With the Woolwich

C.H. Sisson

  • New and Collected Poems: 1934-84 by Roy Fuller
    Secker in association with London Magazine Editions, 557 pp, £14.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 436 16790 5
  • The Sea at the Door by Sylvia Kantaris
    Secker, 70 pp, £3.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 436 23070 4

Roy Fuller was born in 1912, under what conjunction of planets I do not know, but the place of his birth was somewhere between Manchester and Oldham. His next stop was Blackpool, where he attended the High School until the age of 16. He might even in those distant days have been expected to go on at the age of 17 or 18 to a university, but, whether through parental or his own native caution or some other cause, he was instead articled to a local solicitor and was admitted in 1934. His real career began in 1938 when he was appointed Assistant Solicitor to the Woolwich and Equitable Building Society, a post to which he returned after serving in the Navy from 1941 to 46. In 1958 he became Solicitor to the Society, and in 1969 a director, as he apparently still is. Respectable as this career is in itself, his public distinction has come from another source. In 1968 his employers, as he has himself recorded, ‘understandingly’ consented to his being nominated for the Chair of Poetry at Oxford; it was on his election that he relinquished his full-time employment and became a member of the board. Other marks of favour followed: a CBE and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1970; in 1972 he became a Governor of the BBC, and in 1976 a Member of the Arts Council. Might one not assume, of such a man, that he never gave anyone in authority a moment’s uneasiness? His record at the Arts Council shows that it is not as simple as that.

The first of the poems reprinted in this collection of half a century were written in 1934, and most of those in the first part of the volume – ‘From Poems (1939) and other sources’ – will be, for those who remember the period, redolent of the Thirties. Had the young Fuller been reading Graves? It is clear after a few pages that he had read Auden and one might even say that, after that encounter, all else was forgotten. But the scent of the Thirties is in the subject-matter as well as in the words. There is the elegy for a young man killed in Spain – the mythology as well as the melancholy facts of that conflict were much in the air at the time. The bombings in the Peninsula awakened, belatedly, aprehensions of the Luftwaffe over London, and youthful imaginations dwelt readily on the fall of cities. Something of this perhaps enters into Fuller’s ‘Birds in the pattern of a constellation’ and ‘Silence of country without inhabitants’ – such lines are, anyhow, much in the mood of the generation in which they were written. At times the mood issues in images of melodrama:

Here walk with open lips the pale persuaders
Of doom, over the concrete near the river.

The vague tone of menace, which suited the times, would not have found that expression without Auden, whose blending of private dilemma and public disaster was the more powerful for not being explicit. Fuller was not behindhand in solemn endorsement of the suggestion of hysteria that was in the air:

The common news tells me
How I shall live:
There are no other values.

Fuller was caught in the wind of Auden-Spender-Day-Lewis Communism – hardly surprising for, susceptibility to rhetoric apart, some such politics were then a mark of respectability among the intellectual young and the Woolwich and Equitable were not afraid.

An even more powerful sense of period emanates from the poems in Part Two of this volume – ‘Mainly from The Middle of a War (1942) and A Lost Season (1944)’:

There is a hard thin gun on Clapham Common.
Deserted yachts in the mud at Greenwich.
In a hospital at Ealing notices
Which read WOMEN GASSED and WOMEN NOT GASSED.

This is that curious first winter of the war, before there were any bomb stories to tell. Then comes Dunkirk, duly recorded by our poet in Battersea, 3 June 1940 although, as he says: ‘Still there is nothing definite to say.’ There follow ‘Summer 1940’, ‘First Air-Raids’, ‘Autumn 1940’, as if the news were all it’s fit to print. It is of course a Poet who observes this public scene – a Thirties poet uttering such portentous lines as ‘No longer can guns be cancelled by love.’ When could they be? one wonders: the slightly nostalgic answer is

Can we be sorry that these explosions
Which occurring in Spain and China reached us as
The outer ring of yearning emotions,
Are here as rubble and fear, metal and glass.

There are more immediate scenes, also characteristic of the times – the young man separated from his wife, for example: ‘The same but so different with you not here’. But although it is alleged in ‘Soliloquy in an Air-Raid’ that ‘inside the poets’ (sic, plural) ‘the basis of common speech’ is hourly transmuted, it must be said that there is little enough evidence of this in the poems, which do not represent any serious progress. As the war goes on and Fuller passes into the Navy we get scenes of Service life, but the impression is given that these are verses written to tell the civilian population ‘this is what we are experiencing’ – a common and understandable impulse in the wartime Serviceman – rather than utterances forced on a poet who can say only what he must. Later we get African scenes, but always vitiated, as poems, by the same air of reportage. The ‘Epilogue’ which closes this section of the volume somewhat clumsily attempts a reflection on the war which has just ended or seems about to end:

As when the curtain falls, the audience gone,
There is a meaning though was purposed none.

There is the odd confession that ‘in our time all art seems meaningless.’ What does that mean, one wonders, from a young man who is trying to be a poet? Does he yet know what he is about? Or has he not yet begun to discard all that must be discarded before the necessary words isolate themselves from the vast desert of the optional?

There had been a moment, somewhere in the middle of the war, when Fuller had no longer been seeing the conventional things with conventional eyes, had no longer tried to be a poet, and when proposed meanings had fallen from him to leave him only with what he had to say. Some considerable practice of verse goes to the making of such a poem as ‘What is terrible’, so that his earlier work may be said to be bearing fruit, but what gives the poem life is that he has broken through the derivative verbiage which was apt to swill too freely round the more superficial layers of his mind and grasps helplessly for a bit of reality:

Life at last I know is terrible:
The innocent scene, the innocent walls and light
And hills for me are like the cavities
Of surgery or dreams. The visible might
Vanish, for all it reassures, in white.

