Untouched by Eliot

Denis Donoghue

  • Rounding the Horn: Collected Poems by Jon Stallworthy
    Carcanet, 247 pp, £14.95, September 1998, ISBN 1 85754 163 4

‘Why should the parent of one or two legitimate poems make a public display of the illegitimate offspring of his apprentice years?’ Jon Stallworthy asks in the afterword to Singing School. His short answer is: ‘because, to the best of my knowledge, no one else has done so, and the schooling of poets seems a potentially rewarding subject.’ The longer answer is that ‘in the early chapters of their autobiographies, Coleridge, Hardy, Yeats, Sassoon, Graves, Day Lewis, Spender and MacNeice have a good deal to say about the external circumstances of their family lives, but little about their internal or “writerly” lives.’ That is true, though some of these poets have left us evidence of their methods of composition, which we can interpret. Yeats left not only the Autobiographies, the Memoirs and personal poems, but drafts of many poems, and these have enabled scholars to study his artistic processes, as Stallworthy did in Between the Lines.

It is not unusual for a poet to comment on his own work or even to lead his readers through a particular poem. Valéry, Allen Tate, William Empson, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and Robert Lowell were instructive in that way. But it is rare for a poet to lead readers through a poem, draft by draft, or explain how he settled for one word rather than another. Yeats did not offer to explain how he got to ‘the indignant desert birds’ in ‘The Second Coming’. The afterword to Singing School implies that Stallworthy thinks he has elucidated his schooling as a poet by such means. But he hasn’t. The book has a good deal to say about the external circumstances of his life, but it reveals little about the growth of a poet’s mind or the schools in which it grew. Even when he quotes one of his uncollected poems, he gives it in word-perfect form; we know when and why he wrote it, but not how he got from his first notes to the achieved poem.

Stallworthy was born in January 1935. (Rounding the Horn ends with his family tree, starting with ‘John Stallworthy d. 1744 and Ann d. 1771’ and running to ‘Jon b. 1935 and Jill b. 1938’ and the new generation, ‘Jonathan, Pippa and Nicolas’.) His father was a surgeon who settled down to a practice in Oxford. His mother was a housewife with a gift for music and a good ear for poems. Or for rhymes: she schooled her son on nursery songs, and he gradually found his way from A.A. Milne to Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Masefield and Betjeman. Father and mother provided a most genial home. Stallworthy was fortunate, too, in his schools: the Dragon in Oxford, followed by Rugby. Most of his teachers were helpful, and leisure time included rugby, horse-riding and sailing. (I’m trying to keep my jealousy under control.) Military service in the Royal West African Frontier Force seems to have been an extended vacation in Ibadan and Lagos: he kept himself busy with ceremonies, polo, hockey and a mild love affair. Coming back to Oxford, he went to Magdalen College. Again his teachers were splendid, he had Jack Bennett for Anglo-Saxon and Emrys Jones for Shakespeare. I’m sure he spent many hours in the Bodleian, but more on the rugby pitch. In Singing School he doesn’t mention his literary prizes, but he gives the scores of the rugby matches in which he played and quotes favourable reviews of his performances from newspapers of the day.

Stallworthy has always been well-connected. As a youngster, he became friends with Geoffrey Keynes. In Oxford, and although he came down with a mere Second, Helen Gardner urged him to do a B.Litt. and write a dissertation on Yeats’s manuscripts. Stallworthy had no interest in writing a dissertation; he stayed on for a fourth year in Oxford only to try for a Blue. (My jealousy is out of control.) Gardner arranged to have him supervised by Maurice Bowra, who in turn introduced him to Bethel Solomons, who gave him tea and persuaded Mrs Yeats to receive him. Stallworthy charmed her, too, and she gave him the run of the manuscripts. Singing School recites these occasions and brings the story of Stallworthy’s life, or at least his circumstances, up to 1961 or thereabouts. It is not an intimate self-portrait: there is far more intimacy in the poems.

