Prynne and The Movement
This piece is 13,000 words or about thirty printed pages long.
And so I must carry with me, through the course
Prynne’s ‘course / Of pale imaginings’ (FC 1) has been spliced up at various points — Brass (Trotter); News of Warring Clans (Reeve and Kerridge); Her Weasels Wild Returning (Johannsen). [Note 1] The omission, however, of his first volume, Force of Circumstance, from the recent Poems gives apparent authorial sanction to an early division in this ‘self-annotating narrative of literary development’ (JT 365). [Note 2] In this essay I wish to contest the aspiration of autochthony implied by this erasure: ‘As if a man were author of himself / And know no other kin’. [Note 3] In its way, this a simple repetition of the parricide of the immediate precursor, so emphatically performed by the Movement poets on 1940s neo-romanticism (Davie’s strictures on ‘Abandonment, morality’s soubrette / Of lyrical surrender and excess’ (D 70) are glanced at in Prynne’s ‘Men have been drunk in orchards’ (FC 19)). [Note 4] The gesture has been repeated on their writing sufficently often that the victory of the Movement now lies in the persistence of its detractors. Despite all the (often well-founded) gibes of metropolitan coterie, journalistic construct, and self-seeking opportunism, it remains the primary reference point for subsequent genealogies of post-war British poetry. [Note 5] The immediate contrast would be with Olson, arguably the most inflated poetic reputation of the twentieth century: credulous emulation of his bloated neo-Poundianism has arguably been the primary blight on post-Prynneite writing. As Davie puts it in ‘Hypochondriac Logic’:
So argue men who have thought
If one opts for an inclusive definition, with Gunn, Hill and Hughes, and perhaps Amis and Tomlinson, placed alongside Larkin and Davie, the Movement at least stands comparison with any other collective body of poetry in English of the post-war period, whereas the Black Mountain school has shown no comparable durability: early Creeley, perhaps a little Dorn, Olson himself nowhere.
Reeve and Kerridge propose Prynne as originator of a ‘new school of writing whose work offers a radical and important alternative to the mainstream of British poetry’ (RK vii). ‘Writing’ is notably opposed to ‘poetry’; and the confident delineation of the ‘mainstream’ breaks down in the face of Faber Pound, Penguin Ashbery and now (finally) Bloodaxe Prynne; ‘radical’ hovers uneasily between political approbation and formal experimentation (the ‘angelic song’ that ‘shines with embittered passion’ (P 109) is quite possibly reactionary).
And why should I now simply out of weakness
Impending but subterranean violence is a recurrent motif: ‘The leaves lie spent upon the ground, / A dozen razors, keen, without a sound’ (FC 13), for example, echoes Lowell’s later-reviled confessional mode, ‘Waking in the Blue’’s ‘each of us holds a locked razor’. [Note 7]
We shrug too quickly
‘Risings / We cannot hold or ignore’ suggests the process of decolonisation: ‘sailing from islands’ is both the original expansionist urge and the rapid decamping from native uprisings (‘commotion’, such as the 1947 massacres on the partition of India ‘that do not concern us’; ‘despite / everything and especially the recent events carried under that flag’ (P 13)). ‘We shrug too quickly’ inevitably recalls Larkin’s ‘Homage to a Government’ (L 171): ‘It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen, / But now it’s been decided nobody minds’, with its fierce rebuke to the betrayal of earlier ideals of empire: ‘Places they guarded or kept orderly’.
Only the reckless spirit
The criticism of the ‘reckless spirit’ as ‘an extreme of self-isolating elitism’ is countered by positing a commitment ‘to a notion of the public sphere which is extraordinarily rigorous and potentially democratic’ (RK 2). It is difficult not to see ‘rigorous’ as implicitly antithetical to ‘democratic’; as for ‘potentially’, always a weasel word, if not now then when? It is noted that ‘sardonic and satirical tones often give rise to an urgent, if untethered, moral dimension’ (RK 3), an excellent description of Davie’s 1960s ‘Diatribe and / Denunication, where I spend my days’ (RK 138). It is pleasant to contemplate the East Anglian terrain (the same academic corridor at the University of Essex even) producing the euphoria of White Stones simultaneously with such jeremiads as ‘I could not live here, though I must and do / Ungratefully inhabit the Cambridgeshire fens’ (D 104).
The onset of regret
This prefigures both the magnificant rebuke to the narrator’s ‘incautious sympathy’ in ‘Concerning Quality, Again’: ‘I can hardly / expect her back’ (P 82); and the titillating vignette of cruelty in The Oval Window, ‘her mouth was sealed up by the burns’ (P 317). To their credit, Reeve and Kerridge directly address the problematic affiliation to Carlyle’s ‘admiring the strong for their lack of debilitating self-consciousness’ (RK 32), but their caveat tends towards special pleading: ‘it is important in Prynne’s work in its concern to decentre consciousness avoids such power worship and reverse sentimentality (RK 32). The uncompromising vocabulary of the elect and prominent avowals that ‘It is simple as the purity of / sentiment’ (P 16) renders this dubious: ‘we are thus too liberal’ (FC 3). The ethic of decentring can be equally well be located in a right-wing modernism (Pound, Lewis), with sympathy a plenty, but not for other people: ‘The politics / of this will bear inspection’ (P 76), perhaps but perhaps not.
One man burning his rubbish
The reverse movement is also attempted: acceleration from ‘determined solitudes’ to ‘holistic pre-socratic condition’ (RK 39), ‘increasing the pressures on ‘love’ as it tries to heal those fractures and crumples under the strain’ (RK 59). Prynne’s over-frequent gestures of cosmic participation compares unfavorably with the sheer arduousness of Davie’s religious faith:
Ask when we are diseased, and these
Reeve and Kerridge concede ‘the concern in the Olson poems not to specify, to keep all the potential alive and open, can sometimes produce a rather vapid inclusiveness whose large emotive terms are not able to carry the burdens placed upon them’ (RK 50): a pointedly Leavisite stricture (and none the worse for that) that ‘The heart is not to be solicited’ (D 17). It is insisted that the ‘interjection of unrestrained enthusiasm into textures of poetic argument need not simply represent the brimming over of an uncosted egotistical desire’ (RK 51); ‘need not’ does not preclude the possibility that in the case of, say, Daylight Songs, it does.
In his 1963 recorded interview, Prynne insists on the ‘architectonic’ unity of his writing: in ‘China Figures’ he admires ‘a linked series of imitations based on the earlier poem, variation upon its theme, quotations of a line or a phrase, allusions to its form that may be direct or ironic in differing degrees and ways’ (JT 372). [Note 11] The recurrence of motif presented with an uncertain, even programmatically aleatory, irony is perhaps most characteristic of The Oval Window, but the ‘repressions and bypassings and loopings ahead to be the object of critical attention’ (RK 32) are already evident in Force of Circumstance. To ‘calibrate the sight’ (FC 8) recurs in ‘these calibrated prophecies of the bone’ (FC 40); the ‘fragile space’ that ‘had to be hoarded’ (FC 4) in ‘our hoarded melancholy’s aimless charm’ (FC 12); and to ‘glimpse between those hills the open sea’ (FC 35) in ‘What have these hills to offer to the mind / Caught up with a nostalgia for the sea (FC 45). [Note 12]
For the further distance
It remains puzzling that Poems, a volume so embarrassed by its Movement heritage as to disown it entirely, begins with ‘The Numbers’, a text that invites exegesis within its central terms: retreat into the personal sphere in the face of a contracting public history (‘dislocating / The scale so that we feel / Compressed, into half-stature’ (FC 26; ‘the modest hatred of our con- / dition’ (P 18)) which is necessarily also the hatred of our modest condition).
The whole thing is, the difficult
This is almost parodically susceptible to post-imperial recuperation; Johannsen insists the poem represents an attack on ‘narcissistic insularity’ (but feels obliged to elides the opening lines in otherwise extensive quotation (J 141-42)). ‘Difficult’ is neo-Eliotic, signalling modernist co-ordinates; the ‘confines’ of imagism, minimalism, but also with a Blakean reminiscence of ‘shrinking’ into fall, irrevocable lapse.
The politics, therefore, is for one man,
The Powellite slant on national identity (‘ethnic loyalty’ (P 82)) feeds into the later geneticism: ‘skin over the points, of the bone’ into the later ‘white charge / in the bones’. [Note 13] The subsequent ‘without even a shred of desire / like maps at our feet’ serves as both a reminder of archeological sedimentation and a kind of memento mori (compare ‘We trust the track, a lifeless skeleton’ (FC 35); ‘whatever passes / As fine bone-structure’ (FC 41)).
that’s where we have it and should
‘Diminish’ suggests racial stock, ‘I must stand off from the warm / decay’:
but we must each have, more
‘Place’, station in the world, but also territory: ‘desire’ as ‘decay’ but also for it:
we must shrink / we
This invites comparison with Ashbery’s great question, ‘will our pain matter too, and if so, when?’; Prynne, however, cannot shake off the burden, responsibility, to be ‘earnest’. [Note 14]
The orphic self-begetting of the strong poet through ‘the heroic possibilities of incantation’ [Note 15] takes up directly the aspiration voiced in the closing lines of the suppressed first volume: ‘I cannot wait / to be the angel / of my own / persuasion’ (FC 54). If there is an attack on a post-war consensus, it implies less postmodern ecumenicism than reversion to an earlier role: ‘elect’ as imperial mission, ‘risk of exception’ as manifest destiny, ‘competitive expansion’ (P 13).
We are a land
There is a peculiarly martial androgyny, with perhaps a glance at iconography of Britannia: cycladic (tunic worn over armour) as corset, hence ‘hammered by restraint’; an allusion to Blake’s ‘bright sandal form’d immortal of precious stones & gold’ combines with the chinese practice of foot-binding (and hence deforming) girl children); ‘tread’, as well as its erotic connotation, bodily ‘weight’, implies a more general oppression: on whom, and do they perceive the ‘empire’ as one exclusively ‘of love’ ? As Davie points out, ‘The scholiast can wish the blood away... // But see, a baby’s finger in the plate!’ (D 27). (It is unclear why Prynne’s own strictures against Duncan’s ‘fanciful mythographer’s nationalism’ cannot be turned against certain of his own texts, notably ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’). [Note 16]
For the common touch,
Johannsen claims ‘‘The Numbers’ promotes the development of poetic expression that is genuine in this particular locale’ but also ‘simultaneously exhorts the English to acknowledge poetic qualities and virtues produced beyond the borders of that land’ and so ‘eventually lead to an alternative world order’ (J 142). The self-originating power of ‘election’ implies rather a susceptibility to neo-Nietzschean chatter (‘he will not break his stare’ (FC 1); ‘no heroic gaze / From his high vantage point’ (FC 11); ‘the bitter habits of that fire & / disdain’ (P 102)). The Movement idiom, with its implicit call to proper living (‘the calm is a / modesty about conduct in / the most ethical sense’ (P 53)) is all that lies between Prynne and the politics of Pound and Lewis, Marinetti and Peguy.
Immediate parallels between Prynne and Larkin spring to mind: both poet-librarians; both assiduous cultivators of the myth of their own self-imposed isolation; both also, as Davie notes firmly in the tradition of Hardy (the chief object of Larkin’s later admiration and the topic of Prynne’s unfinished thesis: the title Force of Circumstance perhaps alludes to Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance). The influence may be detected in occasional lyric flourishes — in ‘Singing at last’ (FC 7), ‘splay-footed running’ recalls ‘a bird’s adept splay’ in Larkin’s ‘Age’ (L 95); in ‘Quasi al Tocco’, ‘The brickwork is drenched’ with ‘resonance’’ (FC 26), which may be linked to Larkin’s thrush in ‘Coming’: ‘Its fresh-peeled voice / Astonishing the brickwork’ (L 33). The Hardy influence is equally apparent in the technique of jump-cut to an indifferent cosmos:
Any poet who has to designate himself ‘ironic to the last’ clearly still has some apprenticeship to serve (evident in the gratuitous puncturing of the pathetic fallacy of ‘curl / Lazily’). As Davie notes, ‘irony itself is doctrinaire, // And curiously nothing now betrays / Their type to time’s derision like this coy / Insistence on the quizzical’ (D 35).
To contemplate a sound so rare, complete
The presentness of the ‘glowing moment’ of open-form composition is usually stressed, but early Prynne usually adopts a more structured retrospective [Note 18] which is eminently compatible with, for example, Larkin’s ‘Reference Back’:
Truly, though our element is time.
‘Genius Loci’ is an example of how readily in early Prynne the ‘random path’ becomes ‘pure design’ and ‘urbane device’:
The stile’s heraldic note sound over-shrewd
This deracination permits a degree of belonging, emotional habitation:
the ordered space
The settings are more fluidly phenomenological, but there is still a common terrain between, say ‘a wall / Tokens a winding road’ in ‘Before Urbino’ (FC 3), and Larkin’s ‘No Road’ (L 47), where sunset inaugurates a new world. Larkin is perhaps more forcefully iconic, Prynne more inclined to foreground distrust
Of wave on wave of emblems, scooped and borne...
As Prynne comments of Trakl (CR 84 335), ‘the colours and objects of his landscape have the precision of emblems, seen not through a haze but as it were across a great distance. Heroic pastoral is a dominant mode but drained of resonant nostalgia’. [Note 19]
It’s Put a screw in this wall -
is narrativised into a possible world which one may envy or be appalled by. Not only is Larkin superior in particularity, but also, unexpectedly, in abstraction: ‘Getting One’s Bearings’ seeks to evoke
A pivotal obsession; yet he felt
In contrast to this externalised vantage, ‘Continuing to Live’ inhabits its own diagnostic terminology, to the extent of attracting extended commentary from Rorty as exemplary of division between private and public ethics. [Note 20]
Only that, in time
‘And afterwards’ has something of Larkinesque ruefulness: ‘he contemplates a catch / Full of a life that shows he’s met his match’ (FC 11: compare ‘in that face// which is an absent match// to the spirit’ (P 40)): evoking ‘the whole shooting-match’ of ‘Wild Oats’ (L 143) or ‘that unfocused she / No match lit up’ of ‘Essential Beauty’ (L 144).
And various railways. (FC 11)
Who cannot see will weave, and thus disperse
The ‘former mind’ (reminiscent of Arnold’s ‘buried self’) is recovered through meditation that ‘leads us back’; an act of retrospection articulated in a wholly impersonal voice (‘who cannot see’) until the pronouns of the final line (and even here arguably negated by ‘not seen’). For all the visual emphasis (‘scene’, ‘sight’), the exposition is notably unlocated; pedantic precision combines with awkwardly extended conceit (‘weave’, ‘networks’, ‘unravellment’).
blunt the eye
One notes the cross-over between the idioms of social status and logical category, usually to justify ultimate exclusion: compare Larkin’s ‘Not quite your class, I’d say, dear, on the whole’ (L 71) or Davie’s ‘equalizing rule’ that ‘Theirs is all the youth we might have had’ (D 29). Here the merging of ‘promise’ into ‘premise’ is supported by a further play on ‘assent’ and ‘ascent’. [Note 22] ‘Grip’ recalls the title of Larkin’s rejected volume, In the Grip of Light; but the more obvious continuity is with ‘Next, Please’:
Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
The opening lines, ‘Always too eager for the future, we / Pick up bad habits of expectancy’ are reworked directly by Prynne:
It draws the mind, this notion: planting
‘We’ becomes a prior and unspecified ‘notion’ operating both on the level of species-destiny (‘seeds’; ‘sprout’; ‘grit’) and moral consciousness (‘certainty’; ‘intentions’; ‘expectancy’). [Note 23]
the sowing can be inferred
Larkin’s ‘High Windows’ evokes a ‘paradise’ which
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives -
Aside from the poignant obsolescence of the ‘combine harvester’, which would more usually serve as an emblem of agri-business and itself the instrument of the destruction of an older England, Prynne’s poem takes up the motif of siring, ‘Grandsons and nephews... slow seedcases’. Here however the cycle of human fertility is not opposed to the ‘sun-comprehending glass’; the idea of genetic structure is an ideal of immortality; apocalypse by the back door. [Note 25]
Our sons and daughters shall
Prynne, ‘the most / Literary person ever was’, would seem improbable candidate for membership of the ‘illiterate apostles’. Davie is fixated on Beat as license, rather than the alternative formalist strands of ‘post-Beat’ American poetry (no real comprehension is shown of Ashbery, for example), and seems equivocal as to precisely what must be ‘betrayed’: ‘myself’, the ‘gift of tongues’, or the ‘apostles’? His ‘clenched and muffled style’ (D 52) would seem apparent anathema to a neo-romantic proponent of ‘prophesy’; and as Prynne’s former Cambridge tutor, he would serve more obviously as critical mentor rather than as literary model. [Note 27] In somewhat schematic fashion, three phases of influence may be discerned: firstly, the stylistic prescriptions of Purity of Diction in English Verse; secondly, the broader historical lineage of constraint posited in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry; thirdly, the self-appointed role of transatlantic mediator, adopted in Old Masters andTwo Ways out of Whitman. [Note 28]
Yet to stand
The stoical acceptance of ‘Next, Please’ here combines with the close of Cowper’s ‘The Castaway’: ‘anchorage’ provides no security but instead becomes mid-ocean downward plummet. [Note 30] Davie himself is drawn to anatomies of ‘Pink-handed horror’ (D 23), for example, in ‘Homage to William Cowper’:
The squalid rat broke through the finch’s fence,
‘Mrs Throckmorton’s Bullfinch’ will later crop up in ‘The Ideal Starfighter’:
The faded bird droops in his
For Davie, historical displacement (‘a cage, and still was no defence’) is internalised, pathologised as religious impulse: his emblematic narratives seek to provide a correlative to the paranoia of the preterite. (The obvious comparison would be with Orwell’s Room 101). Prynne’s sense of election would appear confident enough to consign others to unworthiness, and yet angelic inspiration remains indistinguishable from ‘comic / hysteria’.
Unlike Larkin’s ‘Solar’ (L 159), this is ‘set / Over what still remains, / Limits’: ‘only the lowered gaze / Can give you life here’ (FC 8) though the counter-impulse remains to ‘set / Our horizons on intricate fire’ (FC 20). [Note 32] In general, however, Prynne remains closer to Davie, ‘curbed / Not much by the general will, / But by a will to be curbed / A preference for limits’; ‘The recognition of a limitation / On idiosyncracy, a choice / that being narrow, can be seen as free’ (D 49-50).
I cannot abide the new
This is impertinent whether addressed to an American or British readership: both for its overly proprietorial expositon of transatlantic writing and for its condescending diagnosis of the ‘constricted idiom’. The latter is painfully evident in ‘Certain English Poets’:
My dears, don’t I know? I esteem you more than you think
The grating opening is already demode in view of the ‘new / Absurdities’ (why the Audenesque campness of ‘dears’?), and there is something self-commending even in the closing plea for truculence: ‘Or will you, contained, still burn with that surly pluck?’ (D 164).
The transition from English academic into American expatriate involves loss of reputation and more generally of empire: ‘One conceives of worse reverses’. In this ‘power brake’ (compare ‘A globe of pulp about a pip of pain’ (D 25)) ‘sough’ is a poeticism for rustle, murmur; but also implies intake of breath, perhaps a crash. ‘One’ becomes ‘we’ via ‘every man’: the sub-Churchillian ‘island race’ merges into an American ‘lonely crowd’, exemplified in car-ownership: ‘Diesel-fumes cling to wistaria’ ((‘a hardy deciduous shrub native to North America’). Britain may arguably now be a ‘poisoned land’, but why should ‘gardens... pock her face’ (rather than housing estates or supermarkets)? The most immediate ‘Anglophobia’ is Davie’s own: ‘sympathizes’ is drawn not only to the ‘verses’ but also to their ‘hysteria’.
But how the shameful grapes and olives swell,
His transatlantic verse is churlishly unresponsive to the sheer abundance of the culture (‘cornucopia’), devoid of simple capacity for pleasure; and other evocations of abroad are equally disastrous in their attempt to reclaim ‘the privileged classes’ shorthand’ ((D 65): [Note 34]
Americans are innocents abroad;
The Jamesian truism will no longer hold (‘so ingenuous’?) as is implicitly acknowledged in the bizarre self-emasculation (‘the cagey kind’ — like Mrs Throckmorton’s bullfinch; ‘And out of the knifebox bleeding’, from the foundries of Sheffield but also as the apparent recipient of ‘Time’s gradual and lenient castration’ (D 49)). The tactic of ‘finesse the trick’ is best read as emulation of transatlantic sophistication and rhetorical accomplishment: ‘So strong they know when to be overcome’, here by the form of a Ransomian quatrain fable. [Note 35]
I was born back there, the plaintive chanting
Prynne lays claim to the ‘unison of forms’; but formally, there is not a huge gulf between ‘the continuing patience / dilating into forms so / much more than compact (P 53), and Davie’s equally post-Poundian aesthetics: the poem as ‘votive fragment’ in a situation where ‘Time-honoured forms present a choice / Of parody or else pastiche’ (D 21):
(As though a shutter shot across the mind
A more empiricist variant of Prynne’s ‘I am moved / by the condition of knowledge, as the / dispersion of form’ (P 78). Again, one can argue for a reverse influence on Davie’s later verse (‘ape their stammerings’), and as with Larkin, arguably a regrettable one:
He branches out, but only to collapse
One’s may harbour reservations about Davie’s earlier style but its distinctive quality demands recognition: ‘And because life itself / Is this one soured life I am leading (D 110); ‘A man who ought to know me / wrote in a review / my emotional life was meagre’ (D 137);
As I shall not aspire
Davie’s cross-overs between libidinal and theological ‘grossness’ may be sometimes unpalatable, but in Prynne, the apparent absence of repression — ‘guilt’ instead becomes ‘the agency of ethical fact’ (P 79) – becomes difficult to equate with anything other than the absence of desire. Indeed, some of Davie’s more lugubrious meditations read like a kind of pre-emptive parody of Prynne:
After two months, already
For Davie ‘misgivings’ would presumably centre on ‘new feelings’ that rely not on religious conviction, but on a decentred materialism whose consequences would be no less baneful if not for a willed but perhaps delusive euphoria. A subjectivity increasingly confined and restricted, whittled to virtual nothingness, is left no alternative but self-constitution through a kind of continuous self-apostrophe: the ‘Adventure of blessing the world’, awaiting a post-religious pentecost (‘how long O lord how long’), but one whose deus absconditus has been replaced by genetic or economic determinants.
