No 2 - 1974
The Poetry of Molly Holden
The ultimate aim of the poet should be to touch our hearts by showing his own, and not to exhibit his learning, or his fine taste, or his skill in mimicking the notes of his predecessors.
THIS QUOTATION FROM Leslie Stephen, which Thomas Hardy entered in his notebook, is one which illuminates his intentions as a poet. It might also be applied with justice to the poetry of Molly Holden. The connection is not an arbitrary one, for the first volume of Molly Holden’s poetry, To Make Me Grieve, takes its title from Hardy s poem, ‘I Look into My Glass’, a poem which perhaps more than any other by Hardy exemplifies Stephen’s dictum.
I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, ‘Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!’
For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.
We are profoundly moved by this grave and sombre poem because in it we see a sensitive, vulnerable man facing up to his disturbing vision of life without flinching. The language is austere, befitting the poet’s stoicism, each word fitting precisely and unpretentiously in place. This is poetry of great simplicity and strength. The emotion is controlled, and the poet’s desire to be honest to the contradictions of the experience is suggested by the hesitations, pauses and subtle changes of pace in the verse. We seem to hear the poet speaking, and yet, as always in Hardy, there is a reticence, a dignified reserve. The poet, though giving us access to his deepest feelings, does not reveal the particular events in his life which generated those feelings. Unhappy relationships are indicated in the second verse, but that is all. The poem gains in economy, and in universality.
The theme of Hardy’s poem, that of the irony of time which ‘part steals, lets part abide’, is one that is particularly appropriate to Molly Holden’s predicament, and her poems, like his, are sensitive, direct, unpretentious and honest. We are told in the cover note to her novel for children, A Tenancy of Flint, that in 1964 she became crippled with multiple sclerosis. Her reactions to the way in which her life has been affected by the illness are shown in many of her poems, and bind them one to another in a way that gives her work a powerful unity.
Even an apparently slight poem like ‘Experimental Twig’ gains in emotional power from the general context. The understatement is characteristic.
planted by a child
now waves before the window,
tree-size, and wild.
While it’s been so growing
four years in the grass
my life’s been withdrawing
into small compass.
Neither in the balance
weighing very much
— but one has gained in beauty,
one has lost touch.
The last line would pass almost unnoticed, I think, without the knowledge, gained from other poems, that the poet has been physically incapacitated by an illness that
. . . feels like mist upon my fingers, like
a cold wind for ever against my body, and
air and chill earth eternally about my bones.
‘Experimental Twig’ has the spareness of Hardy’s poem ‘I Look into My Glass’. It also illustrates the sense of irony that is characteristic of both poets, and fundamental to their poetry. In one or two of Molly Holden’s poems, ‘Hill in Winter’, for instance, the irony seems an artifice imposed on the material to end the poem neatly, but more typically it is central to the experience of the poem, and informs its whole structure. The lean sinew of irony gives her best poems a strength, an unsentimental toughness, and sometimes, surprisingly in the circumstances, a wry humour, as in ‘Cley Eye’, or ‘After the Requested Cremation’, the concluding poem of Air and Chill Earth, which shows all these qualities.
A steady north-north-west wind preferably,
though an east wind would do as second-best,
and so my bones’ smoke and innocent ashes
would carry into Wessex or the west.
I’d like my dust to be deposited
in the dry ditches, among the fine grass of home,
on hills I’ve walked, in furrows I’ve watched making
in Wiltshire’s chalk-bright loam.
If not that then Wolverhampton’s chimneys
might send me Severnward; that would do instead.
Those rose-red farms, those orchards, have all been precious.
I’d like to fertilise them when I’m dead.
Make no mistake though, it’ll not come to choosing.
There’ll be a west wind in the week I go.
Or else my southern dust will fall on hated highways
and be for ever swirling to and fro.
Well, as I’ll never know it doesn’t matter.
I’m not, in truth, romantic about death.
Only I’d like the right wind to be blowing
that takes the place of breath.
