No 5 - 1975
The Poetry of Elizabeth Daryush
WHEN AN unprejudiced literary history of our century comes to be written, our failure to recognize Elizabeth Daryush will be one of the most telling and lamentable charges that can be laid at our door. The cold silence that has prevailed about her work, through one decade after another, is so total that there can be no question of fixing the blame here or there, finding scapegoats. We are all at fault, in a way which points therefore to some really deep-seated frivolity, superficiality, cynicism through several generations of readers of English poetry.
Certainly, I cannot absolve myself. For it so happens that I had the good fortune to stumble, while I was still young, on the writings of the one critic who did recognize the achievement of this poet, who tried not once but many times to force his contemporaries to confront the challenge of her work. I mean, the late Yvor Winters. And why, I now angrily ask myself, did I, who knew that I had been instructed by Winters time and again about the poetry of our time and the past, flinch from the responsibility that his championing of Mrs. Daryush laid upon me as upon others who listened to him — some of whom, incidentally, rose to the occasion as I didn’t? I have given the answer: mere frivolousness, an anxiety not to be too far out of the fashion, above all a demand for quick returns upon a very small investment of time and attention. There can be no excuse.
In his Primitivism and Decadence (1937) Winters printed the poem, ‘Still-Life’, from Mrs. Daryush’s The Last Man & Other Verses (1936):
Through the open French window the warm sun
lights up the polished breakfast-table, laid
round a bowl of crimson roses, for one —
a service of Worcester porcelain, arrayed
near it a melon, peaches, figs, small hot
rolls in a napkin, fairy rack of toast,
butter in ice, high silver coffee-pot,
and, heaped on a silver salver, the morning’s post.
She comes over the lawn, the young heiress,
from her early walk in her garden-wood,
feeling that life’s a table set to bless
her delicate desires with all that’s good,
that even the unopened future lies
like a love-letter, full of sweet surprise.
When Winters included Primitivism and Decadence as part of his In Defense of Reason (1947), there was the Daryush poem again. It was there that I read it first, and I kick myself for not having been incited by it, by something so wholly unlike any other English poem of our time up to that date. (Since then, Thom Gunn’s ‘Autumn Chapter in a Novel’, a poem which may owe something to ‘Still Life’, may be set beside it.) My excuse, a poor one, must be that Winters cited and discussed the poem exclusively in relation to its metre, as a fine example of what could be achieved in English in a strictly syllabic metre, as distinct from the more orthodox accentual-syllabic. A far more generally illuminating discussion of the poem is in Winters’s essay, ‘Robert Bridges and Elizabeth Daryush’ (in the American Review for 1936-37). In this essay, which only the devoted enterprise of Francis Murphy has made generally available*, Winters wrote:
If we regard the subject-matter of this poem, we find something rather curious: the matter explicitly described implies, largely through the ominous and melancholy tone, a social context which is nowhere mentioned, yet from which the poem draws its power, a power which is not only real but great. This implication probably reaches its most intense impression in the two lines, unforgettable in the melancholy of their cadence, which open the sestet; but was never absent.
And he goes on to relate this to a new element in what were in 1937 ‘the last two books’ by Mrs. Daryush; that is to say, Verses, Fourth Book (1934) and The Last Man & Other Verses (1936). That new element Winters defines by saying: ‘she appears to be increasingly conscious . . . of social injustice, of the mass of human suffering’. And this brings to our attention a matter of the first importance: Elizabeth Daryush, unlike her father Robert Bridges and unlike a greater poet of whom she sometimes reminds us, Thomas Hardy, is a poet in whom we can discern a development, not merely technical but thematic also, a deepening and changing attitude to the world she lives in. Quite simply, she has not lived through the first three quarters of the twentieth century in England without registering and responding to the profound changes that have transformed the world of the English gentry which, as the daughter of Robert Bridges, she was born to. No one is yet in a position to trace this development, and for the merest bare bones of it we are once again indebted to the one serious reader she had, Yvor Winters, who read her in California and never once in his life visited England: ‘Mrs. Daryush has disowned her first three books, published in 1911, 1916, and 1921 and wishes them destroyed. . . . Her mature career may be said to have begun with Verses, published in 1930, to have reached its most perfect achievement in Verse, Third Book, published in 1933, to have reached a crisis and collapse of form in Verses, Fourth Book, published in 1934, as a result, it would seem, of the discovery of new matter to which she found her style ill adapted, and to have begun the mastery of this new matter, or of a few aspects of it, in The Last Man and Other Poems, published in 1936.’ It would be odd if the nearly 40 years that have supervened since Winters wrote thus — years that have seen Mrs. Daryush continue writing up to Verses: Seventh Book (Carcanet Press, 1971) — do not cause us to revise, as well as extend, this account of her development. Meanwhile, however, Winters’s comment is very much to the point: ‘Her talent, then, although it was obviously formed by her father’s influence, appears to have borne fruit only after his death, and to have developed very rapidly within a very short period, after a long period of stagnation.’ And this is a good point at which to take note of the poem, ‘Fresh Spring, in whose deep woods I sought’, from Verses, Third Book, one of the Daryush poems which Winters most esteemed, which he learned with dismay that the author intended to suppress. I give it as my hesitant opinion that she was more nearly right about this, than he was.