Derisive his extravagance: he screams
‘Extravagance’ draws etymologically on ‘wanders circuitously’ (qua Othello); linking to the ‘arching loops’ of imperial circumnavigation and of gyre-like historical recurrence (hence the rhymes feeding into and back from the subsequent stanzas; ‘light’, ‘drew’, ‘gleams’, ‘tight’; ‘too’, ‘extremes’, ‘bright’, ‘view’; ‘dreams’, ‘might’, ‘do’, ‘streams’). ‘Summer night’ evokes an Audenesque impending doom, also implicit in ‘screams’: ‘derisive’ implies satiric castigation, with an intimation of ‘decisive’, terminal. ‘Unremembered shrillness’ (prophetic?) could be ‘now forgotten’, but also ‘not experienced for so long a time’; the characteristic self-reflexivity of ‘themes’ takes on an odd ethos of underworld initation in ‘tunnels through’.
Next morning, standing in the anxious light
‘Standing in’ is a quasi-Heideggerian revelation of truth; ‘anxious light’ recalls the idiom of 40s neo-romanticism; ‘commonplace’ reverts to a movement idiom of dispelled illusion; ‘the gleams / Of ductile wires’, however, are themselves ‘cries’ drawn to ‘snapping-point’, potential strangulation (compare ‘to snap the pace / into some more sudden glitter of light’ (P 47)).
Uneasily, we say, I heard it too,
The ‘centre from extremes’ , what is heard in common, anticipates the Davie-Tomlinson ethos of ‘Against Extremity’, though ‘vagueness’ could be ineffable or banal. ‘Ensnarements’ recalls the ‘wires’, gleaming ‘bright’, liable to ‘corrode’: temptation, however paradoxically lies in reversion to the ‘old familiar view’ rather than the auto-asphyxiation of ‘dangerously tight’.
A wise and mournful bird. But these are dreams
The earlier ‘shrillness’ becomes the ‘shriller wisdom’ of late Yeats: ‘some brown shadow’ has inevitable intimations of the ‘rough beast slouching’ towards Bethelem and beyond. Minerva is accorded respect as ‘wise and mournful’ in contrast to the ‘dreams / We spun’: both empirical rebuke and apocalyptic vista.
running to violence (to which ex-
As with Larkin, the possibility of reverse influence should not be disregarded. ‘The course of pale imaginings that leave no trace, / The broken, idle mill-wheel’ (FC 1), for example, becomes ‘A water wheel inertly turning round / Beneath a stream that would not fill a jug’ (D 38); and Prynne’s ‘brown shadow’ becomes the focus of a more explicitly allegorical meditation in Davie’s ‘The Owl Minerva’:
The muse that makes pretensions to discourse,
‘Pretensions’ is retrospectively undermined; ‘discourse’ is constituted as ‘sage or sybil’, movement or neo-romantic (‘Astute in form, oracular in force’); the proposition might be logical or sexual; ‘sound’ imply appear like, or triumphantly blast; the ‘oath’ be either of allegiance or of curse.
Rapid, abrupt and violent like a blow,
The stagey explicit violence of the opening line is also ‘like a blow’: the sense of playing a wind-instrument both gives vent to and simultaneously negates the ‘exclamation or ecstatic howl’. A tone of controlled exposition posits a historical nihilism that undermines the entire enterprise. ‘The hooting of’ is both the noise made by, but also mockery directed towards.
Can spells or riddles be articulate?
The opposition between ‘speech’ and ‘music’ appears to exclude the very possibility of the third term of historical knowledge, reduced to ‘spells or riddles’. The Yeatsian ideal of Byzantium no longer contains any ‘singing bird’: ‘music’ must be composed by other means. ‘We take our stand’, but where? The bald finality of the closing ‘was’ still leaves the post-historical vantage, and its relation to ‘discourse’ and ‘proposition’, to be defined.
More than ever I need
There are no poems to lost comrades, or at least only in collectivised and even throwaway terms: ‘England, we wheel and fly about you still, / The dead of that and of another war’ (D 38). [Note 38] ‘The savage poets sang / Enormities that happen every day’ (D 27): among whose number must be Keith Douglas and Alan Ross (whose convoy-duty sea-scapes are recalled by some of the imagist effects of the late verse). The final imperative ‘to run to seed’ (D 35) is both to reproduce (the widespread impulse after demobilisation) and to accept decline.
