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Tag: Lawrence Durrell

Charles Nicholl: Dazzling the reader with his prose and infectious curiosity

Traces Remain by Charles Nicholl

“I have always found the details of history more interesting,” writes Charles Nicholl in the preface to his new collection of essays, “or anyway more evocative, than the larger perspectives of History.” And this is precisely what Nicholl explores in Traces Remain – the overlooked and forgotten fragments and people that have failed to make it into the textbooks. The 25 essays gathered here originally appeared in a number of literary publications and were guided, according to the writer, by the general principal of “poking around,” libraries and archives “re-examining existing evidence and then trying to ask new questions about it,” sometimes “prospecting”. Despite his seemingly casual air Nicholl is meticulous in his research, taking on the role of a painstakingly assiduous detective as he trawls through the decades, searching for clues to untold mysteries. One of these is the legend of Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett, an intrepid Amazonian explorer described as a “man in hand-to-hand combat with the wilderness,” who disappeared over 80 years ago. Fawcett was accompanied on the doomed expedition by his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell. His last dispatch was dated 25th May 1925 and was sent from Dead Horse Camp, exactly what happened to the three men after that has never been established although some answers have been provided by the subsequent rescue missions. The first and most famous of these was led by Commander George Miller Dyott in 1928, who learned that Fawcett had “played his ukulele for some Xingu Indians a few days before vanishing in the Mato Grosso jungle” and was most likely massacred by the Nahukwa tribe, who in turn blamed the notoriously fierce rival group Saya. “Despite the staring-eyed fantasies of his later years,” writes Nicholl, “he [Fawcett] was in many ways an admirable Englishman, austere, laconic, honourable, and incredibly tough, playing with a straight bat on some of the stickiest wickets the planet could provide.”

Strange and curious personages like Fawcett feature throughout this fascinating book. Among them is a poet by the name of Thomas Coryate, once the “butt for courtly wits and poets like John Donne and Ben Jonson,” he was also a “courageous traveller,” who in 1608 covered 1,975 miles in just over five months and visited 45 cities around Europe. Coryate wrote a book about his voyages called Crudities – loosely alluding to “raw experience” – which managed to make waves alongside such literary triumphs as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist – on stage at the time. Then there’s an English pseudoscientist, clairvoyant and con-man by the name of Edward Kelly, who fooled Bohemian royalty with his  “esoteric flannel,” and later died in suspicious circumstances most likely at the orders of Emperor Rudolph II. “The usual telling of the story is that Rudolph ceased to believe in him,” says Nicholl, “Kelly’s promises, particularly with regard to heaps of transmuted gold pouring into the treasury, had proved empty.”  Kelly’s story is surpassed only by that of another con-man, adventurer, French scribbler, one time heavy-weight boxer and nephew to Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance, Arthur Cravan. He was briefly married to avant-garde poet Mina Loy who had his child and outlived him by several decades. When asked toward the end of her life what had been her happiest instances Loy said: “Every moment spent with Arthur Cravan. ‘And the unhappiest?’ The rest of the time.” He is thought to have drowned off the coast of Mexico around 1918, although according to the most recent theory, Nicholl says, Cravan reinvented himself as the no less mysterious author B. Traven, who went on to write several hard-bitten Mexico based novels.

Along with the mysterious fates of the aforementioned men, Traces Remain includes two murders cases, two discoveries of unmarked graves, one missing Shakespeare play and one very enigmatic portrait recently found in Herefordshire. The latter is a work of art believed to have been painted by Frederick Hurlstone, its subject may or may not be Lord Byron in the guise of one of his own fictional heroes called Manfred. Yet, as Nicholl explains, despite numerous authentications the sitter and artist cannot be conclusively verified. “Does it look like Byron?” he says, speaking of the portrait after seeing photographs of it, “To answer this, one has to ask another question: what did Byron look like? Byron’s appearance changed all the time – because different artists saw him differently and because he was a great believer in diets and regimes, and his weight fluctuated by as much as four stone. Various portraits show around Byrons and thin Byrons, Byron’s with moustache, with mutton-chop whiskers, in costume, in uniform, in Greek helmet, in his dressing gown and so on.” In fact, there are over 40 portraits of the Romantic poet and albeit this latest one cannot be authenticated,  Nicholl says, “the sad-looking man in the fur hat deserves further investigation”. This kind of uncertainly –  a theme throughout the book  –  is one of its pitfalls and in a general sense the trouble with writing about historical marginalia.

Many of the tales within the collection are about the obscure who crossed paths with those that made history. One of them is of a woman for whom William Hazlitt divorced his wife and wrote “with alarming frankness,” as Nicholl puts it, Liber Amoris. The thinly disguised fictional account of Hazlitt’s love bares no resemblance to any other of the writer’s works, and was once considered a thing of great embarrassment. It also caused a bit of a scandal despite being published anonymously, and while Hazlitt managed to recover from it almost instantly being a bullish “spiky” and “self-absorbed” man that he was, Sarah Walker’s reputation as a “dowdy trollop” and “one man’s amour fou”  prevailed. The turn of her fate is difficult to trace, says Nicholl, but all evidence indicates that Hazlitt’s love was unrequited and that Walker went on to marry and have a son. It is most likely she died of “old age” perhaps, the writer speculates, thinking of those “distant days of her youth, and that strange, hectic man who loved her so passionately, and wanted to marry her, and ended up marking her life and her name with the taint of scandal that would never quite go away”. Nicholl goes from subject to subject with ease and authority, from talking about interpersonal relationships between English poets and European dignitaries to Leonardo Da Vinci’s relationship with his art, which is explored  here through the painter’s Milanese notebooks. Unbeknown to many, Nicholl says, Da Vinci was also a keen writer or rather a “writer-down of things: a recorder of observations, a pursuer of data, an explorer of thoughts, an inscriber of lists and memoranda”.

