In the Graveyard of Verse

William Wootten

  • The Collected Poems of Vernon Watkins
    Golgonooza, 495 pp, £16.95, October 2000, ISBN 0 903880 73 3

Some writers attract faint praise. Vernon Watkins is more damned by it than most: he is the serene Watkins, walking the Gower peninsula in a cloud of unworldly Christianity, Yeats and (very) late Symbolism; he is also the worthy Watkins, the man who spent his adult life working in a bank, refusing all promotion while perfecting his poetic craft. Good behaviour and a friendship with Philip Larkin have allowed the image of Watkins as a hard-working, pleasant and largely irrelevant anachronism to prevail, and for poets and critics to forgive him, by forgetting how in the 1930s and 1940s, under the influence of Dylan Thomas, he was an eager perpetrator of New Romanticism.

Watkins was at Repton and Cambridge with Christopher Isherwood, and makes a cameo appearance as the gullible Percival in Lions and Shadows. Nevertheless, he had little in common with the Auden generation or with Cambridge. His last eighteen months at school were, in retrospect, an idyll, but the course in modern languages at Magdalene was unsuited to his romantic temperament. He left after a year with plans to go to Italy and write. His father, a bank manager, was unimpressed by this scheme and Watkins became a cashier in Cardiff. Failure to adjust to his new life, an obsession with time, and too much William Blake led to fantasies of omnipotence and to a physical assault on his old headmaster. This breakdown – and the vision of redemption that accompanied it – lies behind his later statement that ‘in my 23rd year I suddenly experienced a complete revolution of sensibility. I repudiated the verse I had written and knew that I could never again write a poem which could be dominated by time.’ After a stay in a nursing home, Watkins returned home to Swansea, took another bank job, allowed Yeats to supplant Blake as the greatest god in his pantheon and would, it seems, have resigned himself to lifelong obscurity, consoled only by the thought of posthumous fame. In 1935, however, he found a volume by a local poet in a Swansea bookshop and arranged to meet its author.

Dylan Thomas could be breathtakingly inconsiderate in his treatment of Watkins. He sponged money from him and even failed to show up as best man at his wedding. Yet Watkins always idolised Thomas. He wrote him numerous poems both before and after his death and edited his letters (Thomas, true to form, failed to keep Watkins’s). There have been different explanations for this devotion. Thomas and his wife thought Watkins homosexual until a bed-sharing experiment failed to achieve results. Watkins’s own wife, Gwen, blamed his poet-worship. But Watkins’s devotion was in a way quite just; meeting Dylan Thomas was the best thing that ever happened to him. Thomas, the younger of the two by eight years, persuaded Watkins to publish. And while Watkins’s reading expanded Thomas’s range of reference – he introduced Thomas to Rilke and Lorca among others and became a valued reader of his drafts – Thomas’s attentions were vital to Watkins’s poetic development.

Ballad of the Mari Lwyd, Watkins’s first volume, was not published until 1941. T.S. Eliot evidently preferred Watkins’s more controlled brand of New Romanticism to that of Dylan Thomas, who was published by Dent. Even so, given Thomas’s popularity, Eliot must have been mindful of the similarities between the two when he decided to recruit Watkins for Faber. Though it contains a couple of poems that predate their meeting, and though its imagery and diction are comparatively uncongested, Ballad of the Mari Lwyd is richly indebted to Dylan Thomas and his aesthetic. The poem that gives the volume its title is not really a ballad at all, but a sort of Mummers’ play. It insists on Welsh orality – it is pronounced ‘Marry Loo-id’ – and the importance of carrying on the traditions of folk culture. The Mari Lwyd is the ‘grey mare’, a horse’s skull carried by drunken revellers who try to rhyme their way into houses on New Year’s Eve. Not much happens: the revellers seek access to a house and the food and drink within; they are refused entry; they go away again. Though the poem takes over half an hour to perform, the chorus of ‘Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight./Hark at the hands of the clock’ is repeated throughout. Vernon Watkins had no sense of narrative. He knew Tennyson’s Maud almost by heart and yet, until it was pointed out to him, failed to notice that it had a story. ‘Ballad of the Mari Lwyd’ makes a virtue of this vice. The resemblance between its Welsh rhymesters of misrule and Watkins’s poet friend is not coincidental; and the poem is energised by the connection.

Even when Thomas’s inspiration unbalances a poem, it introduces elements of a novel strangeness. ‘Elegy on the Heroine of Childhood’ is written in memory of Pearl White. The death of the queen of the cliffhanger and star of silent masterpieces such as The Perils of Pauline and The Exploits of Elaine, a woman famed for defying death on ageless celluloid, is, on the face of it, a perfect vehicle for Watkins’s concern with time and immortality. The poem doesn’t quite work. Watkins can’t decide whether or not to take his childhood experience of White seriously, and tries to have it both ways by lurching between hyperbole and bathos. The forced rough-and-tumble of lines like ‘Where, trailing or climbing the railing, we mobbed the dark/Of Pandemonium near Cwmdonkin Park’ remind one not just of Thomas’s address – 5 Cwmdonkin Drive – but also of the fact that Thomas is the more convincing young dog. Nevertheless, this attempt to find new goddesses, and new rites, has its moments, as the ‘Epitaph’ entitled ‘The Touch-Typist’ demonstrates:

Brought from time’s glare and the electric bracket,
Her eyes close under yews and cypress-trees.
Bless, in these files where silence tells a packet,
Blind fingers, eyes which never saw the keys.