Rounding the Horn includes The Guest from the Future(1995), The Anzac Sonata (1986), A Familiar Tree (1978) and generous selections from Hand in Hand (1974), Root and Branch (1969), Out of Bounds (1963) and The Astronomy of Love (1961). It does not include ‘The Deserted Altar’, the poem Stallworthy submitted for the Newdigate Prize in 1956. I mention this because a draft of the poem elicited from T.D. Tosswill, Stallworthy’s English teacher at Rugby, one of the most acute reviews of his work that I have seen. It is quoted in Singing School:

1. The technique, both in the Spensarian stanza and the lyrics, seems to me remarkably secure.

2. The smoothness (one result of the above) is perhaps a little dangerous.

3. There is seldom a wrong word, apart from an occasional archaism like ‘flings him’: on the other hand, there are few ‘surprising, but intellectually right’ words.

4.One can hardly generalise about these things, but I would say that the subject is drawn too much from literary recollections: the feeling of passion – horrid word! – is rarely there.

5. I would suggest much Yeats, and perhaps practice with the short story – both in aid of economy and exactness.

Much Yeats; presumably to discourage Stallworthy from submitting himself further to Kipling, Housman, Dylan Thomas, Sidney Keyes and Keith Douglas. I find it strange that Tosswill sent him to Yeats and, in another letter, to Hopkins and Melville, writers to whom he was likely in any event to become addicted. No talk of much Eliot, much Empson, or much Pound, though ‘practice with the short story’ indicates that Tosswill thought Stallworthy’s poetry would be improved by acquiring, as Pound recommended, the virtues of good prose, preferably French. Stallworthy submitted the Newdigate poem under the pseudonym ‘Phlebas the Phoenician’, but that is the only recognition of Eliot I find in his poetic career. If this is true, I would like to hear more about it; how a poet of Stallworthy’s openness to poetic styles has remained untouched by Eliot. Yeats was deaf to Eliot’s poems, and survived the disability, but he did read Pound’s early Cantos and the shorter poems and at least divined what Pound and Eliot were up to. It seems odd that Stallworthy has kept his distance. Maybe he agrees with Philip Larkin that the Modernism of Pound and Eliot, like the paintings of Picasso and the jazz of Charlie Parker, was a regrettable diversion from the main issue. In English poetry, the main issue was Hardy, in Larkin’s judgment incomparably the greatest poet in English. Not that Hardy’s poems seem to mean much to Stallworthy.

In fact, what I miss in reading Singing School, despite many lively passages, is any sense of his career as a poet. Has he seen himself as doing anything in particular, intervening in the available poetic styles in the hope of discovering new perceptions among the words? Or has he been content to turn memorable events into secure verse? I haven’t learnt from Singing School why he read the books he read, or what he thought he was seeking in language beyond the vague purpose of being a poet. He read this and then he read that. He did some translations with the aid of a prose crib. But he has stopped short of saying what, in any precise sense, he thinks he has been doing. When he quotes one of his poems, he says nothing about it as an invention: all we’re told is circumstance. So it’s difficult to know what he thinks of a verse letter he wrote to his lover Hazel in 1955. (Tarquah is a bay near Lagos that the couple favoured):

Tarquah’s unsentimental tides
Devour our footprints, darkness hides
Subaltern’s cove and mermaid’s lair:
Yet fade they not, though from my chair
The bounds of hearing do not reach
To wind and surf on Lighthouse Beach.
And for those days that take this tide
I thank you, that they now abide
With other days and hours well-spent,
In the far uplands of content.

The smoothness is perhaps a little dangerous. Presumably Stallworthy thought ‘Yet fade they not’ was fine for the occasion, a gesture vigorous enough to lodge his feelings ‘in the far uplands of content’. He doesn’t seem perturbed by the archaisms.

The decorum to which Stallworthy’s poems pay respect is that of elegant speech. Not conversation: they don’t suppose that anyone who hears them would reply in kind. Often a minor conceit keeps the measures going, as talk of ‘Spanish drill, and ‘for want of a Spanish imperative’ keeps ‘Miss Lavender’ riding along with impeccable demeanour. The best of the poems are those in which the emphasised refinement of his style finds an answerable occasion: as in ‘No Ordinary Sunday’, which mourns those friends who were killed in the war; or ‘Camel’ in which the poet restores ancestral dignity to a camel otherwise come down in the world:

I have seen your nostrils flare to a wind
born nowhere in the port or festering slums,
but in the wastes beyond the wastes of Sind.

