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Poetry and the English Imagination

by Bryan Appleyard

HERE are two opening lines:

“Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,”

“Lord, the Roman hycinths are blooming in bowls and”

The first is from Walter Raleigh’s ‘The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage’, the second from T.S. Eliot’s ‘A Song for Simeon’. I quote them here solely because they both send a shiver down my spine. I could try to explain why – that haunting sc-sh-qw sound in the Raleigh, or the odd, unexpected stillness of the Eliot line caused, I think, by ‘in bowls’ and that hanging ‘and’ – but, in truth, my shiver comes from wells deeper than those plumbed by practical criticism. It comes from being and speaking English.

It is unfashionable to speak of national characteristics. Queasy types think it is akin to racism. But the truth is that nations are definably different. Most importantly, they differ in what they do best. No nation has produced better essayists than France, none has produced better composers that the Germans, better painters than the Italians, nor better novelists than the Russians. America invented jazz and still masters the form and, though some may dissent, her record in film is unsurpassed. And the English? The English do poetry.

Poetry has no serious contenders as the English national art. Ah, it is often said, but Shakespeare wrote plays. And so he did. But consider these plays. Hamlet is a weird drama made magnificent by a torrent of peerless poetry, and I have always thought of it as a long poem whose cosmic structure seems to pivot on the words “We defy augury”. Shakespeare is the greatest playwright on earth, but he is heaven’s poet. And the list of his poet-compatriots – Chaucer, Browning, Dryden, Wordsworth, Clare, Donne, Auden, Tennyson, Keats, Pope, Herbert, etc. etc. – closes the case. We are a nation defined by and consisting of poets. To deny this is to deny England.

Why this should be is open to infinite speculation. It is often said that Protestantism turned us away from the image to the word, but that was late in the day. Some talk of the landscape or the weather, but other nations have those. More significant may be the legacy of Roman occupation which left the English with a unique sense of home as land, a poetic idea that runs through Clare and Wordsworth to Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone’. But the truth, I suspect, is that it is the English language itself which made us poets. This is, of course, unprovable, not least because of the chicken and egg question – did the language make the English poets or did the English make the language poetic? But, if only subjectively, I think some kind of case can be made.

First, I have to acknowledge one unfortunate fact: in the 20th Century, English poetry became American. After Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas, England produced only one further uncontestably great poet – W.H. Auden. Ted Hughes seldom works for me and Philip Larkin is superbly second rank. But Eliot, though an aspirant Englishman, never stopped being American. In addition, there was Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery – all giants – as well as a whole host of other figures, like Frank O’Hara, who may yet come to be seen as equally gigantic. This needs to be said partly because this article argues the necessity for a resurrection of our national art, but also because the idea that it is our language that makes our poetry must necessarily encompass the Americans.

If Hamlet can be seen as one big poem, then so, in a sense, can all of English poetry. It is a conversation with itself. Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ – indeed, perhaps the whole of his work – is another way of articulating the spirit of Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘The World is Too Much With Us’. Robert Browning’s dramatic meditations are refined and internalised by Ezra Pound; the Gothic arches of ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’ becoming the broken psychic concrete of the Cantos. John Clare’s open-eyed, innocent, wondering, exact gaze is also that of Ashbery. And – slightly quirky one this – Clare’s line “I am the self consumer of my woes” could, to my ears and mind, prefigure Bob Dylan.

Eliot understood this better than anybody. ‘The Waste Land’ opens with a line – “April is the cruellest month” – that sardonically inverts the mood of the first line of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ (“Whan that Aprille with his shoores soote”), as if to remark that all poetry is one, and that in the end is the beginning. Less explicitly, Auden had only to set pen to paper for the whole history of English poetry to come flooding onto the page in his infinity of rhythms and nuances. His great but neglected short poem ‘Like a Vocation’ expresses this eerie feeling of looking around to see where the voices are coming from:

But somewhere always, nowhere particularly unusual,
Almost anywhere in the landscape of water and houses,

The voices are, of course, those which Peter Ackroyd has called English Music.

But this homogeneity, this great conversation, could only happen if there was something in the language that made it possible. This is a much more elusive matter. Of course, one could come up with very broad generalisations; for example, two geniuses – Chaucer and Shakespeare – moulded the language decisively into poetry: they made English poetic. Or one could point to the unique flexibility of English that makes it equally suited to the epic, dramatic or lyric moods. Both observations are demonstrably true.

Yet there are further things that may be said about the themes that run through poetic English which cut deep into our sense of who we are. Here is just one, a famous lyric from the 16th Century.

O WESTERN wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

This is the clearest expression of the disjunction between the world and the soul that is sometimes defined as ‘pathetic fallacy’. The contingency of the weather is heartbreaking – it springs the lines open to expose a whole inner landscape of pain and longing. This heartbreak is an effect of the failed metaphor, for the weather does not reflect our feelings; the sun does not shine because you are happy – it does so because, as Samuel Beckett pointed out, it has “no alternative”.

The failed metaphor arises from poetry itself. It is this link that connects Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens, both poets attempting to unite the poem and the world and, necessarily, failing. But the failed metaphor is also a crucial aspect of the English character. We are – or used to be – ironic, stoical, gloomy but always funny. We revel in defeat and adversity. Jack Dee, Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper are all about failed metaphors. They are made by and of poetry.

There are countless other examples of poetic themes that are also English character traits – our tradition of radical dissent from received narratives is manifest in William Blake; our penchant for fantasy was made by Shakespeare, Edward Lear and Lord Tennyson; our sense of the comedy of the banal runs from Chaucer through Pope to The Royle Family and The Office; and the lively irony of our death was hammered into us by Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Keats and Hardy. And what about these lovely, silvery lines from Browning’s ‘Andrea del Sarto’ as an expression of the Englishman coming to terms with his fate in a deck chair in the late summer sun? Notice how the word ‘still’ seems to make the words pirouette away from banality.

I am grown peaceful as old age to-night.
I regret little, I would change still less.

This correlation between who we are and what we have written is, I believe, unique in the world. “Poetry”, wrote Auden, “makes nothing happen” – but, he added, “It survives, / A way of happening, a mouth”. Poetry is England’s way of happening.

And yet few now know this. Poetry is barely taught and, when it is, the emphasis is always on the ‘accessible’. What on earth does this mean? That the poem should wallow only in the familiar? Children exposed to such supposed difficulty at an early age have no trouble with real poetry. My daughter understood Stevens’ ‘The Rabbit as King of the Ghosts’ better at ten than I did at 45.

Nobody can understand England without some sense of her poetry. That means, of course, that very few now understand England. Perhaps that is the way it must be: “The roar of time plunging unchecked through the sluices / Of the days” (Ashbery) must sweep all away. But, though the signs are not good, English poetry is buried too deep in English soil ever to be quite eradicated; and so, like Hamlet, we must defy augury and send the brats home to learn at least a sonnet a night.

Bryan Appleyard’s How to Live Forever or Die Trying is published by Simon & Schuster.

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