Here, a figure familiar to realism is claimed for ritual. Beneath all that Shakespearean timber, the closing of eyes that should already have been shut while once-seeing fingers go blind and are blest has an uncanny mythic resonance. Though some of its significance may be obscure (the ‘keys’ are also probably sycamore keys, the seeds of one of Watkins’s recurring symbols), the poem’s punnings allow Watkins’s day job into his verse, for once, evoking silent speech in the files of the dead.

Ballad of the Mari Lwyd is obsessed with eyes, hands and living death. ‘The Mummy’ starts: ‘His eyes are closed. They are closed. His eyes are closed./His hands are clenched. They are clenched. His hands are clenched.’ Seldom have the closed and the clenched been so busy: the poem restlessly evokes ‘music in the eyes’ and ‘a harp-string hidden, plucked by a blind hand’. As in ‘The Touch-Typist’, eyes and hands appear to be emblems of an entombed poet, dead to the world and alive only to a timeless domain of symbols. The verse, however, never quite attains this ideal, hieroglyphic world: neither bodies nor words (all those fidgeting puns) can quite keep still and there is always the threat of linguistic and bodily corruption, a theme like that of Ancient Egypt and mummification, shared with Thomas, whose sense of ‘death in life and life in death’ bears more strongly than Yeats’s on this verse. Thomas’s ‘A Grief Ago’ closes: ‘So cross her hand with their grave gipsy eyes,/And close her fist.’ Thomas’s eyes and hands, though deathly, are all over the place and each other; they disturb the grave that Watkins had marked out for his verse.

Seamus Heaney says of Thomas that ‘as long as he kept too rigidly to those bodily, earthly Egyptian imperatives, it was not possible for Thomas to admit into his poetry that which Rilke called the angels’ and he takes a strong Platonic line against poetry that ‘works bodily, through the agency of the senses’. Heaney would, I suppose, approve of the angelic turn that Watkins’s verse was to take. In The Lady with the Unicorn (1948) there is an efflorescence of Neo-Platonism and a rather gnostic form of Christianity. The emerging poetic now refines and examines symbols in order to explore elevated states rather than compounding them, the better to inter the poet and the work. Much of the verse remains difficult, yet the abstract thought that flows across the characteristically long lines tends to want to communicate difficulty rather than hide within it. Watkins’s poetic ideal is no longer a broken mummy-music, but the wish ‘to fly like the swallows’:

to dip and to rise were a deftness,
A daring, a language of movement, a gracefulness, something surpassing Ecstasy.

(‘Swallows over the Weser’)

His backward looks to Genesis, rather than simply mourning the loss of Repton/Eden, are part of the quest for gnosis or the One, as in the fine ‘Music of Colours: White Blossom’:

The spray looked white until this snowfall.
Now the foam is grey, the wave is dull.
Call nothing white again, we were deceived.
The flood of Noah dies, the rainbow is lived.
Yet from the deluge of illusions an unknown colour is saved.

If Newton was guilty of unweaving the rainbow, Watkins is determined to stitch it together again.

Marriage, friendship and publication had by now cured the desperate self-pity of some of the earlier verse. The matter is often light and delicate – lace, sea-spray and butterflies. Nevertheless, it is balanced by a recognition of darkness – partly the darkness of the war – and by the lingering pull of earthiness and the body. This balance, and the balance between image and ideal, notably expressed in ‘Foal’ – ‘whoever watches a foal sees two images’ – contributes to the success of these poems. But it is success achieved at a price. As Watkins breaks from the pervasive influence of Thomas to write some of his most characteristic verse, his range narrows and he moves back into the sway of a Yeats no longer refracted by Thomas’s Egyptianism and his earthly appetites. In ‘The Music of Colours: White Blossom’, Leda’s swan is no match for an ‘original white, by which the ravishing bird looks wan’. The poem invokes Yeats in order to try to surpass him, but can only do this by subtraction – the swan becomes wan by losing its front letter. The image of Leda and the Swan is overcome only by an absence of image: by whiteness. Watkins is playing a game in which he can barely hold his own.

