselves eventually otherwise there would be no point, and as I read on it dawned on me that Gordon was not going to declare any such thing. But there is so much to support my original impression that I have still not been able entirely to give up the idea that the book is a spoof.

Something about her eyes

Patricia Beer, 24 June 1993

If in doubt start with the weather. This is a piece of advice that has long been followed by biographers who have mixed feelings about the claims of their subjects to the extensive treatment they are about to apply: subjects, perhaps, whose rank or connections would certainly sell the book but who in any meritocracy would themselves have sunk without trace. Interestingly, the opening paragraph of Margaret Forster’s Daphne du Maurier makes good use of this particular technique: ‘Sheet-lightning split the sky over London on the evening of 12 May 1907 and thunder rumbled long into the night. All day it had been sultry, the trees in Regent’s Park barely moving and a heat haze obscuring the new growth of leaves.’ There is almost a Bethlehem feel about this: a new light in the sky and various portents. There is certainly a Hollywood feel: a star is born. In fact the star was not born till 5.20 the next afternoon, but the right note has been struck.

Bert’s Needs

Patricia Beer, 25 March 1993

The modish title of Elaine Feinstein’s excellent book need not make readers fear that they are being lured to yet another study of the great man himself. Lawrence’s Women really is about the women in his life. They are not just lining the route. Neither should readers suspect that the word ‘intimate’ in the subtitle means that they are going to be told more about Lawrence’s sex life than they wish to know. They can also be assured that in this book there is no sign of the current mania for writing about the sisters/wives/daughters/mistresses of famous men, regardless of how insignificant they, or indeed the famous men, might essentially be. Lawrence’s women were decided personalities; hélas in one case.

Poem: ‘The night Marlowe died’

Patricia Beer, 25 February 1993

Christopher Marlowe was a spy, it seems. His day of pleasure by the River Thames Should have brought him a handshake and a watch For faithful service. He had done as much For anyone who paid him and so had His three companions. They were really good.

In those days spying was expertly done. Informers took each other’s washing in. Double agents cancelled themselves out. Spying had paid...

Were I a cloud

Patricia Beer, 28 January 1993

Ever since 1930, the year Bridges died, there has been a poet-shaped hole in English biography. Over the years we have been offered a few slight critical articles and studies and many significant references in such biographies as Ann Thwaite’s of Edmund Gosse and, of course, the two recent books on Gerard Manley Hopkins, one by Robert Martin and one by Norman White, but there has been nothing comprehensive. There is now. In Robert Bridges Catherine Phillips tells us everything we could reasonably wish to know about his life. About his poetry there is more still to be said, but one of the merits of this book is that the writer clearly points the way to anyone who may feel like such an undertaking.

According to A.N. Wilson

Patricia Beer, 3 December 1992

This is a book which is, in both senses of the expression, difficult to put down. As a cliché indicating readability, the phrase is deserved; those interested in the subject – nowadays it is hard to guess how many that would be – are almost bound to be intrigued by the book. When ‘putting down’ means trouncing or violently refuting, the book is safe, principally because one experiences no wish to do either of these things. The arguments are presented in mannerly fashion; though the writer is currently agnostic, he makes no attempt to stampede or manhandle the readers into agnosticism. The style is light, to the point of sprightliness sometimes, but without becoming facetious. Even when, for example, Wilson speaks of Jesus in the same breath and tone as he speaks of the Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood, he is making a serious point about the traditional techniques of rhetoric as used by St Luke, who, in this instance, drops historical names such as Caesar, Herod and Quirinius into his narrative to make his main character sound more authentic; and this point can be appreciated both by believers and unbelievers.’é

Big Thinks

Patricia Beer, 20 August 1992

Tatyana Tolstaya’s collection of short stories, On the golden Porch, published in Britain in 1989, was received with hysterical enthusiasm. Some rather silly things were said, like ‘Tolstaya writes.’ Some rather lazy comparisons were made too: she was likened to every Russian writer one can call to mind, with the exception, as far as I know, of Tolstoy. Well, now Tolstaya writes again, and the italics have become capital letters The new collection, Sleepwalker in a Fog, consists of seven stories; the first of them, the title piece, is almost long enough to be called a novella, and at 60 pages the final one must certainly be so called.

Poem: ‘E.T. phone home’

Patricia Beer, 9 July 1992

E.T. looked like my cousin, Who looked like many things wise And wonderful: certain dreams, Ancient jars in museums, Fetishes with level eyes And their native soil still on.

I was a child. I loved him. We could most peacefully play Together. Our family Feared the neighbours might think we Were all balmy. He could say Three or four words. One was ‘Home’.

At thirteen he was taken...

What he meant by happiness

Patricia Beer, 11 June 1992

Time brings many surprises, as I have long known, but I never imagined being excited by the news that the nun’s famous cry in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ was almost certainly not uttered by Sister Henrica Fassbaender. But in fact Sean Street’s book The Wreck of the Deutschland, which makes much of this incident, is engrossing from start to finish. It has the further appeal of sounding sympathetic. The author’s motivation throughout the fifteen years he devoted to assembling and deploying his material has clearly been an affectionate anxiety to tell the story fully and accurately rather than to expose people and call down vengeance upon them. His attitude to his chosen wreck is highly possessive, which naturally makes him very selective. Other appalling naval disasters, the blowing up of the Mosel at Bremerhaven, for example, affect him only in so far as they have some connection with the Deutschland. In this case, the Mosel is mentioned as being a sister-ship of the North German line which perished at about the same time.