In describing the famous Italian artist, Nicholl also succeeds in describing something of himself for he is very much a modern day polymath – a historian, a scholar, a travel writer and a sleuth looking for greatness in the neglected and the ordinary. Speaking on the subject to the Guardian, Nicholl recently said that he has always aimed to present in his work the “the realities of life as it was lived by that person” with a sense of complete authenticity. “There’s one world that you know these people very well from,” he explained, “so let’s have a look at the other one, at the other, dark side of the moon, as it were: Marlowe as spy, Rimbaud as traveller or explorer and gun-runner, Shakespeare as lodger rather than great playwright.” It is this desire to construct a comprehensive picture of someone that makes Traces Remain  such a consummately engrossing read, full of thrilling details, shady characters, legends and mysteries from all four corners of the world. Much of which Nicholl has travelled himself, after being given tickets to Martinique as part of the prize for the Daily Telegraph Young Writer of the Year award which he won in 1972. He has since travelled most of the globe, Europe, South America, parts of the Middle East. One of the essays in the book is about the quest to find Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, the beautiful and rich “capital of memory,” as described in the eponymous Quartet. “Only fragments remain of Classical Alexandria,” Nicholl tells us sadly, “but its more recent past can be savoured just by wondering aimlessly through the streets, past shabby villas and Rococo facades and dusty brick-a-brac shops. The city seems like an aging dandy fallen on hard times.” Every essay in the collections has something interesting, worthwhile and amusing to impart, whether it be about a person, an artifact or a city. Nicholl is a man who makes history come alive, dazzling the reader with his prose and his infectious curiosity.

Guardian | Charles Nicholl

Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: December 2012
Paperback: 336 pages
ISBN: 9780140296822


Elizabeth Smart: Possessed by love

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a threnody for an illicit love affair between Elizabeth Smart and George Barker, which lasted 18 years caused outrage, despair, shame, bouts of “happiness as inexhaustible as the ocean” and resulted in four children. All this while Barker was married to someone else. In the early 1930s, Smart – a promising young writer from a prominent Canadian family – was visiting London. While there she chanced upon a collection of Barker’s poetry in a bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Fascinated by his work she determined to seek him out as she later confessed in the book, saying he was the one she had “picked out from the world”.  By sheer coincidence, Smart was proffered Barker’s address by Lawrence Durrell, with whom she was corresponding at the time about submissions to his poetry magazine, Booster. She wrote to Barker on several occasions, initially under the pretext of buying one of his poems, which she did; and then later in 1939 while he was teaching English poetry at the Imperial Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan. Unbeknown to Smart, Barker was growing dissatisfied with his teaching post but feared he would be conscripted into the army if he were to return to England. He wrote to Smart imploring her to help him emigrate to the US. In return for two tickets (which came as a surprise to Smart as she didn’t know Barker was married) he offered her the unpublished manuscript of his journals. Eager to escape, he also dispatched a telegram “begging rescue”. Smart hastily replied urging Barker to join her on the Californian coast. The rest is documented in Smart’s chef d’oeuvre, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

What the book doesn’t document, however, are Smart’s efforts to “rescue” Barker and his wife, Jessica, from Japan. Smart was short of money and in order to scrape together the $300 needed she worked tirelessly (as a maid at one point), begged shamelessly and borrowed indiscriminately. In the end, it was Christopher Isherwood – who was working in Hollywood as a script writer – that offered Smart the $200 shortfall to subsidise the Barkers’ trip. The couple disembarked in Vancouver, docked a boat to San Francisco and then took a bus to Monterey, where Smart was eagerly waiting to meet them. She describes the anguished anticipation in the opening paragraph of the book, saying “all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire”.  Barker’s wife was the first to come down the steps of the bus, “her Madonna eyes, soft as the newly born, trusting as the untempted”. Already pricked by compunction over her intentions toward Barker, Smart resolved to forgo her future with him “and postpone indefinitely the miracle hanging fire”.  But forgo she did not, albeit she did postpone it temporarily. Smart’s guilt is palpable on every one of the book’s 112 pages. And yet she never attempts to solicit pity or justify her indiscretions  merely trying to tell the story of a woman “possessed by love,” which is so much part of her world it often stands for the world itself. “He is everything,” she writes of Barker, “the night, the resilient mornings, the tall poinsettias and hydrangeas, the lemon trees, the residential palms, the fruit and vegetables in the gorgeous rows, the birds in the pepper tree, the sun on the swimming pool”. He is in fact the sum total of “where all roads strove to lead”. And this feeling was very much reciprocated, at least for a time. “She is what makes my blood circulate” Barker confesses at one point, “and all the stars revolve and reasons return.”

Smart experienced emotion very acutely and at times conveyed its multifarious graduations with a sentience rarely matched. Even in the most humdrum moments she captures the atmosphere with melancholic poetry as the three of them, for example, sit on the wooden steps of their respective cottages –  surrounded by “flowers that grow without encouragement” and “avalanches of sand” – while she thinks to herself with quietly intense dejection how once “loneliness drove women to jump into the sea”. But her introspection is fleeting. “Like Macbeth, I keep remembering that I am their host,” she writes, “So it is tomorrow’s breakfast rather than the future’s blood that dictates fatal forbearance.” And yet she cannot help herself as every time he is near she feels “every drop of my blood springing to attention”. She adds: “My mind may reason that the tenseness only registers neutrality, but my heart knows no true neutrality was ever so full of passion.” Despite mutual efforts to refrain from embarking on an affair, neither Smart nor Barker could resist. It developed slowly, secretly, with Barker’s wife in the background while the two budding lovers would sit at the typewriter “pretending necessary collaborations” with love hung between them. A sense of inexorable doom pervades the book and even though Barker’s wife initially had little idea about the burgeoning love, “like the birds” she felt “foreboding in the air”.  But, of course, by that point it was already too late.

