Hearing about Damnation

Donald Davie

  • Collected Poems by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 262 pp, £10.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 19 211941 9

This volume represents more than forty years work by one of the most earnestly devoted and intelligent of our poets. Accordingly it must be considered deliberately, and at some length.

Twenty-four years ago, reviewing Enright’s Bread Rather than Blossoms (for all practical purposes his second collection – leaving aside, that is, his 1948 Season Ticket, published in Alexandria), I exhorted him to remember ‘the deeper reaches (and so the deeper humanity) of the art he practises’. I wish I saw clearer evidence, now his Collected Poems is before us, that he noticed this exhortation, or thought it worth attending to. On the other hand, this observation is not so dismissive as it sounds. And in any case I was ungracious, back in 1957, in not acknowledging that Enright had already then showed that he could navigate those deeper waters if he wanted to. The proof was, and is, in the title-poem of his first collection, ‘The Laughing Hyena, by Hokusai’, which I must first have encountered, I now recognise, in G.S. Fraser’s anthology Poetry Now (1956). It appeared again that same year in Robert Conquest’s anthology New Lines, and I fear I did not then recognise in it, as I do now, perhaps the finest poem in that volume, and certainly the most surprising. It is, I suppose and hope, well-known: but it isn’t famous – as it deserves to be. It can’t be quoted in full, for the simple technical reason that much of it is written in long looping lines that cannot be tucked inside the right-hand margin of even wide pages, let alone a newspaper column. These long lines were to become one of Enright’s hallmarks, but in later poems they are not often so splendidly justified as they are here. For here they generate looping and leaping rhythms which enact equivalent effects in the different medium of Hokusai, for whom, we are told, ‘everything was molten,’ whose kite ‘soars like sacrificial smoke’, with whom

All is flux: waters fall and leap, and bridges leap and fall.
Even his Tortoise undulates ...

Enright’s language leaps and falls and undulates in sympathy, with an energy that is, like Hokusai’s, ‘volcanic’:

And the Laughing Hyena, cavalier of evil, as volcanic as the rest:
Elegant in a flowered gown, a face like a bomb-burst,
Featured with fangs and built about a rigid laugh,
Ever moving, like a pond’s surface where a corpse has sunk.
Between the raised talons of the right hand rests an object –
At rest, like a pale island in a savage sea – a child’s head,
Immobile, authentic, torn and bloody –
The point of repose in the picture, the point of movement in us.

And with that line, of course, we come up against the moral crux.

The movement prompted in us by a child’s bloody head torn from its body is a movement of horror. Or rather that is what it prompts in us as soon as we take it out of Hokusai’s composition, where on the contrary it is ‘the point of repose’. Is this tolerable? Can we allow art thus to impose itself on us, so as to annul and even reverse the nausea and outrage which stir in us as soon as we step outside the aesthetic frame? This is the crux in poem after poem by Enright, and mostly he resolves it by saying in effect: ‘No, this is intolerable. I will not tolerate it, will not tolerate art on these terms.’ But in this early poem he solves the crux the other way:

Terrible enough, this demon. Yet it is present and perfect,
Firm as its horns, curling among its thick and handsome hair.
I find it an honest visitant, even consoling, after all
Those sententious phantoms, choked with rage and uncertainty,
Who grimace from contemporary pages. It, at least,
Knows exactly why it laughs.

Here, for what I think is the one and only time in Enright’s career, he finds himself able to accept that art, at any rate some great art, is amoral, unleashing energies which do not stop short of, which may even seek out, gratuitous ferocities. I fear that when I with too much aplomb urged him to essay ‘the deeper reaches’, I had myself not taken account of the sharks and barracuda which swim in those depths. For I too, like Dennis Enright though a few years later, had been schooled by F.R. Leavis in Cambridge to believe that the energies behind worthwhile art were moral energies and accordingly that it was dangerous and wrong to think of the aesthetic as a distinct category, where moral judgments were, or might have to be, suspended. This poem as I read it records Enright’s encounter with the furious energies of a great artist, an encounter which compels him, at least for the moment, to abandon that reassuring Leavisite conviction. Indeed he not only encounters Hokusai, he is sucked into Hokusai’s energetic vortex, as we can tell from the energies released in his own language: and so the conclusion in Hokusai’s favour was inevitable if the poem was to be honest.

Enright, however, is deeply humane, indeed humanitarian – too much so, if not for his own good, for the good of his art. Or so we may think. Accordingly, in later years, when confronting the apparently unavoidable inhumanity of art, he usually by the plainest implication refuses the bargain – as in ‘A Polished Performance’, from New Lines – 2 (1963):

Citizens of the polished capital
  Sigh for the towns up country,
And their innocent simplicity.