Poem: ‘Pharaoh’s Dream’

Patricia Beer, 26 March 1992

In childhood I thought of cows and dreams together Starting from Pharaoh’s dream of seven well-favoured kine Followed by seven other kine, lean-fleshed, That did eat them up.

Joseph the farmer, dressy as Pharaoh, told him At once that throughout his many-coloured land Famine would succeed plenty, seven years of each. Pharaoh wrung his smooth

Hands, not having considered such a meaning....

Little Girl

Patricia Beer, 12 March 1992

Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky started its career with two disadvantages. One was the title: it suggests whimsy, from which the book is in fact bracingly free. The phrase is explained and has real validity within the story itself, but should have been kept in its place. The second was the nature of the advance publicity, which seemed to have the bossy intention of providing the clef to the roman. There have been photographs of the Freud sisters at the launch party; they are the child heroines of the novel, we are told. Their mother is also present and her deportment described; apparently she is in the book too. It has been widely labelled as a semi-autobiographical novel, though in fact there is no such thing. And one reviewer comments approvingly that Esther Freud writes about what she knows; well, let us hope we all do that.

Poem: ‘Footbinding’

Patricia Beer, 9 January 1992

My grandmother had a small shelf of books Hanging in a shadow. One of them Was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. All the rest Were works by missionaries who had served In China. They were handsome volumes, hard With gold and angry colours, heavy with Empire. I never saw her read them but she handed Them out to me like medicine. As well As every other heathen practice, they Described footbinding....

Very like Poole Harbour

Patricia Beer, 5 December 1991

This is a collection of 14 stories by Mary Butts, a dedicated and prolific writer who died comparatively young in the Thirties. She is one of the current victims of the fashionable drive to exhume ‘forgotten women writers’. The category is dreary. Mary Butts is not.

Enough is enough

Patricia Beer, 26 September 1991

In her introduction to Antonia White’s Diaries the editor, her elder daughter Susan Chitty, quite naturally raises the question of whether or not they should have been published at all. But such doubts as she may have had, and conquered, have apparently nothing to do with the amount of coverage her mother’s life needs or justifies. She obviously feels the subject is inexhaustible. Many readers might disagree. We already have Antonia White’s sequence of unashamedly autobiographical novels, starting with Frost in May in 1933. We have her own straight account of her early life, As once in May. Then there are other autobiographical pieces: short stories and attempts at further novels and, for good measure, a set of highly autobiographical letters, The Hound and the Falcon, which are concerned with her Catholicism.

Getting on with it

Patricia Beer, 15 August 1991

I doubt it any reviewer has ever converted anybody to anything. But there have been cases where the reviewer has been won over by the book under consideration. Mrs Besant, reviewing Mme Blavatsky on Theosophy, was converted on the spot. So I approached Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti (an oddly-worded title) with some caution. It proved unnecessary. Radha Rajagopal Sloss is no proselytiser in general; she seeks to convince us of one proposition: that Krishnamurti was less Chaste than his followers assumed him to be. Specifically, he is said to have had a long affair with Mrs Sloss’s mother, Rosalind Rajagopal, née Williams – an American devotee both when he was operating under the aegis of the Theosophical Society and later when he went freelance.’

Happy Few

Patricia Beer, 23 May 1991

I have not met Max Wright, but a few years ago I read two chapters of a book he was writing about the Plymouth Brethren. I thought highly of the script and looked forward to hearing how it was getting on. Now I have the finished work. Told in Gath is published in the streets of Askelon and the daughters of the Philistines rejoice (2 Samuel 1.20). I align myself on this occasion with the daughters of the Philistines. This seems to me a necessary book.

Poem: ‘Cockcrow’

Patricia Beer, 30 August 1990

Up at five o’clock on an August morning We carry light luggage out of the house. With heavy cases our children stoop. Their children are winged With small bright backpacks.

The sky is a shop window before opening-time, Goods shadowy as trees. But in a back room And spreading, the light will soon come on.

We breathe cautiously in the untried air, Talk warily at the centre of six fields.

...

Poem: ‘The Lost Woman’

Patricia Beer, 4 November 1982

My mother went with no more warning Than a bright voice and a bad pain. Home from school on a June morning And where the brook goes under the lane I saw the back of a shocking white Ambulance drawing away from the gate.

She never returned and I never saw Her buried. So a romance began. The ivy-woman turned into a tree That still hops away like a rainbow down The avenue as I approach. My...

Poem: ‘Blood will have blood’

Patricia Beer, 5 August 1982

Now the Conference stands up to sing About the blood that dyed the scarlet banners, Face after flushed face lauding a vampire king.

