Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016)

Geoffrey Hill, who died last Thursday, was a magnificent poet – and sometimes a difficult one. He produced lines that haunted you, perhaps because they contained so much questioning, as well as so much music.

Geoffrey Hill

Sir Geoffrey Hill

His early books, King Log and For the Unfallen, contained poems that were truly haunting. The very first poem of his first collection was – perhaps – about the difficulty of religious belief but also about the fact that we need myth and see miracles all around us. Its lines and rhythms enacted what they talked about:

 

Against the burly air I strode,

Where the tight ocean heaves its load,

Crying the miracles of God.

Reading that, you can feel the battering of the wind against your face. You can feel the mass of the sea sliding and beating against the land. And then you notice the questions too: is it ‘I’ who am ‘crying the miracles of God’? Or is it the ocean?

There are lines that fascinate, full of magic even if you don’t understand them:

…And made the glove-winged albatross

Scour the ashes of the sea

Where Capricorn and Zero cross…

It was years before I realised that this referred to the Tropic of Capricorn and longitude zero, an actual place (it’s a remote spot in the South Atlantic). But what magical lines!

My favourite book was perhaps Tenebrae, and its sonnet sequence An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England. A sequence full of the most beautiful images: ‘Where wild-eyed poppies raddle tawny farms’ ‘horseflies siphon the green dung’; ‘the crocus armies of the dead/rise up…’ Hill combined a profoundly questing intellect with a wonderful gift for phrases and images; and yet he questioned and reflected on the meaning of every word he used. He used language so well because he didn’t trust it.

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Geoffrey Hill at the grave of Charles Williams in Oxford

 

When he heard I was writing a life of Charles Williams, a writer about whom he was enthusiastic whilst clearly also seeing his faults, he was immensely encouraging, but he didn’t stop at encouragement. He laboriously copied out – by hand – all of Williams’s annotations in a copy of Kierkegaard he owned, and sent them to me. He heralded the book in the opening words of his valedictory lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford; and when it came out he reviewed it in the TLS – a quirky, impartial review, whose opening words were ‘I welcome the appearance of this book though not unreservedly.’ – a sentence that made me laugh aloud, it was so characteristic.

And he sent me the wonderful photograph I reproduce here, of himself at Charles Williams’s grave. He looked like Merlin, whose voice he had used in one of his earliest poems: ‘I will consider the outnumbering dead:/For they are the husks of what was rich seed…’

I met him two or three times. He was kind, genial, funny, and quite without self-importance. As great a man, I think, as he was a poet.

CHARLES WILLIAMS: THE THIRD INKLING

I’m celebrating, because this week I sent off the final draft of my biography of Charles Williams to Oxford University Press – and a new collection of poems to  Carcanet Press. Both, I hope, for publication in autumn 2015.

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Charles Williams reading aloud: E.G. Pierce, 1936

I’ll talk about the poems in a future post. This time I’ll concentrate on the Charles Williams biography. It will be called Charles Williams: The Third Inkling because Williams was a central member of the Inklings, the informal group of Oxford writers whose best-known members were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Charles Williams – poet, dramatist, writer of metaphysical thrillers, critic, theologian, biographer, occultist and amazingly charismatic lecturer – lived from 1886 to 1945 and is far too little known. His life is a fascinating one, and much of his work is well worth rediscovering.

And Williams is a writer to be reckoned with. Ruth Rendell nominated his metaphysical thriller All Hallows’ Eve as her favourite book on BBC Radio 4; Sir Geoffrey Hill in his Clark Lectures called Williams ‘a great critic’ and his book The English Poetic Mind ‘a critical masterpiece’; C.S. Lewis said of Williams’s Arthurian poems, ‘they seem to me, both for the soaring and gorgeous novelty of their technique and for their profound wisdom, to be among the two or three most valuable books of verse produced in the [twentieth] century’.

Charles Williams had an extraordinary life, and thanks to newly-opened archives containing thousands of letters, and more than twenty interviews with people who knew him, I have been able to trace his life in vivid – and, I think, highly readable – detail. We follow him from the poverty of his childhood in London, through his rise from humble proof reader to senior editor at the Oxford University Press, where he had a long and painful love affair with a colleague; we trace the gradual development of his poetic talent, alongside his involvement with Rosicrucian occultism – where the book allows you into the secret initiatory rituals Williams underwent – and on to wartime Oxford, where he becomes a close friend of Lewis and Tolkien and completes his remarkable late flowering as the twentieth century’s major poet of Arthur and the Grail.

Through good luck and the generosity of private owners, the book will reproduce almost forty drawings and photographs of Williams and his associates, many never published before and some only recently discovered. (Just as a taster, I’ve put one on this page – a drawing of CW reading aloud, by E.G. Pierce – a fine drawing never before reproduced as far as I know.) The book will answer many questions: it will clarify at last what his relationship really was with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; and it will recreate, from Williams’s own notes, much of the famous lecture on Milton’s Comus which led C.S. Lewis to exclaim that Oxford University’s Divinity School ‘had probably not witnessed anything so important since some of the great medieval or Renaissance lectures.’

Williams is the missing centrepiece from the story of twentieth-century British literature. At the start of his career he was associating with Edwardian poets Alice Meynell and Robert Bridges; later his closest friends included not only C.S. Lewis and Tolkien but T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas; he was an inspiration to young poets of the World War II generation like Sidney Keyes, Drummond Allison and John  Heath-Stubbs; and he drank in the Oxford pubs with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. It’s an astonishing story.

I owe great debts of gratitude to innumerable people who have helped with the work, including former friends and students of Charles Williams (notably the late Lois Lang-Sims), Williams scholars including David Llewellyn Dodds, and the trustees and archivists of the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, Illinois, the two libraries that hold the major share of Williams’s papers. I was generously supported by both an Invited Visiting Scholarship at St John’s College, Oxford, and a Clyde S. Kilby Research Grant from Wheaton College, Illinois. The Charles Williams Society and the Society of the Inner Light also gave generous support. The many others who helped in so many ways are acknowledged in the book.

There’s much more to say, and of course there’s more work ahead = copy-editing queries, proofs to correct, indexing, and so on – but right now I’m heaving a big sigh of relief and looking forward to Christmas! I hope you have a wonderful holiday and a very happy New Year.

Tom Rawling on BBC Radio 4

This is just to let everyone know that our poetic documentary NIGHT FISHING featuring the poetry of Tom Rawling will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 4.30 pm on Sunday 2 November and again at 11.30 pm (yes, half an hour before midnight!) on Saturday 8 November. It will also be on the BBC i-Player.

For more about how the programme was made, please scroll down to the post just below this one. Happy Listening!Tom_Rawling[1]

 

NORMAN NICHOLSON – AN ESSENTIAL POET

I was in Millom on Monday, to record a conversation with Eric Robson (of Gardeners’ Question Time fame) about Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson. We walked out on the nature reserve at Hodbarrow – former site of the Millom ironworks and the haematite (iron ore) mines that gave rise to them.

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Norman Nicholson

Eric is making a programme for BBC Radio 4, to go out in early January around the time of Norman Nicholson’s centenary. Nicholson (1913 – 1987) was certainly the most important Cumbrian poet of the twentieth century, but I’d say his writing was valuable and excellent in a wider perspective, whether you’re interested in Cumbria and the Lakes or not.

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Sidings and blast furnaces at Millom haematite works – now vanished.

He’s very much identified with the small coastal town of Millom – which from the 1850s until 1968 was a hub of heavy industry, with mining, iron smelting, and ships mooring at the quay to take pig-iron all over the world. Nicholson spent almost his whole life in the town, stubbornly (perhaps neurotically) refusing to move away. I say ‘almost’ because he had a couple of years down south in a TB sanatorium in his late teens. It may have been the experience of this frightening illness that led him to stay, lifelong, at home: that, and becoming somewhat institutionalised during those years when his airy hut at the sanatorium was his entire world and he was hardly allowed to get out of bed.


But he wrote about the town, its inhabitants, and the nearby landscape and geology of the Lakes in a unique way. Rather than  spreading wide, he dug deep, and he found a way of talking about the unyielding facts of the land and the rock, and the ultimate decline of the industry he had known, which is memorable and unique.

In ‘Millom Old Quarry’, he looks at a hole in the ground and, guided by an older inhabitant, sees the houses that were built from it:

 ‘They dug ten streets from that there hole,’ he said,

‘Hard on five hundred houses.’ He nodded

Down the set of the quarry and spat in the water

Making a moorhen cock her head

As if a fish had jumped. ‘Half the new town

Came out of yonder – King Street, Queen Street, all

The houses round the Green as far as the slagbank…’

Nicholson says ‘I saw the town’s black generations / Packed in their caves of rock’ – and he imagines it all going back again, buried once more:

All that was mortal in five thousand lives.

Nor did it seems a paradox to one

Who held quarry and query, turf and town

In the small lock of one recording brain.

During his lifetime people wondered why Nicholson didn’t move. His London publishers, Faber, were grudging about his work, and didn’t produce a Collected Poems until well after his death, when readers lobbied for it.

But now it’s evident that it was his artistic mission to function as that ‘one recording brain’. He did something no one else could have done, showing us a world that is now largely gone but remains fully human and valuable, and also chronicling its disappearance.

When Millom ironworks was finally demolished, Nicholson wrote

They cut up the carcase of the old ironworks

Like a fat beast in a slaughter-house: they shovelled my childhood

Onto a rubbish-heap. Here my father’s father

Foreman of the back furnace, unsluiced the metal lava

To slop in fiery gutters across the foundry floor

And boil round the workmen’s boots…

But Nicholson was also an environmentalist before the word existed. He wrote about the damage done to land and people by industrial exploitation; he believed that ultimately man must became ‘farmer rather than miner; cultivator rather than exploiter’. He wrote a protest poem about the Windscale nuclear accident (at the present-day Sellafield); and when they cleared away, too drastically he felt, the remains of Millom’s derelict industrial heritage, it wasn’t just the pits and foundries he lamented:

It’s hard to tell there ever was a mine: pit-heads

Demolished, pit-banks levelled, railway-lines ripped up,

Quarries choked an d flooded, and all the lovely resistance

Of blackberry, blackthorn, heather and willow grubbed up and flattened.

An expert botanist, he felt that nature could repair herself better than mankind could. Hating pollution and ugliness, he also believed the National Trust should preserve some mines, factories and pitheads, so that future generations could appreciate the achievements and struggles of the industrial age.

His little  prose book Provincial Pleasures is a miniature masterpiece: looking at the town in twelve essays, one for each month of the year, he shows the interconnected lives of the inhabitants, the wildlife, the daily work, the intrigue, the small psychological and spiritual dramas of a tiny provincial town in the late 1950s. Even as he wrote, supermarkets and chain stores were moving in and Britain’s first motorway was being built. He captured a world perfectly and delightfully.

But his work isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. Eric Robson asked me ‘Is Nicholson a great poet?’ No, I said. He isn’t Shakespeare or Dante. But he’s an important poet. He has vivid colloquial language, he has an extraordinary, individual and deep perspective – man in the environment, man living on, through and up against geology. He showed how a poet can take the most ordinary-seeming place and make it extraordinary – in such a way that every reader looks at his or her own place and sees it freshly and more vividly. Not a great poet then – but an essential poet.

A new biography – the first – is about to appear from Kathleen Jones; I’ve read it and it is excellent, so I’ll put in a link for it here, before I stop:

Helen Tookey: Fine New Poet for Dark Autumn

Carcanet’s New Poetries series is rightly respected as a showcase of exciting talents of varying kinds. The latest volume was launched yesterday and I want to call attention to a fine new poet whose work has excited me a lot. And – STOP PRESS – her full-length book Missel Child is now available from Carcanet: just go to  http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781847772183

I’ve been reading Helen Tookey’s work with growing admiration. Her quiet, precise poems have a genuine eeriness – a spooky quality that I’ve met with nowhere else in recent poetry. I think it comes from the fact that she has interests in both archaeology and psychology, but knows intuitively that they aren’t separate – that when we dig up the past it’s our own roots we are looking at; and when we explore the dark corners of our personal psyche, we’re also daring to open up the hidden aspects of our culture and society.

‘At Burscough,Lancashire’ is a case in point. Here it is (with permission):

At Burscough, Lancashire

Lancashire’s Martin Mere was the largest lake in England when it was first drained, to reclaim the land for farming, in 1697.

Out on the ghost lake, what’s lost

is everywhere: murmuring in names

on the map, tasted in salt winds

that scour the topsoil, westerlies

that wrenched out oaks and pines, buried now

in choked black ranks, heads towards the east.

Cloudshadows ripple the grasses as the seines

rippled over the mere by night, fishervoices calling

across dark water. Underfoot, the flatlands’

black coffers lie rich with the drowned.

The poem is about a lake that’s no longer there. Helen Tookey uses its absence to evoke the landscape (a strange, nondescript no-man’s-land) in vivid, sensuous detail but also with semantic depth, so that the placenames on the map recalling the lost mere merge into the sound of the wind, and the trees which still turn up now as fossilised bog oak and the like become disturbingly evocative of mass human graves. Ruminating on the loss of the mere, she writes, by implication, an elegy for the communities that lived and worked there and have now, like the lake, gone with hardly a trace. She also hints at the other cultural obliterations which have stained past centuries. The ‘choked black ranks’ recall ethnic cleansing, forced migration, mass starvation. And the simple fact that, over the centuries, many people, fishers and other, must have drowned in the lake and been forgotten. Even money is there, faintly, with the substitution of ‘coffers’ for the expected ‘coffins’.

But it’s all held together by a consciousness which sees in a context of myth. The ‘fisher voices calling/across dark water’ are voices from the other side of the river – Styx or Lethe – that separates the dead from the living. These are the souls of the dead that might call to us in sleep. Could it even be that they are fishing for us? The choice choice of ‘flatlands’ is deft also – and again a neat substitution, because we would expect ‘wetlands’ (indeed, the remnants of Martin Mere are now a bird sanctuary run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust). Not just a neat label for the nondescript alluvial west-Lancashire landscape, it suggests a flat earth that might tilt up one day and show worrying things underneath. For the mathematically aware it also recalls Edwin Abbott’s 1884 Flatland, a brilliant Lewis-Carroll style fantasy which enables even the simplest person to understand the amazing nature of spatial dimensions.

Helen’s poem shows us just how many dimensions an absent lake and a depopulated landscape can have. And she tells us about it in such deceptively gentle and musical tones, hovering on the edge of blank verse, but always staying flexible, floating between four stresses and five – ‘rippling’ and ‘murmuring’ as the poem says. It’s like listening to a lullaby that soothes and seduces with its beauty; but just might give you nightmares.