Both Smart and Barker felt intense guilt and later remorse but neither could sever the romance, spending more time together than permissible for a married man and a single young woman. Eventually, Jessica confronted Barker about his infidelity. Despite the fracas the group continued cohabiting for another six weeks with Barker vacillating between the two women. The triumvirate moved to New York in the autumn and shortly after Barker and Smart decided to travel across the country, leaving Jessica behind. After three days on the road, the lovers reached a state border between California and Arizona, where they were stopped and handed over to the FBI. The war was raging in Europe and the US authorities were being overly cautious of potential spies. Barker’s papers were in order while Smart’s were in disarray; she was therefore arrested for illegally entering the country and on suspicion of committing fornication. Barker was released after a brief interrogation and hastily made his way back to his wife, explaining his absence away with sortilege and fabrication. Smart was questioned for hours and subsequently imprisoned for three days while her story was being collaborated. Writing of the experience in the book she says defiantly: “Love lifted the weapon and guided my crime.” It is at this point in the story that one begins to question the extent of Smart’s naivety; but more importantly the authenticity of Barker’s feelings, his integrity and his intentions, eventually coming away with the prevailing impression that they were neither true nor decent.

Barker continued to juggle and deceive both women, caroming from New York to Hollywood to Ottawa. Eventually, he left Jessica again and absquatulated with the now-pregnant Smart to Canada. But not for long. The affair continued back and forth, through correspondence, after a particularly stagnant period, which Smart spent “heedlessly drifting” with her ear against her heart, which was beating to the “poisonous rhythm of the truth.” The day after Barker left she wrote him a letter. “I simply cannot live without you,” Smart declared, “You must come back & get me. There’s nothing, nothing at all in the world but this. You can’t destroy me like this. You can’t…As for the baby if I don’t stop crying & beating my head I’ll have a miscarriage…George I am going crazy. My brain rattles around like a dry pea…I simply cannot endure this. I don’t know what will happen.” What did happen was she found herself completely alone awaiting the birth of her first child. “He is not here,” she writes in the book, “He is all gone. There is only the bloated globe. Nothing but the bracelet he put around my wrist reminds me I was once alive.” And later in a tone of complete resignation at the thought of him back with his wife, Smart says: “She is his present. And if then she is his present, I am not his present. Therefore, I am not, and I wonder why no one has noticed I am dead and taken the trouble to bury me.” Despite on-going communication with Barker, Smart was feeling like all the battles were lost; and did not dare “grasp either life or death” electing to endure the mechanical motion of existence submerged in grief and torpor.

Eventually, Smart returned to the US and found employment as a filing clerk with the British embassy in Washington. By this point Barker was back in England, where Smart moved in 1943. The couple had three more children together. When By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept was published in 1945 Smart’s family used their political clout to have it banned in Canada. The slender book materialised from Smart’s journals, adding an autobiographical authenticity to the story, which mortified and appalled her parents in equal measure. But Smart quite clearly felt a need to print it, perhaps as a cathartic exercise but more likely because she was a writer, a class of human being who according to Friedrich Nietzsche act “shamelessly toward their experiences” primarily because “they exploit them”. This is precisely how one sometimes feels reading By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Not only that, Smart fluctuates between disclosing too much and too little, between superbly lyrical prose and overlaboured writing, between aesthetic excellence and a propensity for the melodramatic. In fact, the only thing that doesn’t fluctuate is her devotion to Barker, which is both infuriating and heart-breaking. But perhaps that’s love, a love so rapturous yet cruel it is only ever really understood by its casualties.

Publisher: Flamingo
Publication Date: November 1992
Paperback: 112 pages
ISBN: 9780586090398

Writers on Writers

“Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon.”
Truman Capote

“I have tried lately to read Shakespeare and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.”
Charles Darwin

“I think I have a more poetical mind than Butler’s.”
E.M Forster

“As great a poet as Dante might have been, I wouldn’t have had the slightest wish to have known him personally.”
W.H Auden

After Proust there are certain things that simply cannot be done again.”
Francoise Sagan

“Dumas: that extraordinary old gentleman, who sat down and thought nothing of writing six volumes of The Count of Monte Cristo in a few months.”
Aldous Huxley

“De Sade is the one completely consistent and thoroughgoing revolutionary of history.”
Aldous Huxley

“I think that Hemingway made real discoveries about the use of language in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. I admired the way he made drunk people talk.”
Evelyn Waugh

“Old age realises the dreams of youth: look at Dean Swift; in his youth he built an asylum for the insane, in his old age he was himself an inmate.”
Søren Kierkegaard

“It’s unthinkable not to love – you’d have a severe nervous breakdown. Or you’d have to be Philip Larkin.”
Lawrence Durrell

Sources: The Paris Review, Goodreads 

Lawrence Durrell: A towering visionary philhellene who has shaped English literature

Lawrence Durrell was a prolific and protean writer. Unlike many of his contemporaries his livelihood depended exclusively upon his literary undertakings.  Not only that, Durrell laboured in a variety of genres – criticism, translation, philosophy, satire, travel writing – to be able to sustain himself in “exotic squalor”. He also wrote poetry. And one of his biggest regrets, which he voiced throughout his life, was his failure to establish himself as a credible poet through the work which he regarded as “closest to his heart”. Yet the prodigious corpus he produced as a poet demands that he should be regarded as one. Durrell was a towering visionary philhellene who has left an array of ideas that have shaped not only literature but how it is read. His tremendous gift should have made him a beacon of English writ, but instead this tireless craftsman has been invidiously overlooked. Durrell was one of few major 20th century writers without university training, who aspired to the profession from the vernal age of eight after reading Charles Dickens and subsequently spending the remainder of his childhood “madly scribbling”.  Following a rejection by Cambridge and a miscellany of jobs – a nightclub pianist, a photographer, an estate agent – Durrell decided to try and live by his pen. And I for one am very glad he did.

Durrell’s Collected Poems were given to me by a friend, and as we sat in the pub flicking through the compendium I felt myself beset by a sensory fever incited by Durrell’s words. His poetry shines with the shellac of a virtuoso modernist endowed with an enviably pitch-perfect ear and a knack for intense sensuality. Most of the verses describe sexual couplings, amatory intrigues and the complexities of the human condition in startlingly vivid, baroque syntax and febrile imagery. Reading his poetry one gets the distinct impression that Durrell was retooling convention, or at the very least bending it to his will. Poems such as Strip-tease reveal him as an apostle of the avant-garde, exemplified in the closing lines when talking about the “girls” he says: “So swaying as if on pyres they go/About the buried business of the night/Cold witches of the elementary tease/Balanced on the horn of a supposed desire/Trees shed their leaves like some of these.” 

The greatest of Durrell’s distinctions is his originality, and his work should stand as an archetype for future poetic exertions. His observations, aphorisms and ideological pronouncements are abundant and judicious. They are also superlatively poignant. Yet Durrell shies away from romanticism. In a poem called Plea, for example, he refers to love as a “cruel apprenticeship” and concludes that “Pleasure is greatest pain so dearly bought/And love unfaithfulness.” In another poem, Repeat, he speaks along the same lines: “I would be rid of you who bind me so/Thoughtless to the stars: I would refrain and turn/Along the unforgotten paths I used to know/Before these eyes were governed to discern/All beauty and all transience in love.”

But Durrell could also be consummately quixotic. In Echo dedicated to his wife Nancy Myers and his new-born daughter Penelope, Durrell ostensibly celebrates the symbolist ideal. “Nothing”, he writes, “is lost, sweet self/Nothing is ever lost/The unspoken word/Is not exhausted but can be heard/Music that stains/The silence remains/O echo is everywhere, the unbecoming bird.”  Similarly in another poem to his wife: “We have endured vicissitude and change/Laughter and lanterns, colours in the grass/And all the foreign music of the earth/Starlight and glamour: every subtle range/Of motion, rhythm, and power that gave us birth.” Despite the romantic nature of the two poems, Durrell somehow manages to strip his work of cloying sentimentality, yet he also, and more importantly, strips it of rhetoric and ridged precedents in order to present his ideal of a heraldic reality that is in keeping with his own defiant nature. Some of his best poems are the most seemingly labile, often set in symbolist Greece and full of mystic lyricism, references to the bucolic landscape, the sea and “foreign music of the earth capable of turning a key…in the heart”. His fascination with the Mediterranean is prevalent in much of his work; the campestral setting almost always the central point, the pivot, along with its “cities, plains, and people”.  Another of Durrell’s fascinations was the Greek poet Constantine P Cavafy, who is a spectre – ironic, pained – in the sensibility of much of Durrell’s verse. In an eponymous poem dedicated to his hero, Durrell writes: “And here I find him great. Never/To attempt a masterpiece of size/You must leave life for that. No/But always to persevere the adventive/ Minute, never to destroy the truth/Amid the coarse manipulations of the lie.” 

Another figure of great importance to Durrell was Henry Miller. The two were lifelong friends, maintaining an epistolary correspondence for over 40 years. In a paean called Elegy on the Closing of the French Brothels Durrell reminisces about their time together in Paris and nebulously mirrors Miller’s pleasure without compunction. He writes: “Of all the sickness, autumnal Paris/This self-infection was the best, where friends/Like self-possession could be learned/Through the mystery of a slit/Like a tear in an old fur coat/A hole in a paper lantern where the seeing I/Looked out and measured one/The ferocious knuckle of sex.” Durrell has a gift for dramatic traction and for combining irony and vulnerability, which strikes at the centre of human emotion. But, on occasion, he can also be obscure, fragmentary and opaque. He does, however, make up for his shortcomings with a number of rhapsodic verses which utilise modernist devises with alchemic valour.

His love poems, which pepper the collection throughout, are among my favourite. They reveal Durrell at his best, as a man of many passions, a lover of numerous women and someone who bravely unveiled and refracted his life on the page. Durrell’s poesy, magisterial in range, contains a great many influences from spiritual philosophy to Elizabethan dramaturges, and enjoys a synergy between fiction and reality: one knows when reading his work that every line has origins in some truth or emotion once felt. Love’s Intensity, one of my favourite poems in this veinis of simple structure and arrangement but reveals Durrell as a spirited assertor of the soul. It seems to be at once joyous and melancholic: “In all the sad seduction of your ways/I wander as a player tries a part/Seeking a perfect gesture all his days/Roving the wildest margins of his art/I would drink this perfection as a wine/Leash the wild thirst that binds me more than taste/Hoard up the great possession that is mine/Not squander as a drunkard makes his waste/I will be patient if the world be wise/And you be bountiful as you are curt/Until a song awakes those distant eyes/And all your weary gestures cease to hurt.” Another favourite is Return. Here, Durrell reminisces about the past with eloquent intensity: “There is some corner of a lover’s brain/That hold this famous treasure, some dim room/That love has not forgotten, where the sane/Plant of this magic burgeons in the gloom/And pushes out its roots into the mind/Grown rich on the turned soil of days that passed.” Many of Durrell’s love poems are distinguished by a literal view, which is continually merging into the most rapturous or passionately abstract. His divergent voices testify to the endless experiments and the complexity of his poetic expression, to his talent as a modernist, and more importantly to his status as a poet.

Durrell’s multifaceted career and his genre-transforming prose represent the diversity of his contribution to literature. They also point to the fact that he was perhaps one of the first English writers to speak for the post-war generation, chastened and perplexed by a collapse of order and reduced to mindless boredom by decades of chaste parlour prose.  Born in India in 1912, the first son of an engineer, Durrell developed his sense of the exotic through his Anglo-Indian upbringing. Yet according to his biographer Ian MacNiven, Durrell also thought of his self-elected lifelong exile as a “psychic burden” and of himself as “the lonely colonial child shadowed by the cosmopolitan writer.” He had a complicated relationship with England, where the family relocated after the premature death of Durrell’s father in 1928. In the early days, Durrell published a few poems between bouts of “drinking and dying”, and in 1935 an acutely autobiographical novel about life in Bloomsbury called Pied Piper of Lovers. That same year Durrell married Myers, the first of his three wives, and moved with his entire family to Corfu, where he wrote his second novel, Panic Spring, published in 1937 under a pseudonym of Charles Norden. His first book of real significance, however, materialised through his correspondence with Miller, who helped him get it published in 1938 by Obelisk Press. Reflecting on that period, Durrell said that The Black Book had a “special importance because in the writing of it I first heard the sound of my own voice.” By 1941, at the outbreak of World War II, Durrell was on his way to Egypt, where he served in Cairo and Alexandria as a British press officer. Exhausted by her husband’s philandering, his avuncular and long-suffering wife left him, making way for Durrell to openly cavort, and eventually marry several other women. It was in Egypt that he began working on the Alexandria Quartet, inspired by the decaying splendour and the seedy café nightlife of the once magnificent city and all its denizens. The Quartet is Durrell’s most remarkable accomplishment, eminently deserving of the Nobel Prize it failed to win. But his poetry is also an achievement of some import, and one which has been overlooked for far too long.

Philip Larkin: A great poet and a bloody good bum

Philip Larkin’s professional life was twofold as that of a poet and that of an ordinary librarian; only nothing about Larkin was ever really ordinary.  This may be, at least in part, due to, as he once confessed to his friend Norman Iles, the fact that he saw himself as an “outsider” while others supposed him to be “very establishment and convention”.  It was Larkin’s quintessentially English humour, his farouche temper, wry wit and scholastic intellect that came auspiciously together making him into one of the most eminent English writers of the post war period.  Larkin’s poetry is characterised by his personal idiosyncrasies, major existential concerns and an acerbic fusion of lyricism and discontent. Speaking about poetry, Larkin once said that his intention had always been to write in a mode defined by “plain language, absence of posturings, sense of proportion, humour, abandonment of dithyrambic ideal – and…a fuller and more sensitive response to life as it appears from day to day.”  The quotidian, its banality as well as its wonder, is indeed a running theme in Larkin’s work much of which is quietly heretical due to Larkin’s outright rejection of both tradition and new literary movements, especially modernism which he thought an “aberration” that “blighted all the arts.”

In trying to explain the fundamental purpose of poetry, Larkin once said that “to write a poem was to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely producing it in whoever read the poem”. This I would say is perhaps one of the most precise definitions and one that invariably applies to Larkin’s own body of work, which resonates and remains with the reader because it is candid without being indiscreet, ironic without being satirical and illuminating without being haughty or condescending. And, everything Larkin wrote contains the human element; confessional admissions and admonitions set out on the page. In the course of his writing career, which began in the 1930s and lasted until the 1970s, Larking produced four slender volumes of poetry – The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974) – with prolonged periods of stasis in between.  A meagre offering from someone who had laboured in the profession for over 40 years; only Larking had written more than initially thought and in 1988, three years after his death, Larkin’s friend and literary co-executor, Anthony Thwait, brought out Collected Poems which contained a cache of 22 juvenilia poems and 61 mature verses Larking had withheld from public view. It is impossible to speculate about his motives behind the decision, but to merely say that Larkin always was and still remains an enigma. A complex and a contradictory man at odds with his public persona, selfish yet altruistic, loving yet self-allegedly unable to love, a reluctant philanderer, predatory yet timorous, devoted yet disloyal, gracious yet impudent, funny but lugubrious. A complicated man.  And a private one, who saw life “as an affair of solitude diversified by company” rather than “an affair of company diversified by solitude.” And yet, Larkin enjoyed both his friends and his women despite cultivating a persona of a miserabilist eremite, who refused to live the literary life rejecting fame and all it demanded. He did, however, have a small demimonde, corresponded obsessively by epistolary means and presided over a small dragoon of staff at the Hull University Library where he worked for over 30 years.

Interestingly, Larkin seems to have thought of himself primarily as a librarian with a side-line in poetry rather than the other way around. In a rare interview with The Paris Review, speaking about his professional life he explained: “My job as University librarian is a full-time one, five days a week, 45 weeks a year. When I came to Hull, I had 11 staff; now there are over a hundred of one sort and another. We built one new library in 1960 and another in 1970, so that my first 15 years were busy.”  And later when asked about writing, Larkin said: “Anything I say about writing poems is bound to be retrospective, because in fact I’ve written very little since High Windows, or since 1974, whichever way you like to put it. But when I did write them, well, it was in the evenings, after work, after washing up…It was a routine like any other.”  It seems as though Larkin always downplayed his achievements preferring to think of himself as a failure, preferring failure in general, which also happens to be a common theme within his work. Not only that, a characteristically glum atmosphere pervades his poems, a vast majority of which revolve around loneliness and dejection, disappointments, loss and the terrifying yet inevitable rowing towards death. Larkin thus gives the impression that the reality of life as it presents itself to him falls short of what he expected. This disillusionment is particularly prominent when it comes to an assessment of what he has, or rather has not, achieved. Frequently, Larkin indicates feeling as if life is merely passing him by. In Aubade he says: “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night/Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare/In time the curtain-edges will grow light/Till then I see what’s really always there/ Unresting death, a whole day nearer now/Making all thought impossible but how/And where and when I shall myself die.”  He feels similarly in Continuing to Live, which opens on a rather sombre note: “Continuing to live – that is, repeat/A habit formed to get necessaries/Is nearly always losing, or going without/ It varies.”  And in The View, when in the last stanza Larkin asks rhetorically: “Where has it gone, the lifetime?/ Search me. What’s left is drear/Unchilded and unwifed/ I’m Able to view that clear/So final. And so near.”  Larkin’s confrontation of these themes head-on is quite admirable, his ability to do so with flair and a sense of humour makes it enviable. Even in Continuing To Live when talking about “loss of interest, hair and enterprise” Larkin is still fully aware of the seriousness of the situation which he surmise in Dockery And Son by saying: “Life is first boredom, then fear/Whether or not we use it, it goes.”

But of course not all of Larkin’s work is defined by this downhearted and pessimistic tone of voice. A great many of his poems are more upbeat albeit all uniformly with cynical connotations. A lot of these are sententious and document Larkin’s difficulties with women and the notion of love. Larkin’s amatory hardships were fairly well known, so much so that it formed the basis for one of Lawrence Durrell’s most famous one liners, when Durrell declared: “It’s unthinkable not to love – you’d have a severe nervous breakdown. Or you’d have to be Philip Larkin.” As wise as Durrell was I think in this particular instance, however, he was sacrificing the man for the sake of a witticism because albeit Larkin struggled with love and declared himself “too selfish” for it he did love and do so very generously.  In Monika Jones’ case, who Larkin met in 1947 while working together at Leicester University, that love last for over 30 years.  In one of his most demonstrative expressions of affection, Larking dedicated The Less Deceived to her. The collection contains several of Larkin’s best known poems including Church Going (“A serious house on serious earth it is/In whose blent air all our compulsions meet/Are recognized, and robed as destinies”), Deceptions (“Slums, years, have buried you.  I would not dare/Console you if I could.  What can be said/Except that suffering is exact, but where/Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?/For you would hardly care/That you were less deceived, out on that bed/Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair/To burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic”) and An Arundel Tomb, which most clearly represents Larkin’s romantic side even if it is despoiled by sceptic preoccupations of a logician. The concluding line of An Arundel Tomb (“What will survive of us is love”) is one of the most conspicuously affirmative in Larkin’s canon. And yet upon closer inspection the poem’s conclusion about the endurance of love, so uplifting in itself, is introduced as a very faint presentiment an “almost-instinct” that is not quite reliable because it is only “almost true”. The “stone fidelity” of the couple sculpted on the tomb is finally dismissed as something “they hardly meant” and the confident first impression is thus renounced as some sort of misunderstanding, or indeed a lie, when Larkin determines that “time has transfigured them into untruth”.

Larkin’s preoccupation with adverse themes is less abstract when considered with the fact that he started out his professional life as a fledgling writer, with two novels behind him by the age of 25, but later abandoned his aspirations comprehensively discouraged by Kingsley Amis’ success with Lucky Jim (1954), which took some of its inspiration from their friendship. In 1982 he told The Paris Review: “I wanted to ‘be a novelist’ in a way I never wanted to ‘be a poet,’ yes. Novels seem to me to be richer, broader, deeper, more enjoyable than poems.”  It seems that from the very start the act of writing poetry was for Larkin tinctured with failure, which makes his poetic success all the more extraordinary. Talking about the subject most prevalent in his work, Larkin once said: “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” A bloody good thing too as it seems to have made him into the poet he was. And no other could talk of death so intensely yet tentatively as Larkin does in Next, Please when in the closing stanza he says: “Only one ship is seeking us, a black/Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back/ A huge and bridles silence. In her wake/ No waters breed or break.” No other could capture the essence of intimacy more strikinglythan he did in Talking In Bed: “Talking in bed ought to be easiest/Lying together there goes back so far/An emblem of two people being honest… It becomes still more difficult to find/Words at once true and kind/Or not untrue and not unkind.” No other could be at once more funny and morose, “Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me) -/Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.” (Annus Mirabilis). No other could be more flippant: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.” (This Be The Verse). Or more heart-wrenching than Larking is in Home is so Sad when he says: “Home is so sad. It stays as it was left/Shaped to the comfort of the last to go/As if to win them back. Instead, bereft/Of anyone to please, it withers so/Having no heart to put aside the theft/And turn again to what it started as,/A joyous shot at how things ought to be,/Long fallen wide. You can see how it was/Look at the pictures and the cutlery/The music in the piano stool. That vase.” In short, no one could be Philip Larkin except Philip Larkin who was a great poet and a bloody good bum.

Seminal Lines

There must be some slow ending to this pain:
Surely some pitying god will give release,
Guerdon for service, leaving us again
The old magnificence and peace?

May we who serve such cruel apprenticeship
Find no more answer than an empty guess
Knowing that every lip to questing lip
Must give for answer ‘Yes’?

Oh turn your mind from such ungodly thought,
Let your dear, trembling mouth no longer guess:
Pleasure is greatest pain so dearly bought,
And love unfaithfulness.

Plea – Lawrence Durrell

Alfred Lord Tennyson: A poet who miraculously turned “twilight into flakes of fire”

Alfred Lord Tennyson strikes an imposing figure. Ensconced in a loosely fitting morning coat, with a fluid raven mane, a pineal beard, an aquiline face and a nose that could plough icebergs, he had all the bearings of a Victorian bard. He also had all the credentials. Tennyson began writing poetry as a child. Aged 12 he penned a 6,000 line epic in the style of Sir Walter Scott, a few years later a precocious verse-drama, The Devil and the Lady. It fact, the writing never ceased even when he failed to publish anything for over a decade. Born on 6th August 1809 in Somersby, Lincolnshire, Tennyson was the sixth of 12 siblings. His home-life was characterised by strife, family feuds, poverty and an iconoclastic, chronically-drunk and eventually-mad father. In 1827, Tennyson left for Trinity College, Cambridge, and a year later together with his brother Charles published a collection of juvenilia called Poems by Two Brothers. A couple years on another collection, Chiefly Lyrical, followed. Tennyson’s early forays into poetry attracted the attention of an undergraduate literary group, The Apostles, headed by Arthur Henry Hallam. The two formed a filial bond and later journeyed across Europe together in 1830 and again in 1832. Hallam’s sudden death in 1833 from a cerebral haemorrhage affected Tennyson so profoundly that “for the next 10 years he published no book, had no regular occupation, drank port, smoked strong tobacco and was poor and unhappy.” After this interlude, Tennyson began writing In Memoriam, his most distinguished work commemorating his friend. It took him nearly 20 years, earned him many accolades and made him a potentate of Victorian verse. Writing about Tennyson, in a critique entitled Essays Ancient and Modern T.S. Eliot said that Tennyson had “three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety and complete competence”. Samuel Coleridge Taylor praised Tennyson’s work for its “great deal of beauty”.  While Thomas Carlyle speaking of him in a letter to Waldo Ralph Emerson said: “Alfred is one of the few British or Foreign Figures who are and remain beautiful to me; a true human soul, or some authentic approximation thereto, to whom your own soul can say, Brother! One of the finest looking men in the world. His voice is musical metallic – fit for loud laugher and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation, free and plenteous.” Others, however, have been less kind.  W. H. Auden said that Tennyson “had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet” but “was also undoubtedly the stupidest,” while George Bernard Shaw quipped that Tennyson had the “brains of a third-rate policeman.” As with any writer Tennyson’s merits are debatable, but for me he has always been someone whom I admired.

In 1850, at the age of 41, Tennyson succeeded William Wordsworth as the Poet Laureate. He held the tenure for over 50 years until his death – longer than any other Laureate before or after. Tennyson was a commanding figure with a calliopean voice which demanded attention when he spoke and captivated everyone when he did. Highly popular in his own lifetime, Tennyson was often referred to as “the Poet of the People,” celebrated for reflecting the mind of an entire nation. This has more recently counted against him but In Memoriam remains one of the most memorable elegies in the English language. So much so that one of the lines (“Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all”) from the poem has become indelibly engrained in our collective consciousness and vernacular. Writing about In Memoriam Tennyson himself said: “It is rather the cry of the whole human race than mine. In the poem altogether private grief swells out into thought of, and hope for, the whole world. It begins with a funeral and ends with a marriage—begins with death and ends in promise of a new life—a sort of Divine Comedy, cheerful at the close.” Remarkably, In Memoriam does veer, as Tennyson says, between extremes giving the reader a chance to really contemplate a whole spectrum of emotional logic. But it also offers more than that, as W.B. Yeats once noted it is abundant with “scientific and moral discursiveness” corresponding exactly with Tennyson’s age, which the poet captures masterfully.

I was slowly making my way through In Memoriam when a friend bought me a copy of Tennyson: An Introduction and A Selection prefaced and chosen by Auden. Writing about his subject Auden is both praiseworthy and vituperative, fluctuating between the two without suspiring. His choice of Tennyson’s work is, however, very well considered and contains some of my favourite poems. At one point Auden suggests that “the feelings which his gift revealed to Tennyson were almost entirely those of lonely terror and desire for death.” He is indeed right as most of Tennyson’s verse revolves around those themes, for example in The Lady of Shallot, Tennyson says: “Heard a carol, mournful, holy/Chanted loudly, chanted lowly/Till her blood was frozen slowly/And her eyes were darkened wholly/Turn’d to tower’d Camelot/For ere she reach’d upon the tide/The first house by the water-side/Singing in her song she died/The Lady of Shalott.” In The Vision of Sin, he describes death as “King.” And although Tennyson most frequently refers to death in a grave and foreboding manner, he is also occasionally flippant. In the same poem speaking on the subject, he says: “Tell me tales of thy first love/April hopes, the fools of chance/Till the graves begin to move/And the dead begin to dance.” Death is omnipresent in most of Tennyson’s work, and one of my favourite poems in this vein is The Eagle, where Tennyson illustrates self-sacrifice with moving minimalism: “He clasps the crag with crooked hands/Close to the sun in lonely lands/Ringed with the azure world, he stands/The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls/He watches from his mountain walls/And like a thunderbolt he falls.” Tennyson had a vibrant imagination, a robust symbolic facility and a melodic grasp of metre. But he could also be somewhat slapdash due to his intense and lingering feelings of melancholia. Carlyle observed it best in his letter to Emerson, when he said that Tennyson was a “solitary and sad” man forever “dwelling in an element of gloom” and “carrying a bit of chaos about him”.