At church service this morning all the sinners Were non-political. The leaders came To Blackpool as sincere long-distance runners

Away, by miles and years, from the blood of the Lamb That clotted in their youth: a tourists’ stain On arras or flagged floor,...

Ladies and Gentlemen

Patricia Beer, 6 May 1982

The Young Rebecca is a collection of the writings of Rebecca West from 1911 to 1917, selected and introduced by Jane Marcus, with just the right amount of explanation and comment. In one respect it is an unfortunate title, suggesting an item from the cast-list of almost any black-and-white film about almost any celebrity, but in the respect that it makes a point of Rebecca West’s youth, it is a good title. The first article is signed by her natural name, Cicily Fairfield: she was so young that she had not yet yielded to whatever weakness it was that made her take a pseudonym, though she already had one in mind. She was 19.

Two Poems

Patricia Beer, 4 February 1982

Lost

In town the storm loosened the bones of the cedar tree, Thrashed them out of its roaring green pelt And they lay clean white on the lawn next morning.

‘Worse troubles at sea’ my mother used to say About almost everything. I arrived in Devon That afternoon, and she was proved right, long after death.

The storm was here too, blowing its own trumpet, Holding up the white wings...

Seeing the light

Patricia Beer, 16 July 1981

‘I like the revivalist coup de foudre for its recognition that true revelation can instantly change a man, so that his sins simply fall away from him, to be replaced by present joy and future hope.’ Philip Toynbee introduces Part of a Journey with a Which-type survey of the various concepts, and consequent terminology, of religious conversion, at one point making it sound like the best china (‘ “Rebirth” should be kept for very special occasions’) and the next like an unpretentious hock (‘I’ve always liked “Amendment” for its modesty and dryness’).

Thomas’s Four Hats

Patricia Beer, 2 April 1981

The publishers say that The Poetry of Edward Thomas is the first full-length study to deal exclusively with Thomas’s poetry (in Britain, they must mean). On the face of it, a six-decade gap of this sort shows a strange failure in critical husbandry. Yet it is not really so surprising.

Moving in

Patricia Beer, 20 November 1980

Stephen Reynolds is coming back. There have been at least two indications of this recently. The prophet is no longer without honour in his own, adopted country, for a plaque has just been unveiled to him in Sidmouth, with the blessing of the town council and a photograph of the proceedings on the front page of the local paper. And London Magazine Editions have republished his best-known book, A Poor Man’s House, which first appeared in 1908. Both events are thoroughly justifiable.

Merry Wife of Windsor

Patricia Beer, 16 October 1980

The most terrifying comment made on the Abdication may well be that of Lord Beaverbrook, writing twenty years after the events in which he played such a prominent part: if the British people, he said, had been less absorbed in the affair of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson the energy thus saved might have been used to avert world war. Possibly the same remark might be made today, for popular, even best-selling, books and plays are still being written about the protagonists.

New Women

Patricia Beer, 17 July 1980

George Gissing was convinced that the year 1900 would make all the difference. Writing his study of Charles Dickens in the late 1890s, he refers to his own generation as those ‘upon whom the new centurys breaking’. And one of the things the new century would bring was the New Woman.

The Grand Tour paused at Ravenna. Back in England Rain closed in from the sea and attacked the windows But the two wealthy young women Saw mosaic walls whenever they shut their eyes, Thought of those craftsmen who could never be pitied Working for God in the sun.

The house they lived in was already childlike With a pleasant sense of games still to be played Past youthfulness and prime. The...

Poem: ‘The Conjurer’

Patricia Beer, 1 May 1980

Arriving early at the cemetery For ‘the one o’clock’, we looked around At the last sparks of other people’s grief, The flowers fading back into the ground.

A card inscribed ‘With reverent sympathy From the Magicians’ Club’ was propped against A top hat made of blossoms and a wand Tied with a black velvet bow. We sensed

The rabbits and the ladies sawn...

Poem: ‘Midsummer in Town’

Patricia Beer, 6 December 1979

It is mid-June. In the stair-well Darkness has papered every wall. The air is cool. Clothes feel too thin. The green outside is looking in Through the opaque leaded pane. The eclipse of summer comes again.

Beside me stands the black-eyed cat Whose yellow stare saw winter out. Now that the leaves have mobbed the light Her deeper eyes are stripped for night. In dealings with the longest day We...

Make-Believe

Patricia Beer, 8 November 1979

It is a powerful act of make-believe to put all your foes together in a building and set fire to them; it has also happened in history. At many points throughout The Intruder fantasy and reality come together in this way. In the preface, Gillian Tindall states that she is not writing about identifiable people or places, yet what she relates is firmly based on actual events, including the final tragedy; it is also the stuff of nightmares. ‘History couldn’t possibly be true because it was too awful,’ Jane, the heroine, used to think as a child. This book is the story of her enlightenment.

Second Chances

Donald Davie, 22 July 1993

Patricia Beer tells how not long ago she was giving a reading at which, presumably in a question-and-answer period, one after another in her small audience savaged a poem she’d written 25...

Read More

Patricia Beer’s Selected Poems contain work composed over a period of two decades. They are a tribute to her consistency rather than to her development: I don’t find myself skipping...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences