Davie’s Rap

Neil Corcoran

  • Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain 1960-1988 by Donald Davie
    Carcanet, 261 pp, £18.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 85635 820 7
  • Annunciations by Charles Tomlinson
    Oxford, 55 pp, £5.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 19 282680 8
  • Possible Worlds by Peter Porter
    Oxford, 68 pp, £6.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 19 282660 3
  • The boys who stole the funeral: A Novel Sequence by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 71 pp, £6.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 85635 845 2

One of the finest things in Donald Davie’s Under Briggflatts is a sustained, learned and densely implicative comparison of two poems about horses: Edwin Muir’s well-known, post-Apocalypse poem ‘The Horses’ and Austin Clarke’s much less familiar ‘Forget me not’, a poem written out of Clarke’s angry response to the Irish trade in horse meat in the 1950s. Although generously receptive to both, Davie comes out decisively in favour of the historical rootedness, specificity and consequent stylistic bristle and speed of the Clarke against the ahistorical, symbolist stasis of the Muir, identified as the mode of ‘mythopoeia’. As the argument develops, however, Davie reaches a startling conclusion: both poems are dependent on a conception of the ‘horse’, and therefore on a conception of ‘man’ (since the domesticated horse has significance only in relation to human beings), which share a ‘belief in the sacred’. Muir’s horses clearly represent the emergence of the possibility of some new post-holocaust inter-relationship between man and animal (and therefore suggest what an ideal present relationship might be); Clarke’s vituperative disgust with Irish mercenariness, and his elaborate poetic campaign of moral re-education, would be pointless if the horse were only a farmyard animal. Even though the poems are as far apart in tone as it is possible to conceive – the Muir all rapt and visionary, the Clarke sardonic and declamatory – both bear witness ‘that every poet’s task is ultimately and essentially religious; and that it is dangerous for any poet to think otherwise.’

Davie reaches this conclusion only ‘hesitantly’, as well he might when making such an ideologically-loaded observation, but his book appears to wish to reinforce it, and he would probably take confirmation in it from the other books under review. Charles Tomlinson’s Annunciations and Peter Porter’s Possible Worlds share Renaissance Virgins for cover illustrations. Tomlinson’s is Lorenzo Lotto’s Annunciation, in which the angel has just leapt spectacularly over the balcony, terrifying the cat, to make his declaration to an overcome and pliant Virgin among the furniture of her ordinary life: a bed, a candle, a stool, a lectern. Porter’s is Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto, in which a heavily pregnant Virgin points to her belly while a couple of angels theatrically raise the curtain of a canopy for her. Tomlinson’s opening poem is an account of the painting in which the angel foretells not a Christian parousia but

the unaccountable birth each time
my lord the light, a cat and you
share this domestic miracle.

The book’s strategically-placed concluding poem, ‘For a Godchild’, makes it clear how little Tomlinson is tempted by any miraculous other than the sublunary: it decides to educate his godchild out of the implacability and cruelty of Dante’s Christian God. But most of the poems in the book offer epiphanies of the ordinary, often connected with light, in a form which summons spectres of religious transcendence to the secular feast, imagining the objects of the world issuing from their ‘grail of origin’. Many of these meticulously crafted precisions and perceptions seem like secularised versions of Hopkinsian inscape and Tomlinson’s diction sometimes echoes Hopkins’s own: ‘flank’, ‘pied’, ‘shadow-pied’, ‘unroll’, ‘unshaped’, ‘down-drift’. The informing presence in Hopkins is a specifically sacramental one: Tomlinson manifestly wants to establish a continuity even where his official disbelief asserts a difference.

The poem in which Peter Porter makes reference to the della Francesca is called ‘Stratagems of the Spirit’. Its title comes from the book’s epigraph from Wallace Stevens (a poet who has always been important to Porter, and in interestingly varied ways). Stevens’s ‘Credences of Summer’ make his frequently-made post-Arnoldian point about the way a poetry must substitute for a metaphysic: the stratagems of the spirit are the attempt to find in the visible world a ‘successor of the invisible/... as what is possible/Replaces what is not’. Porter’s title for the book therefore crosses the scepticism of its evoked Voltairian tag with this spilt-religious late Romanticism in Stevens. The poem ‘Stratagems of the Spirit’ is a typical Porterian exercise in the eagerly probing intelligence subjecting the objects of its attention to a moralising inquisition.

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

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