The remarks about Tennyson’s character reflect the overall nature of his work. And nowhere more so than in In Memoriam, which is characterised by simple meditations on simple themes or as Auden put it “human emotions in their most primitive states”.  By and large, Auden thought that Tennyson’s poetry lacked sophistication, syntactical complexities and lexical intricacies, which to my mind does not detract from either the profundity or gravitas of his verse. Tennyson shows great technical ability in Morte d’Arthur by reconstructing chivalric themes while also developing his own epic repertory in all its varied moods and cadences, from ballad metre to blank verse, in lines such as: “To me, methought, who waited with a crowd/There came a bark that, blowing forward, bore/King Arthur, like a modern gentleman/Of stateliest port; and all the people cried/”Arthur is come again: he cannot die”/Then those that stood upon the hills behind/Repeated–“Come again, and thrice as fair”/And, further inland, voices echoed/”Come With all good things, and war shall be no more’.” He also demonstrates his lyrical proficiency in one of Hallam’s favourite poems, Recollections of the Arabian Nights, by unifying individuation with the imagination in a way that makes a significant statement about harmonising different experiences in art. He reveals himself to be wholly committed to the humanistic cause, rather than nature, which shows a departure from the Romantic tradition. The poem displays Tennyson at his consummate best, especially in the following stanza:“Dark-blue the deep sphere overhead/Distinct with vivid stars inlaid/Grew darker from that under-flame/So, leaping lightly from the boat/With silver anchor left afloat/In marvel whence that glory came/Upon me, as in sleep I sank/In cool soft turf upon the bank/Entranced with that place and time/So worthy of the golden prime/Of good Haroun Alraschid.”

Hallam, who wrote about Tennyson before his death, is now considered one of Tennyson’s best critics. In his account Hallam, outlined “five distinctive excellences” in Tennyson’s work: the control of a fertile imagination, an equilibrium in “moods of character” so that the narration and feeling correlate, skill in fusing a vivid portrayal of objects, modulation of verbal harmony and a melancholy “soberness of tone”. In a letter to William Gladstone, Hallam consolidated his opinion about the budding poet by saying: “I consider Tennyson to be as promising fair the greatest poet of our generation, perhaps of our century.” Tennyson saw in Hallam what he thought he himself lacked, a seemingly superlative man of worldliness, ideas and concupiscent yearnings. But in fact Hallam’s physical and mental travails were the elements that fortified the relationship between the two men. Bound by their respective solemnity and pyrrhonism, they felt reassured by one another in their mutuality. In a poem called Merlin and the Gleam Tennyson describes Hallam as “The friend who loved me/And heard my counsel.” But the most heartfelt descriptions are In Memoriam where Tennyson refers to Hallam as a kindred spirit and asseverates: “My Arthur, whom I shall not see/Till all my widow’d race be run/Dear as the mother to the son/More than my brothers are to me.” And a few lines later forswears that his love for his friend will not diminish: “Still onward winds the dreary way/I with it; for I long to prove/No lapse of moons can canker Love/Whatever fickle tongues may say.”

It is impossible to overlook Tennyson’s posthumous royal shadow or his influence on poetry. To this day, he remains one of few English poets who could sustain a Hellenic style in both the pastoral and the elegiac. Tennyson was an astonishingly complicated man, admired and liked by a wide group of acquaintances, eclectic in artistic endeavours and intense in his passions. In Memoriam reflects much of this, and  is yet both grand and accessible, two qualities which are rarely found in one work. The opening two stanzas of In Memoriam reveal a more cynical side to Tennyson’s pious Victorian persona. His tone in speaking about religion seems questioning and somehow almost laodicean when he says:  “Strong Son of God, immortal Love/Whom we, that have not seen thy face/By faith, and faith alone, embrace/Believing where we cannot prove.” A couple of lines down, he depicts the cruelty of the Almighty in the closing lines: Thine are these orbs of light and shade/Thou madest Life in man and brute/Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot/Is on the skull which thou hast made.” The poem showcases Tennyson’s ability to embody himself in moods of character, with great accuracy of adjustment so that the circumstances of the narration seem to have a natural correspondence with the predominant feeling. It also demonstrates his picturesque delineation of objects, and the peculiar skill with which he holds all of them fused in a medium of strong impression. In Memoriam contains a variety of his lyrical measures, and exquisite modulation of harmonious words and rhythms to the swell and fall of the feelings expressed in lines such as: “Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d/Let darkness keep her raven gloss/Ah, sweeter to be drunk with loss/To dance with death, to beat the ground,” and “I  sometimes hold it half a sin/To put in words the grief I feel/For words, like Nature, half reveal/And half conceal the Soul within,” or “My own dim life should teach me this/That life shall live for evermore/Else earth is darkness at the core/And dust and ashes all that is.”

In Memoriam offers a maudlin soberness replete with grief, love, beauty. The elegiac leitmotif is encapsulated lucidly if somewhat reticently in the following lines, when thinking of Hallam Tennyson says: “Dark house, by which once more I stand/Here in the long unlovely street/Doors, where my heart was used to beat/So quickly, waiting for a hand/A hand that can be clasp’d no more—/Behold me, for I cannot sleep/And like a guilty thing I creep/At earliest morning to the door/He is not here; but far away/The noise of life begins again/And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain/On the bald street breaks the blank day.” One of Auden’s key grumbles about Tennyson’s poetry is the fact that “there was little about melancholia that he didn’t know; there was little else he did.” Thus Auden concludes that Tennyson’s single minded preoccupation is one of the reasons his poetry is “bad” to the point of obscurantism. But I daresay that range does not qualify the poet’s abilities. Auden of all people should have known that having had an immense range and a lot of dross to show for it. Perhaps mine is an overly simple view but I think that a poet’s puissance is measured by the emotion his work solicits from the reader since poetry is as Lawrence Durrell once said the “science of the heart’s affections” and going by that definition Tennyson is a master of that science who miraculously turned “twilight into flakes of fire” without burning the parchment.

Seminal Lines


“Let us start a new theory of connubial copulation which will get the world properly fucked for a change.”

The Black Book – Lawrence Durrell

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