O Wyoming Whipporwill

Claire Harman

  • The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker by Robert Fraser
    Cape, 573 pp, £25.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 224 06242 5

Fame came early to George Barker, but not so early as to take him by surprise. He designed his own ‘crypto-Renaissance catafalque’ at the age of 13, just to be on the safe side, and a year later was writing in these sophisticated terms of his own literary strengths and weaknesses:

I am certain that my mind is made if anything for self-contained imaginative work: critical activity of any kind is alien to me, alien and dissonant. The values structuring a critical work must be either impersonal or strange; the individuality of the critic, except emotionally, is to be nullified. Such nullification I cannot affect. Either I am without an important analytical intelligence, or my imagination is monstrously oversize.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this piece of youthful dogmatism is that Barker continued to believe it all his life. He came to treat ‘analytical intelligence’ as if it were a mortal threat to imagination and individuality, and clung to whatever was ‘self-contained’ and self-generated. Poets, in his view, should be both hieratic and ‘at heart anarchic’, required to make and keep themselves exceptions to the rule. ‘If I am anything, I am a poet,’ says the narrator of Barker’s first novel, Alanna Autumnal, written between the ages of 18 and 20: ‘I stress this, or want to stress it, to exculpate myself from the miserable little ambiguities which one is certain to make in the sustained prose perambulation of life.’

Barker’s precocity was impressive, and attracted the attention and patronage of John Middleton Murry, T.S. Eliot and Edwin Muir. Murry gave the 19-year-old poet two books to review for the Adelphi on the strength of some pages of diary (later worked up into the first novel) and Barker had published in New Verse, Criterion and the Listener at an age when most of his contemporaries’ ambitions only stretched as far as Isis. Whether his success was more or less surprising given his poor, South London background and short, patchy education is hard to tell. The middle-aged literary grandees who took him up were all university-educated and may have found Barker’s unschooled eloquence refreshingly different, or simply been stunned by his confidence and good looks.

Alanna Autumnal, published in 1933, contained a characteristic piece of bravado, citing under ‘By the Same Author’ one as yet unpublished and one never finished book. Having anticipated a lifetime of literary achievement, Barker presumably saw no harm in getting some credit in advance. Not that the scales needed weighting: by 1936, when he was still only 23, he was regarded as the leading poet of the new generation, with three real books to his name and selections of work in the two most influential anthologies of the time, Michael Roberts’s Faber Book of Modern Verse and Yeats’s Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Eliot was a sincere admirer and generous patron; Yeats was delighted with Barker’s ‘lovely subtle mind and a rhythmic invention comparable to Gerard Hopkins’. What could possibly go wrong for this golden boy?

The fact that Barker fell completely from public esteem long before his death in 1991 begs the question whether he was any good in the first place. It is one of the few questions not addressed by Barker’s acolyte and devotee Robert Fraser in this over-long, over-respectful first biography. Fraser starts from the premise that Barker is self-evidently a major writer: ‘George Barker was a poet of outstanding gifts, an enchanter of souls, a verbal magician with a pot of gold beneath his tongue’; but readers looking for corroboration of this in the biography’s generous quotations are more likely to conclude that Barker’s was a scatter-gun talent with hit-and-miss results. He wrote a lot and revised little, placing a high value on spontaneity – or the appearance of it – and the untrammelled voice. His style is rhapsodic, intoxicated, heavily reliant on aural effects and off-the-cuff puns. Energy is always more in evidence than meaning and his Collected Poems, at a mighty eight hundred pages, probably contains more vocatives than Swinburne and more ejaculations than Byron.

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