If too much daring brought (he thought) the war,
This is hardly a good account of Munich, but eminently applicable to the ‘daring’ of the imperial mission: ‘Colossal nerve denied the light of day’. The final line encapsulates an honorable decolonisation though ‘the most / Reasonable of settlements betrays / Unsmoothed resentment under the caress’ (D 86). ‘Betrays’, a key term in Davie, both personal and collective, can serve as a direct indictment — famously ‘And curiously nothing now betrays / Their type to time’s derision like this coy / Insistence on the quizzical’ (D 35) — but also contains at least the possibility of a positive force of articulation: ‘And in the process some-one is betrayed. // Ourselves, perhaps’ (D 34); ‘See, there again, the sense betrayed!’ (D 21); ‘Some have enjoyed what here I deny to you, / A self-betrayal not betrayed in art’ (D 51); or from the earlier quotation, with full imperative force, ‘I must betray myself’ (D 157).
But what had happened? Who had made
‘Evening’ takes on the characteristic allusion to post-imperial malaise, but in a magnificent pathetic fallacy (‘made all nature blind’), it is not the ‘eye’ but the world itself that ‘winced’ when ‘betrayed’. The empiricist ‘mirror’ can only ‘tremble and subside’; the ‘active mind’ chooses rather to close its ‘shutter’ and cultivate its own solipsism: ‘O bleak and lunar emptiness’. The attempt at apocalyptic self-sufficiency (‘A god’s, a man’s, a swan’s’) remains haunted by a kind of animistic reproach from ‘the very flags’ of the now abandoned nations.
A knowledge of history fetches
One may distrust the political implications of Davie’s stance (the ‘hands’ may be ‘empty’ but does that make them necessarily ‘clean’?), but at the very least it represents an attempt to rehabilitate an unillusioned patriotism and articulate an elegiac sense that refuses to be merely internalised. I wish to close by looking at the political voice of Prynne’s work, specifically in ‘A New Tax on the Counter-Earth’ (P 172-73).
Much has been made of the uniqueness of Prynne’s verse, its intransigent experimentalism and solipsistic areferentiality. I would prefer to stress the ‘recoverable history... embedded within the potencies of language-use’: ‘The individual poet may articulate the unrecognised passions within a community, but he does not invent passions: his desire is, by virtue of his gift for specialised expression, less likely to be easily fulfilled, but otherwise it derives from and represents what is profoundly typical’: [Note 39]
A dream in sepia and eau-de-nil ascends
‘Dream in sepia’ recalls Larkin’s 1950s black-and-white news-reel evocations (notably ‘At Grass’), but the more substantial overlaps are with his 1970s idiom: intolerant nostalgia, corporate avarice and ecological consciousness. In Prynne, the ‘dream’ of capital, as enunciated by Lord Cromer, Governor of the Bank of England has become synonymous with rather than opposed to the ‘great landscape’: ‘the hills and trees, the / distant panorama washing the buried forest’. The’prospect of money’ now dominates both spheres, ‘value become coinage’, ‘cash as a principle of nature’, which are spliced together with more esotetic idiolects of ‘absolute perception’: neurological diagnosis (‘limbic mid-brain system’) and high romantic ecstasy (‘universe of starry majesty’). [Note 40]
And that will be England gone,
‘Greeds / and garbage’ are products of a self-sustaining system, evident in the ‘bleak high-risers’ of sink estates and arriviste speculators: the title both plays on the unstated term ofd the auctioneer’s ‘gone’ and refers back to the dissolution of the phenomenal world in the earlier symbolist lyric, ‘Going’ (‘where has the tree gone, that locked / Earth to the sky?’ (L 3)). The critique was considered sufficiently pointed for the fifth stanza (‘Five per cent profit (and ten / Per cent more in the estuaries))’ to be censored by the Department of the Environment who had originally commissioned the poem. [Note 43]
I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
The same ‘stream of evening sun’, though the ‘prospect of money’ is here in a civic rather than country setting. ‘Solemnised’ indicates the limitations of Prynne’s register: its ‘conviction’ lacks both the lyrical empathy and the ‘edge of rhetoric’ in Larkin’s chiamus of perspective, whereby we see the ‘provincial town’ from money’s own point of view.
the botanist & the collector of shells
The ‘dream’ and ‘wish’ materialise in the form of ‘cash’, somewhat melodramatically ‘distraught’ (in comparison to Larkin’s ‘intensely sad’). ‘Portioned’ and ‘drowsy body’ anticipate the later quotation from Milton, a mythology of split and multiple selves simultaneously inhabiting separate spheres. The ‘hermaphrodite’ is also Blakean, but ‘from Coventry’ suggests Larkin himself, secluded, indifferent to the auto-destruction of the ‘nervous / system’, both physiological and of fluctuating global markets. [Note 46]
Now freedom from care deflects the care itself; that
The ‘grandiloquent spiral of common-sense’ is a fine tribute to Larkin; a life which, as the posthumous furor has demonstrated, may at the very least be termed ‘exotic’. If one accepts the dubious postulate of the Movement ‘imitated by / lazy charade’ by its successors, Prynne himself must be included in their ranks. If the only ‘alternative’ is for ‘the truth’ to become ‘optional’, what prevents the ‘freedom from care’ from becoming ‘freedom from caring’, the ‘rightness of wayward sentiment’ becoming the ‘waywardness of right[-wing] sentiment’: ‘such affection curdles the effort to be just’. [Note 47]
Note 1] Force of Circumstance and Other Poems (London: Routledge 1962), hearafter FC (1).
Note 2] ‘China Figures’ [Modern Asian Studies 17 (1983) 671–704] repr. in New Songs from a Jade Terrace: an anthology of early Chinese Love Poetry, trans., ann. and intro. Anne Birrell (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986) 363–92, hereafter JT.