The landscapes mentioned here are a reminder that many of the poems in the two volumes are not directly about the imposed isolation, but are celebrations of the natural world and its beauties. ‘Seminal Image’, for example, a poem of almost visionary intensity, movingly recalls her first sight of the Wiltshire scenery which holds a particular place in Molly Holden’s affections. This is the landscape where she spent her formative, adolescent years after a childhood in London, and her experience is similar in this respect to that of Edward Thomas, a poet with whom she has sometimes been compared, and whose poetry is much loved by her. Certainly, to read a poem of Thomas’s such as ‘When First’ is to be reminded of a similar way of responding to the natural world, and man’s place in it. She shares with Thomas the gift of precise and careful observation expressed in the apt and yet unobtrusive word, a delight in the countryside, its weathers and changes of mood, and, notably, the ability to give ordinary experience a symbolic value. Often a subtle shift in the poem reveals an unexpected depth of meaning. The central section of ‘Seminal Image’ serves as an example of this, where the ‘valley’s darker roads’ suggest the unhappier present, forgotten momentarily as the visionary imagination recalls the excitement and beauty of the childhood experience. Another poem in which a symbolic pattern is observed in ordinary experience, and quietly suggested in apparently simple and concrete language, is the beautiful and compassionate ‘Metamorphosis’. The poem deals with the fate of a butterfly, trapped in a house awaiting demolition, after its metamorphosis.
Later that afternoon
chance, or a stray draught in the shuttered house,
took her to the centre of the room
and light beyond the door
lured her to the equally airless parlour.
And there she stayed, fumbling
the small dull panes and resting
occasionally on the dusty shelf below,
already spotted with the excrement of flies
similarly immured, and harbouring their
concluding corpses. Cobweb
blurred the fine brown chequer of her wings
as she was trapped and struggled free
time and again from corners
of the spidered embrasure.
It is not difficult to see the analogy between the butterfly’s predicament and that of the poet, or indeed anyone trapped by circumstances as she is, but she handles the material with restraint, does not force the comparison, and is content to allow the brilliant description to work in its own way.
Many poems celebrate, in vivid passages of description, her love of the wild and unkempt places which refuse to be tamed. These are one of the few sources of consolation to Molly Holden, as she admitted in a radio broadcast in 1969.
. . . For the moment, at least, [I] have my eyesight so that . . . I can watch from my window the procession of seasons and natural beauty in which I once used to take so passionate a part. Even the very indifference of nature is sometimes a comfort in that I know my own and others’ pain to be quite irrelevant to sunrise and the thrush in the sycamore.
‘I Question a Victory’ indicates the limits of the consolation, but ‘Sanctuary’ is a poem in which the poet’s self and her predicament have been, for the time being, forgotten as she contemplates ‘the old strip where the railway ran’.
This was the old strip where the railway ran.
Now, between motorway and new estates,
it is quite derelict. The unpatched road
leads only to a farm. Buildings and gates
have been destroyed. Wire boundaries the track
which now is grass, rails gone and signals down.
No children come, have better things to do
in the planned playgrounds of the tall new town.
Goat-willow, elder, gone — wild plum, and thorn
prosper along the platforms, crowd the shed.
This is a rich new waste for them to claim.
Birds have increased. Shy warblers shout at dawn;
goldfinches hang on every thistle head;
and butterflies and fireweed tower like flame.
The language here, as is general in Molly Holden’s work, has a kind of transparency, difficult to define, that allows the reader direct access to the poet’s feelings about her experience, and to the natural world she describes so accurately. The artistry draws no attention to itself, and there are few pretensions. Again, I am reminded of Edward Thomas and the comments he made about Robert Frost’s poetry in a review of North of Boston, written in June 1914.
These poems are revolutionary because they lack the exaggeration of rhetoric, and even at first sight appear to lack the poetic intensity of which rhetoric is an imitation. Their language is free from the poetical words and forms that are the chief material of secondary poets. The metre avoids not only the old-fashioned pomp and sweetness, but the later fashion also of discord and fuss. In fact, the medium is common speech and common decasyllables . . . Yet almost all these poems are beautiful. They depend not at all on objects commonly admitted to be beautiful: neither have they merely a homely beauty, but are often grand, sometimes magical. Many, if not most, of the separate lines and separate sentences are plain and, in themselves, nothing. But they are bound together and made elements of beauty by a calm eagerness of emotion.
Of course, it would not be true to say the poems of Molly Holden are revolutionary in this sense, but they are a reminder of one of the best traditions of English poetry, a tradition which depends on the poet’s integrity, skill in handling language, and instinctive sense of the order and discipline which give the necessary control and form to a work of art.
