Gurney’s Flood

Donald Davie

  • Geoffrey Grigson: Collected Poems 1963-1980
    Allison and Busby, 256 pp, £9.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 85031 419 4
  • The Cornish Dancer by Geoffrey Grigson
    Secker, 64 pp, £4.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 436 18805 8
  • The Private Art: A Poetry Notebook by Geoffrey Grigson
    Allison and Busby, 231 pp, £9.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 85031 420 8
  • Blessings, Kicks and Curses: A Critical Collection by Geoffrey Grigson
    Allison and Busby, £9.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 85031 437 2
  • Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney edited by P.J. Kavanagh
    Oxford, 284 pp, £12.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 19 211940 0
  • War Letters by Ivor Gurney, edited by R.K.R. Thornton
    Mid-Northumberland Arts Group/Carcanet, 271 pp, £12.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 85635 408 2

Many years ago Thom Gunn remarked: ‘To write poetry without knowing, for example, about the proper use of runovers used to be considered as impertinent as it would be now to apply for a job as a truck driver without knowing how to shift gear.’ (Wearily, in a sanguine attempt not to be misunderstood, he added: ‘It is true that being able to shift gears does not mean that one can drive straight or that one has the necessary stamina to keep the job, but it is a prerequisite.’) Geoffrey Grigson, so much older than Gunn (he is 77), has of course built his career about being considered impertinent, so it’s not surprising to find in his latest collection (his first was in 1939) runovers like these:

So mud was on you that day.
So it was as if loved wheelbarrow
Paths led not to love, but
Out of love away and away, or were
Barred. So we had trite things only to say.

Will anyone tell me how the voice is supposed to manage the runover (the enjambment) from the second line into the third, the third into the fourth, the fourth into the fifth? And this is a modest example: when Grigson is being ambitious, he jolts or hurls his runovers across a stanza-break:

Extra guests she welcomes awkwardly, shop

People from the near town ...

And yet this is the poet who quotes with solemn approval:

Beauty it may be is the meet of lines,
Or careful-spacèd sequences of sound.

Well, to be sure: but what happens to ‘the meet of lines’ at ‘wheelbarrow/paths’, and ‘but/out’ and ‘were/barred’? Grigson’s precepts are often admirable, but they are addressed to everyone but himself. And that has always been the case.

Fortunately he has written better than this. His devotion to Auden is required to make up for his hatred of nearly everyone else, and he has several poems addressed to Auden. Of these, one is mawkish (‘But this morning/Is different, my dear one’), and another is so-so, but some time in the 1970s, having read Auden’s City Without Walls, Grigson wrote an Epistle in which he excelled himself:

Green pillows of cress
In the brook which begins us
You celebrate too;
And up from your verses,
Though many
Forget them, stinking
Ogres not read them,
Blest by high priests
Stiff generals not
Stoop to reject them,
Rises an odour
Of essence, I say, of
Ripeness and rareness.

This poem for Auden lovingly re-creates for him places around Grigson’s summer home in France; and readers of Notes from an Odd Country (1970) will not be surprised. France releases in Grigson moods of gratified expansiveness which mysteriously evade him as soon as he re-crosses the Channel. It can only be at his instigation that we are advised on the jacket of The Cornish Dancer to regard Notes from an Old Country as ‘the best gloss on his own poems’. And it’s no good objecting that the Channel-crossing has this effect on him: others of us have found it among the luxuries of expatriation that we can extend to the foreign culture, since we’re in no way responsible for it, an indulgence that we deny to our own tight little island. What is striking, and deplorable, is that Grigson himself seldom notices this annual change in himself, still less worries about it. It’s the same story: if England mostly if not quite invariably exacerbates him, the reason is to be found never in himself but in other people.

This unreflecting exemption of himself from the strictures that he addresses to everyone else produces effects both bizarre and unfortunate, as when (this is in Blessings, Kicks and Curses) he develops a very just and instructive distinction between Walter Scott, prepared to compromise with his public, and Wordsworth, not so prepared; then realises that this is just the distinction that Leavis would have made and, instead of welcoming Leavis as an ally, marks out his distinction from him by talking of his ‘commination and pulpitry’; only to end and cancel out his own argument by a series of comminations more sweeping and prejudiced than Leavis at his worst. The damned include, since Grigson is a Little Englander, ‘the mob of Lowlanders who write in Lallans’ (for Hugh Macdiarmid, as for many others, he has a ferocious aversion that is never explained), and ‘the mob of Welshmen who write in Welsh ...’ At any rate, and oddly enough, France – specifically the France of Ronsard, from whom he translates four poems, two of them very well – gives Grigson what England doesn’t. And yet he seems not to have though through the implications of that affinity. For Ronsard of course conspicuously lacks that painterly eye which Grigson applauds in Raoul Dufy, and all too painstakingly tries to cultivate in his own poems:

To write like the bright sap green
Which lights dry saddening banks
Beside charcoal of hard roads in the spring
(Adding rose madder and a deep sky blue) ...

Ronsard’s tributes to the Loir valley, as Grigson must surely have recognised when he translated them, are wholly poetic or rhetorical – that is to say, linguistic; they owe nothing to the painter’s nice distinctions between the pigments on his palette, nor to a naturalist’s knowledge of just how a swift differs from a swallow. Grigson’s views on the proper language for poetry would, on the other hand, make the poet subservient to both the painter and the naturalist; his notions of just what is involved in naming, and of how signification is achieved in language, are astonishingly naive – with a naiveté which it needed no reading of Franco-American theory, but simply an awareness of what was happening to him when he composed, to reveal to him. For him a word has a meaning, one right meaning and no other; and when someone suggests that the matter is not altogether so simple, ‘What piffle!’ is his comprehensive reply and rebuttal. In this bluff assurance, he is the very voice of that English (not British) Establishment which he would have us believe he has spent his life in challenging.

He is too old to change now. And rather plainly these books appearing all at once represent a generous attempt by Grigson’s publishers (who are ill-served by their proofreaders) to claim for him what he supposedly deserves, as an intransigent and uncompromising ‘loner’. It is ill-natured, and serves no purpose, to suggest that his too much cherished image of himself as ‘loner’ is precisely what has prevented him from growing significantly between 1939 and 1982. Instead, let it be said that in his work of the early 1970s the Epistle after reading City without Walls, though it is pre-eminent, does not stand alone. Among other poems of that time which transcend in practice the deficiencies of the theory behind them, are these: ‘Short History of Old Art’, ‘Perhaps So’, two translations from Victor Hugo, ‘The Dying of a Long Lost Lover’, ‘Hill of the Bees’, ‘A Myth Enacted’, ‘Slow Bell from the High Hill’, ‘John Hunter’s Canal’, ‘The Lawn of Trees and Rocks’, ‘Quelle Histoire’, and (an unusual exertion of sympathy) ‘Dulled Son of Man’.

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