People in the towns up country
  Applaud the unpolished innocence
Of the distant villages.

Dwellers in the distant villages
  Speak of a simple unspoilt girl,
Living alone, deep in the bush.

Deep in the bush we found her,
  Large and innocent of eye,
Among gentle gibbons and mountain ferns.

Perfect for the part, perfect,
  Except for the dropsy
Which comes from polished rice.

In the capital our film is much admired,
  Its gentle gibbons and mountain ferns,
Unspoilt, unpolished, large and innocent of eye.

This is much nearer to a typical ‘Movement’ poem. And the difference between this and ‘The Laughing Hyena’ is presumably what the dust-jacket has in mind when it invites us to notice that ‘D.J. Enright’s style has developed from the sensuous and extravagant formalities of some of his early poems into the pared-down referential wit of his later work.’ This seems right, and is phrased with more nicety than we usually expect from a blurb. But what has been left behind in the Hokusai poem, along with the sensuousness and the formal extravagance, is energy. No long lines here, no mounting and coiling and leaping rhythms, but clipped and ironic distance: Enright ensures that none of us are going to encounter this film except on his terms, certainly we are not to be ‘caught up’ in it, as he was caught up by and into the composition of Hokusai. I’m not sure he doesn’t suggest that if we go to see this film, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

One of the questions asked about the Movement poets is whether, taken one by one, they have ‘developed’ (and, if they haven’t, whether and how much this matters). There can be no doubt about Enright: he has ‘developed’ all right, and with awesome consistency. Thus from the distrust of art’s autonomy that we find in ‘A Polished Performance’ and other poems like it, there is a straight inflexible line to what we read in the autobiographical sequence, ‘The Terrible Shears’ (1973):

Now I could watch unmoved the casting
Of hundreds of books into dustbins.
But two of them I think I should still
Dive in after – Shakespeare and the Bible.

This is development indeed – especially for those like me who first read D.J. Enright (supposing him much older than myself) in the pages of Scrutiny, patiently explaining to us Rilke or Goethe. So much more widely read than most of us, he finds himself compelled by the logic of his own decency, his humane indignations, to a point where he would salvage, out of all the books he has read, just two. It was an inevitable outcome: but most of us would cravenly have contrived, one way or another, to shuffle out of the logic of our own convictions. Not he! And one is indignant at the many who compliment him on his decency without counting the sacrifices that his decency has exacted of him. For there is no way to turn aside this protestation by pretending that Enright is here speaking in character or through a persona – something that can be managed, for instance, with Larkin’s notorious ‘Books are a load of crap.’ Enright knows all about personae, but he’ll have no truck with them, certainly not in ‘The Terrible Shears’. This is what the blurb must mean by ‘referential’ – his ‘referential wit’. It is what other voices – for instance, French ones – might call disparagingly ‘anecdotal’. Enright knows all about that sort of disparagement: he consistently invites it and defies it. For him the content, the subject-matter, must always have precedence over the style, the ‘treatment’: because only by thus relegating treatment to secondary status can he be sure of denying to his art the autonomy that he knows it is always seeking for. And so in ‘The Terrible Shears’ one is continually aghast at the tight rein he keeps on his art, the frugality he imposes on it.

Certainly ‘The Terrible Shears’ is in verse; and one even concedes that the harrowing record could not have been done except in verse (its clipped cadences shutting out any self-pity, any rhetorical elaboration). As a pitilessly unsensational chronicle of what a working-class childhood could be in the England of the 1920s, it is irreplaceable. But is it in any real sense poetry? And from where I stand I have to judge that it isn’t, because all its devices of language are quite plainly instrumental: they serve, and they subserve, the subject-matter; whatever energies are released are (quite deliberately) released by the theme, not at all by the medium, never from within language. Accordingly the admission that only two books in English are ultimately worth saving must be taken quite literally, as a sincere profession of considered opinion. Enright, to be sure, goes on trafficking in literature – for instance, as reviewer (and a very good one): still, we can save him from inconsistency by supposing that Shakespeare and the Bible make up all of literature that matters to him whenever he remembers his own and his parents’ life in Leamington fifty or sixty years ago. For them, as for overworked geisha-girls in post-war Japan, literature and the other arts were most of the time luxuries that they could not (emotionally) afford. Enright never forgets that, and won’t let us forget it. Which is admirable of him, and has been duly admired, though not more than it deserves. All the same, is this the acid test that should be applied to the arts? It is a shame that penurious people in Leamington Spa in the 1920s could not afford to partake of Art at all often. But is that Art’s fault? Surely the blame lies elsewhere: neither with them, nor with the Art that mostly can’t speak to them. Along these lines one begins to think that the harsh Either/Or on which Enright has impaled himself – either ‘subject’ or ‘treatment’, either Truth or Art – is in fact negotiable, in ways he has refused to contemplate. And if so, the French sneer, ‘anecdotal’, has substance and force – as applied to Enright’s poems, but also (and more) to British poetry generally through now several decades.