Nor are all her poems ‘bound together . . . by a calm eagerness of emotion’, though this is often true of them. She can be, at times, lyrical, at other times passionately indignant. The typical voice of Edward Thomas’s poems is much more tentative and hesitant than Molly Holden’s. As Thomas himself admitted in ‘Aspens’, there was, perhaps, no obvious reason for his brooding melancholy. Molly Holden’s physical disability is a more obvious cause for complaint, (though complaint is not a typical mood in her poems) and for grief. The personality presented in her poems is less ambiguous and elusive than Thomas’s, and less obviously complex. Her poems do not have the extraordinary changes of direction and of mood, the hesitancies and qualifications that are typical of his, but they do show the same control of tone, the same beautiful seriousness, accuracy of perception, and depth of feeling.
Most of her poems are content to explore the undramatic, usually unobserved world of the countryside, the suburban townscape, the house and garden. This is the case even in those poems apparently written before necessity confirmed a natural tendency. There are some poems, however, which deal with the pull that different times and countries have on the imagination. Molly Holden responds not only to the natural world, for she finds interest in the historical associations of place, and the lives of long-dead people. These interests are reflected in her writing for children. The Unfinished Feud, 1970, re-creates the world of the Icelandic Sagas. A Tenancy of Flint, 1971, evokes the landscape of Wiltshire and explores the changes of adolescence. White Rose and Wanderer, 1972, is located in Dorset in the 19th century, and has as a central theme the longing for the excitement of sea voyages in the age of sail. Reivers Weather, 1973, is set in the Border Country, and is unlike most books written for children, having a tragic theme. These stories are given a strong sense of reality by the concreteness of detail, and are distinguished by the skill and reserve with which complex relationships and emotions are handled. Notable poems in this vein are ‘Border Country’, ‘Ancestor’, ‘Discharged Seaman 1807’, ‘Plague Doctor’, ‘South’, ‘Seaman, 1941’, and perhaps best of all, the beautiful opening poem to the first volume, ‘Photograph of Haymaker, 1890’.
It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —
as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.
Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,
stems damp still where their neighbours’ fall
uncovered them, succulent and straight,
immediate with moon-daisies.
I have dealt at some length with similarities between Molly Holden’s poems, and those of Hardy and Thomas, and yet in no way do they ‘mimick the notes of her predecessors’. Her poems are strikingly personal, even though they explore themes of universal interest. They reflect a keen intelligence and lively personality. Again and again in poems that concern themselves with details of everyday life we are suddenly presented with passages of extraordinary joy and beauty, as in ‘Not the Dead of Winter’, or ‘The Gaze’.
The room in which I sit all day
is crook’d like an elbow to the house itself
so that I look across the garden but also up
at the windows and they reflect the western skies
and — most magnificently — the north-west clouds
that come downwind in autumn. So I get
double pleasure from this place, the sight
of what’s to come and then the sight
of their procession going down the miles of sky,
over the oak, the ash, the spire, the hidden road
in the valley, the rest of the unseen shire.
Sometimes though a cloud comes up like this
— cumulus castellatus — and I do not chance
to be looking up, I am writing, or reading.
I feel it though as one feels a person’s
gaze. I look up. It is invisible to me
in its reality as yet but bears down
in that width of dark reflecting glass
— white, gold-edged, most powerful —
looking upon me as a ghost might look,
intent from the window, perhaps
not malevolent, but penetrating.
Such poetry continues with distinction the tradition of quiet, sensitive and delicate observation allied with the expression of deep feeling that is found in the work of Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas. It is as though the poet’s character has been shaped by the beauty and reserve of the English landscape. The changes of mood in her poems are like the changes of light as clouds pass over the hills and fields, giving a constantly varying and subtle beauty, together with a sense of permanence and underlying truth. Each of the poems in these two volumes deserves attention, and some are very fine indeed, read in isolation, but to read them in context, in the order in which they have been arranged, is to be deeply moved by their almost unbearable poignancy and courage.
Molly Holden, To Make Me Grieve, (Chatto and Windus, 1968).
— Air and Chill Earth, (Chatto and Windus, 1971).
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