Other Poems and Other Poets

Donald Davie

  • Notes from New York, and Other Poems by Charles Tomlinson
    Oxford, 64 pp, £4.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 211959 1
  • The Cargo by Neil Rennie
    TNR Productions, 27 pp, January 1984
  • Collected Poems 1943-1983 by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 383 pp, £14.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 85635 498 8

Landor wrote: ‘Many, although they believe they discover in a contemporary the qualities which elevate him above the rest, yet hesitate to acknowledge it; part, because they are fearful of censure for singularity; part, because they differ from him in politics or religion; and part, because they delight in hiding, like dogs and foxes, what they can at any time surreptitiously draw out for their sullen solitary repast. Such persons have little delight in the glory of our country ...’ This admonition (especially the last sentence) is what I try to hold in mind when I give my sense of Charles Tomlinson’s poetry.

Those who have been aghast at the churlish reviews of Tomlinson’s Poetry and Metamorphosis – Charles Martindale, who protested at Tom Paulin’s review in the LRB, and Richard Swigg who many months ago answered Alistair Elliott’s more brutal review in the TLS – have every reason to wonder that Tomlinson should still solicit the suffrages of a public that shows him such ill-will. He must be, so it must seem, either preternaturally meek, or else exceptionally a patriot. For it has been common knowledge for a long time – some would say, a long-standing scandal – that this poet enjoys the esteem of foreign readers (not only the English-speakers) to just the degree that among the compatriots of Betjeman and Larkin and Adrian Mitchell he is a prophet without much honour; and there has not been lacking the rather plain implication: ‘Go and live with those furriners that like you so much.’ But Tomlinson won’t go away; and he insists on publishing in his native country – thanks to his loyal publishers, OUP, who long ago took him on their list (induced in the first place – let credit be given where it’s due – by John Press). He insists, and he has the right to insist, that he is as authentic a voice of modern Britain as Philip Larkin is.

As some pages of Poetry and Metamorphosis make clear, the Britain that Tomlinson speaks for is one that most of us, gratefully or not, are ready to think defunct: the Britain of Ford Madox Ford in 1913-15, which was host to Wyndham Lewis’s earliest paintings, to the sculpture of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and to Ezra Pound’s first translations from the Chinese – a Britain that we may think of as snuffed out on the Somme, though on the contrary it seems to have been given its quietus by the depraved insouciance of Bloomsbury. As Tomlinson writes the history, it goes like this:

The wave of energy throughout Europe and England, which made men like Pound believe that they were living in a new Renaissance, was spent in England by the First World War. It had its renewals in Paris. It reached Russia (until group antagonisms and political suppression ended it there) in the work of Malevitch, Popova, Kliun, Tatlin and the constructivists... The Revolution extended for a while in Russia what the war and Bloomsbury sapped in England. Gaudier dead; Lewis impoverished; forgotten as a painter since, for ten years from 1921 onwards, he never exhibited; Pound demoralised and, like D.H. Lawrence, abandoning the England on which he had centred his hopes for a new age; Pound in Italy swallowing Mussolini whole. These were the sad facts of the Twenties.

Looking at a passage like that, we can more easily understand why Tomlinson has been black-balled, and continues to be, by people who have invested in a more consoling version of English history through the last seventy years.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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