Was there ever a poet so ‘responsible’? Enright never lets himself off the hook, but is always reminding himself what is owed to the things and people he writes about, and to the people who will read him. Much as we may admire civic and moral responsibility in our writers, surely in Enright’s case it is excessive: for not just in ‘The Terrible Shears’ but in his poems more generally one feels that the pressure of these responsibilities has left him too little room for manoeuvre, too little margin for invention and caprice. One of the responsibilities that he recognises is to be always entertaining. And whether or not other responsibilities irk him, this one certainly does – there is a remarkable, savagely snarling poem called ‘Monkey’ which says as much. It is this determination to be entertaining – jokey, and quotable – which tends to obscure the most interesting development in Enright through recent years: from the aesthete to the moralist, yes, but then from the moralist into something else – from secular humanism into religion. We notice this first in his fifth collection, The Old Adam (1965), which lives up to the promise of its title in being steadily concerned with Original Sin:

Ours is the age of goody-goodiness.

They are planning to kill the old Adam,
Perhaps at this moment the blade is entering.

And when the old Adam has ceased to live,
What part of us but suffers a death?...

He died in our generation, the old Adam.
Are our children ours, who did not know him?

‘A Liberal Lost’, ‘Visiting’ and ‘Misgiving at Dusk’ are other pieces from this collection that tell the same story, and in the last of these this new preoccupation recovers energy and intensity in language:

Shaking with lust, the mosquitoes
Stiffen themselves with bloody possets.
I have become their stews.

Thereafter, every few pages, we find poems worrying away at points of Christian doctrine, particularly the bleakest of these, the doctrine of the Fall. In Daughters of Earth (1972) there is ‘The Faithful’, a rewriting of Hardy; ‘More Memories of Underdevelopment’, rewriting Hopkins; ‘How many devils can dance on the point...’ tracing the Calvinist logic of Cowper, whose ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ is to be just under the surface of other poems; and in particular there is ‘Children Killed in War’, which seems to be a self-accusing revision of the early and inadequate Dylan Thomas imitation, ‘On the Death of a Child’, but is also in part a rewriting of Yeats, contending that the unjust killing of children requires for its comprehension a dimension beyond the humanistic. In Sad Ires (1975) there is the very powerful ‘Stations of King’s Cross’, and ‘The Cauldron’, along with at least five more poems turning on Christian dogma. And in the 28 new poems that round out this Collected Poems at least half, by my count, answer to the same description. As for the two long sequences, Paradise Illustrated (1978) and A Faust Book.(1919), the titles speak for themselves: although in both the tone is mocking, the mockery is not at the expense of the Christian myth, the sombre fable, which on the contrary is presented as compellingly plausible.

To be sure, all these pieces could be read, and no doubt they most often are, as more or less raucously blasphemous. But one does not blaspheme that which one has no belief in – a familiar and irrefutable argument, which Enright himself rehearses in the last lines of ‘The Cauldron’. We may think of how Peter de Vries repeatedly reconsiders and vindicates his ancestral Dutch Calvinism in a series of hilariously bawdy novels which are commonly taken to be only entertainments – ‘screamingly funny’ (as indeed they are). Comedy, in the hands of such as Enright and De Vries, is a very serious genre.

And what about Enright’s most confessional work, ‘The Terrible Shears’? If he has become a religious poet, surely the proof of his having done so must be somewhere among the afflictions and desolations there bitterly, though still jokily, remembered. And indeed the proof is there – in pieces like ‘Sunday’, but pre-eminently in a poem carefully placed in this sequence about Leamington even though it seems to belong quite elsewhere. It takes its start from Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus:

As Leverkühn began his last address
To the cultivated ladies and gentlemen
There assembled,
They were highly bewildered.

Till one of them cried,
‘Why, it is poetry! One is hearing poetry!’
Thus relieving them all immensely.

But not for long –
As the composer’s friend noted –
Alas, not for long did one think so!
They were hearing about damnation.

It sent the speaker mad.
The listeners it sent home indignant.
They had expected an artistic soiree.

For many years now what we have been hearing about from Enright is damnation: not in the hereafter, of course, but now. Such is the price you pay for keeping sedulously (responsibly) in touch with your reader: he forces you to inhabit, in full consciousness, the hell that he inhabits without knowing it.