After the restless shut-eye of the early verse, it is perhaps with relief that we read ‘A Man with a Field’, one the best poems in Cypress and Acacia (1959):

If I close my eyes I can see a man with a load of hay
Cross this garden, guiding his wheelbarrow through the copse
To a long, low greenhouse littered with earthenware, glass and clay
Then prop his scythe near the sycamore to enter it

The poem seems full of everyday detail and a different, more homely, earthiness. It is actually full of symbols, two of which, the scythe and the sycamore, are old favourites. So in some sense Watkins is still touch-typing; but language, the timeless world of symbols and the interred body are now free from the threat of corruption. The best of the later poems, like this, contrive to change their setting and style and thus prevent the repetition of Watkins’s themes and symbols becoming tedious. The problem is that in much of the later verse one gets the impression not of vital private hieroglyphs, nor of painstakingly examined signposts to gnosis, but of unchanging picture-cards endlessly reshuffled.

In a letter of 1937 Thomas takes issue with a poem of Watkins’s: ‘I can see the sensitive picking of words, but none of the strong inevitable pulling that makes a poem an event, a happening, an action perhaps, not a still-life or an experience put down, placed, regulated.’ The poem and its phrases ‘come out of the nostalgia of literature’. ‘A motive has been rarefied, it should be made common. I don’t ask you for vulgarity, though I miss it; I think I ask you for a little creative destruction, destructive creation.’ There is no better criticism of Watkins’s verse, especially the later verse. Affinities and Fidelities, the titles of the last two collections that he made himself, are deliberate echoes of Yeats’s Responsibilities. They also indicate a poet far too keen on paying minor homage to major talents, as in this all too typical tribute to Wordsworth:

The barren mountains were his theme,
Nature the force that made him strong,
This day died one who like a stone,
Altered the course of English song.

Though the verse is formally diverse, what is original tends to feed off the fat of the 1940s, and the new influences he admitted failed to divert the course of Watkins’s poetry, still less English song. Watkins often attains his timeless ideal, but it is not much of an achievement. Apart from rare incursions such as the death of JFK or a trip to Seattle, the 20th century barely gets a look in. There is a difference between a poetry that looks to timelessness but also engages with the complexities of time and one that ignores time altogether.

Dylan Thomas helped create the taste which relished Watkins. Another friend was instrumental in creating the taste which set him aside. Philip Larkin was deeply affected by a visit Watkins made to Oxford in 1943, in which he introduced the literary society to the late poetry of Yeats. Between them, Yeats and Watkins dominate Larkin’s first volume, The North Ship. Nevertheless, while he and Watkins would remain on good terms, Larkin awoke from Yeatsian slumber one day in 1946, opened his eyes and read Thomas Hardy with a reaction that was ‘undramatic, complete and permanent’. It is a defining moment in the mythology of Larkin, and of the Movement, and of Thomas Hardy and British poetry. The change was not as complete as Larkin’s account suggests: there are traces of Yeats in a number of later poems; one has to dig a little deeper for traces of Watkins, but they are there. Reading Watkins’s early poem ‘The Collier’, which depicts a pastoral scene of egg-stealing succeeded by an evocation of work as burial, and which transforms a pit disaster into a golden vision, makes the unreal qualities in Larkin’s ‘The Explosion’ more explicable than any reference to Hardy or Lawrence. Nevertheless, a change did take place. Significantly, it was not so much Yeats that Larkin rejected as Watkins’s strange, rarefied, timeless Yeats: a Yeats undoubtedly musical but with his eyes closed not just to the modern world and the everyday, but also to sex, politics and most forms of human interaction. The choice was not so difficult. When Larkin spoke of his awakening in the introduction to the 1966 edition of The North Ship, he included an afterthought that would somewhat complicate the myth which he was helping to create: ‘Many years later, Vernon Watkins surprised me by saying that Dylan Thomas had admired Hardy above all poets of this century. “He thought Yeats was the greatest by miles,” he said. “But Hardy was his favourite.”’

Like Thomas, Watkins died in the United States, but his passing – a heart attack on a Seattle tennis court in 1967 – was the more salubrious. In due course Faber issued a volume of tributes. Friends and fans, including Larkin, Michael Hamburger and Kathleen Raine, wrote well and sometimes movingly of a poet who had inspired them by exhortation and example. With Dylan Thomas dead, it was left to George Barker, that other bad boy-genius of New Romanticism, to add a dash of tastelessness to the proceedings:

How she must have horrified you there
at the far side of the tennis net
the coldblooded female who killed you
with her first glance. What on earth, Watkins,
ever persuaded you to play with her?

I don’t imagine his family were too delighted by Barker’s question:

How … will you poetrify
the sickening gobbets of meat that stick to the bone
and the grass snake kissing the lip?

Barker’s poem is almost inexcusable. Yet in some ways it is the most fitting elegy Watkins received. It combines morbidity, vulgarity, humour and a modern kind of mythmaking and declares its business in a flexible, distinctive voice. Everything that was shut outside the house in ‘Ballad of the Mari Lwyd’, flirted with in the collection of the same title, but gradually refined from Watkins’s later work has returned to haunt him. The death of Vernon Watkins has become an ‘event’, ‘a destructive creation’, full of Thomas’s ‘inevitable pulling’ and vulgarity. Barker’s merciless poem reminds us not simply of the loss of a rhapsodic, unworldly poet to the tennis court and the soil, but of the many qualities lost to air and angels long before.