Heavily falls the lash. You neither turn
nor flinch, but hooded in your eyes there comes
a glint of snows above Baluchistan.

One of the lessons Stallworthy learned in singing school was the force of reverberation in certain place-names: Cape St Vincent, Cathay, Damascus, Desenzano, Marathon, Nineveh, Ophir, Samarkand, Tusculum and Tartary. I don’t think it’s fanciful to hear behind his ‘I have seen ...’ Flecker’s ‘The Old Ships’:

I have seen old ships sail like swans asleep
Beyond the village which men still call Tyre,
With leaden age o’ercargoed, dipping deep
For Famagusta and the hidden sun
That rings black Cyprus with a lake of fire.

– one of the poems in which Stallworthy’s schoolboy reading coincides with mine.

Sometimes, more often in prose than in verse, Stallworthy’s elegance lapses into mannerism. Making love on Victoria Beach: ‘I helped her off with her shirt. She helped me off with mine, and we peeled off the rest. Our bodies were mahogany, inlaid each with a broad band of ivory and a little triangle of ebony. We kissed each other’s ivory and, with tender reverence, made our libations to the moon.’ Sometimes the narrative wearies of itself. ‘The voice was that of Tom Brown Stevens, an ancient historian of engaging eccentricity, who had come to the groves of Academe from an unusual direction ... The great day found him seated at his host’s right hand, a fountain of wit and well-honed stories.’ But the poems rarely sink.

It is a pleasure to go through Rounding the Horn, quoting especially poems in which Stallworthy makes much – but never too much – of a word or a phrase that continues to disturb after it has appeared to settle for placating. In the last stanza of ‘The Swimming Pool,’ the ‘as now’ mimes the empire of words and deeds that insists on an elegant solution:

The swimmer, turning with an otter swirl
in the deep end, revives the quick
convulsion of a sun-struck fool
of a navvy who broke his neck;
but that was soon smoothed over, as now the pool.

Stallworthy’s best-loved poem is ‘The Almond Tree’, about the experience of being told that the child his wife has just borne suffers from Down’s Syndrome. Several poems in Rounding the Horn ponder the tragedy, including ‘The Almond Tree Revisited’ and ‘The Fall of a Sparrow’. It is painful to see Stallworthy trying to maintain his refinement of tone in face of such heartbreak, but I suppose that is one of the graces a poem may strive for. It is a desperate measure to take comfort from the budding of an almond tree:

In labour the tree was becoming
itself. I, too, rooted to earth
and ringed by darkness, from the death
of myself saw myself blossoming,
wrenched from the caul of my thirty
years’ growing, fathered by my son,
unkindly in a kind season
by love shattered and set free.

I don’t think I could rise to that flowering, if the tragedy were mine. Or listen to comforters telling me that the tragedy is the price a poet pays for the composition of his verses. I’ll quote ‘The Fall of a Sparrow’, though I can hardly bring myself to type it out:

Who disinherits
the son we endowed in the womb?
If not the hand of chance
dicing with chromosomes,
what strategy of Providence
cost our sparrow his five wits?

The comforters
speak of our windfall as the price
of a poet’s licence –
the necessary sacrifice,
a pound of flesh no distance
from the heart. But the heart answers

no. Is a life
in the shadow to be outweighed
by the moving shadow
of a life across a page?
Does Providence sell a sparrow
for a song? Husband and wife

ask one another
the answer they never get right
night after night. Question
and answer turn tail at first light.
A cot shakes, and the fallen sun
rises for father and mother.

The last two lines have got the answer as right as it can be got. I would give the comforters short shrift and a cold shoulder. Talk of price is cant. Sacrifice is a more profound issue, uncanny and unresolvable. A life across a page is what it is, but it does not outweigh any other consideration.

Stallworthy’s more recent poems are impressively high-spirited, with spirits often his own and sometimes borrowed from other people, friends, other poets, musicians, Nikos Kavadias, Isaiah Berlin. The poems are as carefully modulated as ever, but some of them go for rapidity at whatever risk to elegance. The best of them is ‘The Girl from Zlot,’ a modern narrative that retains the metres of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ – ‘Four grey walls, and four grey towers’ – and catches some of Tennyson’s eeriness.