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Two Poets in England

ISSUE:  Summer 1934

The Poem of Richard Aldington. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. Collected Poems. By V. Sackville-Wcst. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50.

It has become the custom for poets to anticipate time’s ultimate decision by collecting their poems into a single volume, not near the end of a career, but in what ought to be its middle flight. For book-buyers this implies a later revised collected poems, followed by a collected poems in three volumes, until at last the death of the poet makes possible the publication of the complete poems, and then only can time begin its work. This must be to the advantage of the publishers; it can scarcely be that to the poets, and to the readers it is only confusion.

Richard Aldington, like the rest, will write more poems in his lifetime, but has brought together in the present volume all the poems written between the ages of nineteen and forty-three. Some of these have never before been published in the United States, which is one of the few justifications for a single inclusive volume at middle age. The first three poems in the book, “Choricos,” “To a Greek Marble,” and “Argyria,” were written when he was nineteen years old, and published in the Chicago magazine, Poetry, in 1912. That the group called the Imagists included him was an accident. He was not writing as a rebel then; his natural taste coincided with the newly aroused interest of poets who were rebels, and they hailed him as one of them. Actually it was at the suggestion of his friend, Ezra Pound, that he sent the three poems to Harriet Monroe, and at Pound’s instigation that she brought about the new movement. When the excitement died away, several years later, Aldington continued to be the same Graeco-Englishman that he had been in 1912, and he is still a poet out of his proper time and country, a Miniver Cheevy from Attica, hurt inwardly and constantly by modern life, and most of all by the war.

It is in the light of this fact that Aldington’s achievements must be valued. He called his first four books Images; images of war, of desire, images old and new, and all of them full of fauns and olive trees, sandals and Artemis and pale limbs, ghost moths over asphodel, and again the fauns. In the meantime, however, he was hating his actual life in an English city with the vehemence of misery and boredom and horror that he records at length in the poem called “Childhood,” the inevitable reverse of the coin. Even in the trenches he dreamed of the dreams of Greece he had had before the war, varying in his poems the beauty and horror of the world felt so keenly by others of his generation. In these early poems he is either in danger of being prosy or of being passionately austere; rarely does he achieve poems like “After Two Years” or “At the British Museum” or “June Rain.” With the section called “Words for Music” one comes with some relief to rhyme and meter, used skilfully and ironically. Except for Aldington’s temperament, one doubts, at this distance, that the poetry of the Imagists need ever have been so much concerned with ancient Greece. In the later, and much longer, poems, he is at last mature and convincing. In “The Fool i’ the Forest” the unhappy youth has gained strength, accepted his responsibilities, and adjusted temperament and environment, though not with great joy. Again, in “A Dream in the Luxembourg,” he tells a story of a modern love idyl, recollected, not in tranquillity, but in bitterness, though in the telling it is eager and real. “The Eaten Heart” and the newer short poems are more likely to be what time will wish to save from this book, except for those further poems that Aldington will surely write, is even now writing. While they carry still much Greek imagery, they are surer and less remote, filled with the sort of beauty this poet was born to give us out of his suffering.

Victoria Sackville-West, the original of the strange fantastical figure of Orlando in Virginia Woolf’s story, is as much of England as Aldington is not of it. The heir of hundreds of years of tradition in a family that still occupies that vast house at Knole, she loves the land passionately, writes of its thousand faces with loving care if not with poetic feeling of the very first order, and makes the English seasons infinitely desirable as a calendar of life. “The country habit has me by the heart” she says, in the long poem, “The Land,” in which every country character, Beemaster, Yeoman, Shepherd, Vagrant, Gardener, and Thatcher, every flower, crop, craftsmanship, color, and smell, every time of day and night and season, is chronicled carefully out of her love for all of it. She does not hesitate to use Kentish words, and she never fails to communicate the reality of unremitting toil on the land through these and any words, any lyric or poetic form. Ultimate peace and hard-won contentment dwell in these pages, full of country sights and odors and sounds. “The Land” is worth more than all the rest of the book; it was given the Hawthornden Prize, and surely it was the worn manuscript that Orlando carried in his (or her) bosom through all the changes of that fascinating life.

The truth is that V. Sackville-West stands in a tradition greater than any school of poetry of a generation, greater than any major group in literature. It is the tradition of a noble family whose members have always written poetry and prose. This book of hers is, in a sense, one of a trilogy, the other two being Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” and her own “Knole and the Sackvilles,” an historical account of the house itself and the members of her family; and it is best appreciated in the light of the other two. Fine as the present achievement is, a Sackville could do no less, and only the Sackvilles’ friends, Beaumont, Byron, Ben Jonson, Robert Greene, Edmund Spenser, Swift, Waller, Cowley, and Con-greve, could have possibly done it better.

“The Land” is followed by shorter poems selected from all her earlier books, with the exception of “Poems East and West,” from which a very few have been taken. The separate volume, “Orchard and Vineyard,” is represented almost in full, and the volume is completed with some verse from “The King’s Daughter” and a generous number of hitherto unpublished poems, mostly travel pieces. Among these shorter poems there are many that repeat the country note, “Out with a Gun,” “Leopards at Knole,” “A Saxon Song,” “The Bull,” and “Sissinghurst” being some of the best. In lyric intensity and sustained music the latter outshines most of the shorter poems of the book. Travel poems written from Persia, Provence, Tripoli, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and other far places of the earth, seem, as a usual thing, occasional poems, with all the lack of lasting satisfaction that poetry of this kind has, except to the writer of it. There are a great many of these.

The poems are arranged, after the section culled “Abroad,” in sections entitled “People,” “Insurrection,” and “Love.” Of them all, one must honestly say that the memorable line, the inevitable phrase, the shining verse are absent; the poet is not one who, like Herbert Read, finds that poetry “inheres in the word.” With her it is a matter of those moods so natural and deep that they need the length of “The Land” to get themselves stated. In the final group, however, “The King’s Daughter,” we do find a tighter rhythm, a greater economy, a more universal preoccupation with life.

These two volumes are beautifully made and, in the case of Miss Sackville-West’s book, unusually well-printed. It remains to add, as footnote, that Mr. Aldington writes a preface of some seven pages, in which he explains his own position, attempts a definition of poetry as he sees it, and describes experiences in composition that will interest any habitual reader of poetry. It might be a good thing if more poets, when they have the authority to speak, would deliver themselves of even longer prefaces on their own work in particular, and on the art of poetry in general. Such a practice would, in the main, give each book a double interest to reader and student of poetry (these being presumably also buyers of books) and would serve more than a vast amount of criticism to establish the truth about poetry.


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