Note 3] Coriolanus (V iii 36–37), whose political corollaries are by no means irrelevant.
Note 4] Davie, Collected Poems 1950–1970 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), hereafter D; FC 19.
Note 5] Still villains of the piece in A Various Art eds Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville (Carcanet: Mancester, 1987) 12; Floating Capital: new poets from London, eds Adrian Clarke and Robert Sheppard (Potes & Poets Press: Elmwood Conneticut, 1991); conductors of chaos: a poetry anthology, ed Iain Sinclair (London: Picador 1996) xix; Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970, ed Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain (Hanover and London: Wesleyan UP, 1999) xxii. None of which can match up Davie’s own (1959!) self-lacerating indictment of ‘pusillanimity’ and ‘insularity and philistinism’ (72): ‘Remembering the Movement’,The Poet in the Imaginary Museum (Manchester: Carcanet, 1977) 72–75 (72).
Note 6] See ‘Modernism’ in German Poetry, Cambridge Review 84 (1963) 331–37.
Note 7] Robert Lowell, Life Studies (London: Faber, 1959) 54. Rathmell (review of FC in Cambridge Review 84 (1963) 193) notes a ‘violently abusive presence’ and ‘a world of mute turbulence, invisible assualt, and silent riot. The sense of suppressed violence is in fact a recurrent and somewhat incongruous note’.
Note 8] The review is ‘Figments of Reflection’, of Charles Edward Eaton, Counter-Moves, Cambridge Review 84 (1963) 281–2. See also Eric Homberger and Andrew Duncan
Note 9] Philip Larkin, Collected Poems ed. Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber and Marvell, 1988), hereafter L.
Note 10] Cambridge Review (1963) 84 331; ‘His ‘love’ is such a shadowy alter ego that she simply serves as a minimal destination for yearning; the avowal is not a move to break open the elegaic coocoon, but, as we have come to accepts, one intended to enhance the snse o solitude from which we are t imagine it to have sprung’: ‘The Elegiac World in Victorian Poetry’, The Listener 1768 LXIX (1963) 291:
Note 11] (JT 372). ‘The Poet Speaks’ 39 interview by Peter Orr, British Council (London 1963)
Note 12] ‘Such discrete shapes, heavy with implication, are the embryos of future profusion whilst also artefacts of the present moment’ Cambridge Review 84 (1963) 282.
Note 13] ‘too simple ! caress fronds as to liberate / race hatred’s package tour ‘ whose every touch, kiss the rising hand / will too bleach-whiten yours’: Pearls that were (Cambridge; Equipage, 1999) np .
Note 14] Flow Chart (Manchester: Carcanet, 1991) 48. Compare RK 40.
Note 15] Cambridge Review 84 (1963) 322.
Note 16] Cyclas: ‘a tightly-fitting tunic anciently worn by women and occasionally by men’; especially the surcoat worn by fourteenth century knights over their armour’. Blake, Milton; in Collected Poems ed David Erdman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) also present in ‘littoral imagination’ in Littoral (FC 5; breathing fields FC 18) ‘A Letter to Andrew Duncan’, Grosseteste Review 15 (1983–84), 100–18 (107).
Note 17] Charles Tomlinson, ‘The Middlebrow Muse’, Essays in Criticism 7 (1957) 208–217.
Note 18] Compare ‘loyalty is / regret spread in time, the hurt of how / steadily and where / it goes’ (P 56); see also RK 33–34..
Note 19] ‘Modernism’ in German Poetry, Cambridge Review 84 (1963) 331–37 (335).
Note 20] Essays of Richard Rorty, Irony, Contingency and Solidarity
Note 21] Collected Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot (London: Faber 1969): ‘When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall’ (14); ‘Repeat a prayer on behalf of / Women who have seen their sons or husbands / Setting forth, and not returning’ (189)
Note 22] Compare also ‘a bearing into certain / distinctions’ and ‘a line, of rest / and distinction’ (P 41)).
Note 23] Compare ‘And expectancy is equally silly when what think / of is delay’ (P 113)).
Note 24] See Chritopher Ricks, ‘A Note on Hardy’s ‘A Spellbound Palace’, Essays in Appreciation (Oxford: Clarendon 1996) 235–44.
Note 25] See especially ‘Acquisition of Love’, with its poignant evocation of parental feeling with the emblem of the ‘broken / mower’ (P 111).
Note 26] As Paulin notes, in the tradition of the Platonist’s tower (Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (London: Faber, 1992) 246. Prynne’s ‘Quite certain’, ‘by the caged motion, dry point, in the mind’ (FC 49) alludes to the ‘padlocked cube of light’ in Larkin’s ‘Dry-Point’ (L 37). Even in Davie, ‘The metaphysicality / Of poetry how I need it’ (D 155).
Note 27] Though there are occasional overlaps such asthe tableaux of blackberrying in ‘Or would like to think’ (FC 4) and ‘Housekeeping’ (D 104)), or the landscapes in ‘The Common Gain Revisited’ and ‘The Wind at Penistone’ (D 52). For biographical links, see Davie’s review of A Various Art in With the Grain: Reflections on Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (Manchester: Carcanet)
Note 28] Purity of Diction in English Verse (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,  1967) Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973); Older Master: Reflections on English and American Literature (Manchester: Carcanet, 1992), and Two Ways out of Whitman: American Essays (Manchester: Carcanet 2000)
Note 29] Compare RK 24 and see especially ‘Enlivened Metaphors’ and ‘Personfication’ (Purity, 38–40, 33–38).
