Geoffrey Grigson’s best poem, and the type of his best poetry, is ‘His Swans’. Evidently and justly, he thinks well enough of it to put it in the Faber Book of Reflective Verse as his sole exhibit:
Remote music of his swans, their long
Necks ahead of them, slow
Beating of their wings, in unison,
Grey wide blended horizontals
Of endless sea and sky.
Their choral song: heard sadly, but not
Sad: they sing with solemnity, yet cheerfully,
Contentedly, though one by one
One by one his white birds
Falter, and fall, out of the sky.
‘Heard sadly, but not sad’ is one of Grigson’s unfinical precisions. Having got it right, as if at the first attempt, he lets it alone. The poem seems to allude to the swans in the second stanza of Walter de la Mare’s ‘The Old Summerhouse’, also in the Faber book:
Fall – fall: dark, garrulous rumour,
Until I could listen no more.
Could listen no more – for beauty with sorrow
Is a burden hard to be borne;
The evening light on the foam, and the swan, there;
The music, remote, forlorn.
But there is no competition in such an acknowledgment.
A few poems in Montaigne’s Tower are nearly as fine as ‘His Swans’. I think of ‘Habitat’, ‘Joseph Haydn’, ‘In the Zoo’ and ‘What goes to which?’ as good companions to earlier successes: ‘Une Vie’, ‘Again discard the night’, ‘Not Visited Enough’, ‘Yahoos: A Variation and Reply’, ‘Paddington Street’, ‘Note on the Untraditional’, ‘Papposilenus’, ‘West Window’ and ‘If you had elected to stay’ from the Collected Poems: 1963-1980. Recourse to the Collected Poems: 1924-1962 would add at least another ten finenesses. Some of the new poems return to former experience: ‘At Colmar, in June, Outside the Museum’ is another version of ‘Note on Grünewald’, ‘B.N.’ (presumably Ben Nicolson) resumes ‘Unposted Reply’.
But if I were to invoke the criteria that Grigson has enforced upon other contemporary poets, none of his poems would pass. Four years ago he declared his conviction ‘that since Eliot and the leading poets (now dead) of my own Thirties generation, there have been no major poets, no “good” poets at all; and perhaps only six middling poets worth attending to – six poets in England (and as far as long or short sight tells me, fewer still in the United States).’ That every year new maggots make new flies is what Grigson’s report comes to. In one of the new poems, ‘April Values’, he urges us to be more exclusive:
Let us not prefer
Ashbery to Yeats,
Let us not suppose T. Hughes,
On shining floors,
Goes waltzing with a lyrical Muse.
But the rebuke comes in verse which itself should stand rebuked.
It is a pity that Grigson, a good poet in a context in which achievement is likely to be occasional at best, spends so much spirit in peevishness and rancour. There is evidence that he enjoys walking, curlews, turtledoves, bullfinches, owls, Thomas Moore’s ‘Thee, Thee, Only Thee’ and much that France still offers. There are writers he likes, most of them dead: Ronsard, John Clare, William Barnes (‘love of whose poems seems to me a litmus paper of the genuine’), Auden (‘the greatest of my contemporaries’), George Herbert, Vaughan, Crabbe, Hopkins, Whitman, Campion, Morris, Christina Rossetti, John Crowe Ransom, Wyndham Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Stevie Smith. I would think a life of diverse affections could be made upon such affiliations. But Grigson seems to need to be enraged or disgusted, too. Else why would he go to the disfiguring bother of writing, publishing and reprinting his ugly references to Ezra Pound (‘the pathos of the loony, traitorous, filthslinging poet in his cage at Pisa or in his ward in the Washington asylum’), to ‘restricted and jejune Eliot’ –
Over the Missouri, over the Seine,
Over the Thames, and over the Severn,
The soul of white Tom
Shall float to Heaven –
to Hardy’s ‘rather monotonously small follower Philip Larkin’, etc? If he despises William Carlos Williams, Dylan Thomas, Gertrude Stein, Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, Edith Sitwell, Augustus John and Ted Hughes, what’s the merit of vulgarity and spleen? Many trees have been cut down to make the paper on which Grigson has spewed his contempt for teachers, critics, literary editors, the scholars who retain Emily Dickinson’s dashing punctuation, Emerson’s poems, Donald Davie’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (‘What piffle!’). Richard Ellmann’s Oxford Book of American Verse, Michael Holroyd’s Augustus John, Andrew Motion’s The Poetry of Edward Thomas (‘Am I to suppose this is how he talks to his students, poor sods?’). The fame of other writers Grigson takes as an affront: ‘a sudden fashion for Borges, a fashion for Beckett, a fashion for Bunting’. Imagine publishing in 1976 and reprinting in 1982 and 1984 a sneering paragraph about John Davenport, ending with this: ‘I am sure there are Davenports around today, full of infinitely unfulfilled promise, incapable of performance, and not very nice about it.’ Or thinking that the cause of truth-telling is well served by referring, in Notes from an Odd Country, to ‘capitalist, truncheon-wielding, robber-baron America’.