This apprehension has come slowly to me ...

And what has brought it is being ‘Bored, systematically and sickeningly’ – by Service life, in short – and

       threatened with what is certainly worse:
Peril and death, but no less boring.

It is ‘the bland Aspect of nothing disguised as something’. The vision, and the poem, are uncharacteristic of the author, and one might say that had the 30-year-old sailor then recognised the authentic voice of his muse his subsequent work would have been different and this collected volume would, almost certainly, have been smaller. As the poem says,

      only truth can give
Continuation in time to bread and love

– and, one might add, only the truth which requires verse to express it will make a poem. Some sort of reliability there is in virtually all of the matter which fills this huge book, for Fuller is an honest man, but more often than not it is the approximate matter which suffices for ordinary talk and ordinary prose, in the approximate language we habitually use.

What poetry, other than that of his slightly older contemporaries, and in particular the Gang of Three, had really gone home to him at this period? How much did he know and care about the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries? What impact had Eliot and Pound made? Were there decently interred poems before 1934 which showed that these two originators had once knocked him sideways? A man born in 1912 could not have avoided them; he must either have wrestled with them or passed them by. Had his curiosity ever moved him towards some foreign poet? It is hard to believe that, if Fuller had had these concealed interests, they would not have left some trace, or that he would have taken his direction so uncritically from Auden. However that may be, at the end of the war he was 33, an age at which many developments may be expected but hardly any radical new bearings. There were developments in Fuller’s work. Part Three – ‘Mainly from Epitaphs and Occasions (1949) and – Counterparts (1954)’ – suggests that the poet came back to civilian life determined to work earnestly as a literary man. It is as if he had decided to tidy up a bit or, as they say or used to say in Ulster, ‘make things a bit more Protestant-looking’ – in due course, as it turned out, with a rhyming dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. The ‘Dedicatory Epistle with a book of 1949’ shows him certainly having some success in this line:

Here’s proof – as if one needed any –
Of Fuller’s classic parsimony.
One volume, two dedicatees;
So little verse and less to please.

It is neat, it is witty and it pleases, but it is superficial, as why should it not be, in the chat of a verse letter? The worry is that, after all that boredom, travel and danger Fuller has not after all come back as much sadder and wiser as might have been hoped. He has stuck to his old literary guns as to his rather ingenuous politics, as he boasts or confesses to Alan Ross, who is one of the dedicatees:

We disagree in much, I know:
I’m over-fond of Uncle Joe;
You find in Auden not an era –
Simply a poet who grows queerer;
The working class for you’s a fact,
No statue in the final act.

And really not much changed after that, except as the scene and the climate of opinion changed and age caught up with him. ‘On his 65th Birthday’:

Went to the Mini-Town Hall
(So-called) to claim my free
Pass for the off-peak bus.
No one expressed surprise
That I was sixty-five –
Stunned at my sprightly gait
And thick if frosted hair.
The ladies around were concerned
With reduced-price Ovaltine
And other baksheesh of the State,
Befitting an unamorous age.

And if, as he claims,

      no one is more aware
Than I of the Beast-ruled age,

he can hardly be said to have made good his claim in his later verse.

There is, in the end, something hopelessly comic about this director of the Woolwich and Equitable who used the platform of the Oxford Professor of Poetry to arraign the ‘petty-bourgeois’ who must form most of the Society’s customers, and supported what he said by a quotation from Lenin which had ‘been a favourite’ of his for more than twenty-five years. At this time (1969) he believed – on what evidence? – that ‘the whole socialist concept ... is substantially justified not merely by its promise to make culture universally available but also by its capability of raising culture to only dreamed of heights.’ I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘culture’ but Fuller was at the time speaking of Arnold. ‘The poets of the so-called “modern movement”,’ the Professor thunders from the Chair, ‘have often been themselves to blame for poetry’s giving in to its status as a minority art.’ Whatever those last words may mean, it remains true that a taste for poetry, among people in a position to get something worse, has always been rather rare, and the number of poets who outlive their century has always been minuscule.

Sylvia Kantaris’s Sea at the Door breaks on the Cornish coast, but she comes from the Peak District and has travelled to the other side of the world and – perhaps more significantly – next door, to France. She confesses that travelogues bore her, and justifies the dislike by some mild boasting about her own more exotic wanderings, though it carries more conviction when she says that what is especially important is rather such things as ‘fading curtains or the way the sun illuminates the dust on shelves and chairs’. For the poet it is important to find out what he really knows, which turns out to be much more limited than what he knows for social or purely intellectual purposes, and Sylvia Kantaris’s successes are the poems closest to home. She writes with fine lucidity about her grandmother. Turning from a childhood photograph she says:

Sixty years later when your face was set
in weathered convolutions like a walnut
and I knew every trench and watercourse of it,
I remember how you crooned The Lord’s my Shepherd
in your nut-cracker voice when you thought
no one was listening ...

Here she is drawing not merely on things seen but on those involuntary collections time makes in the memory: so in ‘Afterbirth’, in which the sight of her growing child saying goodbye to her is telescoped with the vision of the same child attached to her ‘by one thin, slippery cord’. At its best, Kantaris’s writing is elegant and exercises a fine intelligence, and its literary qualities certainly owe something to her knowledge of French literature. This experience is, however, best used indirectly. Her translations of Laforgue and Mallarmé are little short of embarrassing, from so delicate a hand. Perhaps these are poets for whom the possible has already been done, for the 20th century; they are anyhow clearly not the poets for her.