Note 30] One may infer that ‘The Castaway’ was peculiarly vivid to Davie after wartime naval service, with the routine instructions for ships not to stop to pick up survivors; compare the image of the ‘rigger’s mate’ in Poem as Abstract’ (D 24); and also Prynne’s ‘Lashed to the Mast’ (P 49)).
Note 31] Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973) 113–15, 118–20.
Note 32] Compare ‘the world is that fire, it burns / along all the horizons’ (P 59).
Note 33] Larkin’s ‘Naturally the Foundation will Bear Yours Expenses’ (L 134) should be read in a ‘splendid Donald Davie voice’ (Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940–1985 (London: Faber 1992) 522), which Davie himself found spoken by a ‘hatefully distinct persona’ (Under Briggflatts: a history of poetry in Great Britain, 1960–1988 (Manchester: Carcanet, 1988): 61. Prynne’s ‘Airport Poem: Ethics of Survival’ (P 38) invites recitation in similar tones; and behind both, of course, Auden’s ‘On the Circuit’ (Selected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1979) 248–50.
Note 34] ‘And not that sort of hero, not / Conquistador Aeneas but a tourist!’ (D 125). On the poetic genre of Fulbright scholars, see Robert von Hallberg, American Poetry and Culture, 1945–1980 (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard UP, 1985) 194.
Note 35] Among other discernible American influences are Crane in ‘Glass walls run up, run out on the canyon’s lip. / Barber my verses, pitiless vivid city’ (D 115) or Bly in ‘Although I thought a deep / And savage cry from the park / Came once’ (D 117)).
Note 36] Required Writings: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955–1982 (London: Faber and Faber, 1983) 47.
Note 37] ‘An extraordinarily powerful an for all the vacancy of the effort to give it lexical definition and, perhaps in some large measure, because of that vacancy’: ‘English Poetry and Emphatical Language’, The Warton Lecture on English Poetry,Proceedings of the British Academy LXXIV (1988) 135–69 (162).
Note 38] ‘On an Arctic Shore’, the account given of the war years, in These the Companions: Recollections (Cambridge: CUP, 1982) 34–48) is oddly lightweight, even derogatory. Note however, ‘I have cheated my will / Out of its need for command: / I have taught it not to kill / Free water into ice’ (D 37).
Note 39] ‘Letter to Andrew Duncan’, 101. Compare ‘China Figures’ on the ‘nuanced politics of ascription’ required in pursuing the ‘social and historical self-consciousness of the implied personal subject’ (379, 381); and ‘A Discourse on Willem de Kooning’s Rosy-fingered Dawn at Louse Point, Act 2: Beautiful Translations (London: Pluto 1996) 34–73: ‘we are not plucked out of the mortal world, as we are by the illusionism of baroque sacred allegory, but are plunged deeply back into its continuing history: of actors construing and constructing a natural fact’ (41), and ‘a kind of busy proceduralism... overwhelmed by its own tacit historiography’ (69).
Note 40] Milton, portioned, drowsy boyd and hermaphroditic can also be found in Blake’s epic.
Note 41] Gary Snyder, ‘The communities of creatures in forest, ponds, oceans, or grasslands seem to tend toward a condition called climax... This condition has considerable stability and holds much energy in its web – energy that in simpler systems (a field of weeds just after a bulldozer) is lost back into the sky or down the drain’: The Real Work: Interviews and Talks 1964–1979, ed W. Scott McLean (New York: New Directions, 1980) 174–74.
Note 42] Ian Patterson, ‘‘the medium itself, rabbit by proxy’: some thoughts about reading J.H. Prynne’, Poets on Writing: Britain, 1970–1991, ed. Denise Riley (London: Macmillan 1992) 234–46 (242).
Note 43] See Selected Letters and also Christopher Hitchens, ‘‘Something about the Poetry: Larkin and ‘Sensitivity’’, New Left Review 200 (1993), 161–72.
Note 44] Patterson 241. Compare ‘and with you a real ironist’ (P 62); as Davie notes, always hyper-attentive to second-guessing, ‘the vice in it is this / Each does us credit, and we know it too’ (D 36)).
Note 45] Trotter 227. For a more specific links, compare Prynne’s ‘greasy rope-trick’ with Davie’s ‘Thanks to industrial Essex / I have spun on the greasy axle / of business and sociometrics’ (D 144) .
Note 46] This oil crisis ethos recurs in the suggestion that ‘the arabs might / do well to soak up revenue on a straight purchase / of, say, Belgium’ (P 224); compare Martin Amis, ‘Every time the quid gets gang-banged on the international exchange, all the Arab chicks get a new fur coat’ (Money: a suicide note (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 154)), and also the gibes against ‘1. The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development’ (Triodes (Cambridge: Barque, 1998) 24).
On a right-wing genealogy for the denunciation of usury, see ‘Ezra Pound, The Poetics of Money’, in Paul Morisson, The Poetics of Fascism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Paul de Man (Oxford: OUP, 1996) 16–590; and on Hitler as a green, see Luc Ferry, The New Ecological Order, trans. Carol Volk (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1995). If the comparison seems excessive, compare the holocaust allusion to human beings as ‘old fat’ in the ‘can’ (‘Thinking of you’ (P171) following the homage to Celan (‘Es lebe der Konig’ (P169–70) immediately before ‘New Tax’), and also note the ‘lemon kurds’ (Triodes 41).
Jacket 24 — November 2003
This material is copyright © Steve Clark
and Jacket magazine 2003