Grigson’s peevishness might be justified if his own performances were always sound. But they aren’t. He’s not a scrupulous writer. In a passage denouncing clichés, he writes: ‘Fiction can survive bagginess or looseness (though it is never the better for it), whereas by those dropsical infections poetry is drowned.’ Drowned by infections? In an essay on Edward Thomas, Grigson has this sentence: ‘The unifying quality about Thomas’s poems, countryish or sentimental or rooted in sad relationship, is that high quiet violin playing of his lines and his whole poems, which approaches something Haydenesque in my scale of values’ – a violin he liked so much that he played it again in a recent poem about Thomas:
This violin poet did not raise his voice.
He was unhappy in circumstances and choice,
Yet he was a poet able to rejoice.
In fact, Grigson is not nearly as good a critic as he evidently thinks he is. Compare his essay on Edward Thomas with David Bromwich’s in a recent Raritan, and you’ll see the academic critic is far better.
In scholarship, on the rare occasions on which it arises, Grigson is irresponsible. In The Private Art he says that ‘years ago someone spotted that in another of Vaughan’s poems the printer, for Usk, Vaughan’s Silurian river, had misread use’:
I see the use: and know my blood
Is not a sea,
But a shallow, bounded flood
Though red as he.
Change ‘use’ to ‘Usk’, Grigson says, ‘and the sense appears.’ The Usk comes down red, he reports, ‘from the red soil of Vaughan’s mountain country’. But editors ‘won’t have it: they stick to use, meaning moral or application, and sense is spiked, leaving no referent for he and his.’ In Blessings, Kicks and Curses Grigson quotes the poem again, changing ‘use’ to ‘Usk’ without mentioning that ‘Usk’ hasn’t appeared in any printing of the poem.
The position is this. ‘The Storm’ was one of the poems in Silex Scintillans: Part One (1650), the first line reading ‘I See the use: and know my bloud.’ L.C. Martin’s note on it, in the second edition (1957) of The Works of Henry Vaughan, says:
Miss (Louise Imogen) Guiney was for some time inclined to believe that ‘use’ was a printer’s error for ‘Usk’, and emendation proposed independently by Sir Edward Marsh in TLS, 19 July 1947. Miss (Gwenllian E.F.) Morgan, supporting her friend’s conjecture, wrote to her on 29 July 1907, with reference to ‘red’ in 1.4, ‘There have been the reddest of red floods in the Usk: I never saw him redder ... In Welsh rivers are masculine.’ ‘Use’, however, makes good sense with the obsolete meaning of a moral or application ... Vaughan may have been impressed by the sight of a storm at sea under a reddish sky, and moralises thereon.
There is no missing referent for ‘he’ and ‘his’: they refer to sea. Marsh’s proposed emendation has been accepted, but it is unnecessary, and Vaughan’s editors, L.C. Martin and French Fogle, have quite reasonably stayed with ‘use’. Grigson has no cause to feel thwarted by professors. But a professor who quoted the poem would indicate that ‘Usk’ is merely conjectural. I don’t claim that the point is very interesting, but it was Grigson who started the fuss.
The new anthology is splendid. Reflective verse, Grigson says, is ‘verse that induces reflection’. Doesn’t any verse worth reading and remembering do that, even verse that protests, as Louis MacNeice’s ‘Wolves’ does:
I do not want to be reflective any more
Envying and despising unreflective things
Finding pathos in dogs and undeveloped handwriting.
No matter. Many of the poems Grigson has chosen are well-known and well-loved – Herbert, Wordsworth, Hardy, Tennyson, Owen – and they set the reader reflecting mostly upon last things, finalities beside and besides the grave. I could live without Yeats’s ‘Under bare Ben Bulben’s head’ and, mentioning Yeats, Auden’s elegy, ‘Earth, receive an honoured guest’. Shakespeare, Tennyson and Wordsworth seem most regularly to occur to Grigson in his reflective moods.
The book is confined to poets English, Irish, French and Russian. No Americans need apply, unless they are as dead as Longfellow and Melville. In 1976 Grigson said he didn’t think America had produced ‘any considerable and greatly agreeable poet since Ransom’, but even Ransom hasn’t been let into the Faber book, though I could name six of his poems as memorably reflective as any modern poet’s. The shortest item in the anthology comes from Macbeth IV iii, where Malcolm says: ‘Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.’ It has long been one of Grigson’s touchstones, I gather, though the possibility that it applies just as much to poets as to angels has not come home to him.
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