For understandable reasons, not only Yvor Winters’s account of Elizabeth Daryush but also the more belated and yet more momentous account of her by Roy Fuller, when he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, give disproportionate emphasis to her experiments with syllabics. If on the contrary we attend to the substance of ‘Still-Life’, to what it is saying, we shall find its companion-piece in ‘Children of Wealth’ which, originally in Verses, Sixth Book, appears only one poem away from ‘Still-Life’ in the Selected Poems which Elizabeth Daryush arranged for Carcanet Press in 1972. And ‘Children of Wealth’ is a sonnet in orthodox accentual-syllabics:
Children of wealth in your warm nursery,
Set in the cushioned window-seat to watch
The volleying snow, guarded invisibly
By the clear double pane through which no touch
Untimely penetrates, you cannot tell
What winter means; its cruel truths to you
Are only sound and sight; your citadel
Is safe from feeling, and from knowledge too.
Go down, go out to elemental wrong,
Waste your too round limbs, tan your skin too white;
The glass of comfort, ignorance, seems strong
To-day, and yet perhaps this very night
You’ll wake to horror’s wrecking fire — your home
Is wired within for this, in every room.
Each reader must decide for himself which of the metres — syllabic, or accentual-syllabic — supplies him with the more haunting, more memorably poignant, cadence. What cannot be doubted is that the two poems support each other, to show that the poet in the late 1930s came quite suddenly to the perception of what her relatively privileged birth committed her to, or excluded her from; the double pane of glass which that privilege of birth erected between her and the mass of suffering humankind. The perhaps excessive, certainly very violent, pressures that disturb the pentameter in line 10 — ‘Waste your too round limbs, tan your skin too white’ —indicate the desperation, barely under control, with which the poet thus recognized and diagnosed her plight. And as for the syllabics of ‘Still-Life’, since in most readers’ ears they are indistinguishable from free verse, the gauntlet that Yvor Winters threw down in 1937 still lies where he cast it: ‘One imagines that the medium could not be used with greater beauty than in this poem; there is certainly nothing in the work of the American masters of free verse to surpass it. and there is little to equal it.’ As much might be claimed, I’d say, for ‘Forbidden Love’ from Verses, Fourth Book, which is remarkable as perhaps the last thoroughly accomplished poem in English to invoke, with pride and without qualification, the chivalric code for the ordering of sexual relations. (Its language is accordingly, and quite properly, stilted.)
But it is more important to recognize that the poet’s experiments with syllabics never stopped her from writing in more orthodox metres, nor is she manifestly better in the one sort of metre than the other. We’ve seen this already with the companion-pieces, ‘Still-Life’ and ‘Children of Wealth’. A similar set of twins is ‘Winter Larches’, from The Last Man, and ‘Here, where the larks sing, and the sun’s so warm’, from Verses, Fourth Book. Because these are what used to be called ‘nature-poems’, they are of course less intense than the poems we’ve looked at first. But as Wordsworth said, ‘The human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants.’ It’s a saying which is relevant to many poems by Elizabeth Daryush, and not just to her ‘nature-poems’, numerous and lovely as those are.
In his own way Winters too asked for intensity. And that explains the praise that he heaped on ‘Anger lay by me’, from The Last Man:
Anger lay by me all night long,
His breath was hot upon my brow,
He told me of my burning wrong,
All night he talked and would not go.
He stood by me all through the day,
Struck from my hand the book, the pen;
He said: ‘Hear first what I’ve to say,
And sing, if you’ve the heart to, then.’
And can I cast him from my couch?
And can I lock him from my room?
Ah no, his honest words are such
That he’s my true-lord, and my doom.
Winters says of this, ‘Such work represents, I believe, and in spite of the italics, which could easily . . . be dispensed with, the perfection of English poetic style . . . ’; and also, ‘There is much other great poetry in English, but poetry of this type, at its best, is probably the greatest, and in its purity of style and richness of meaning it defines the norm, the more or less clear consciousness of which probably gives much of their identity to the variant types’. To understand this, one needs to study Winters’s criticism as a whole, and also his own poems; for it was his single-minded purpose through more than 30 years to restore poetry of this kind to the central place from which 19th-century and 20th-century opinion had dislodged it, with (as Winters saw the matter) disastrous results. Readers who have not had the benefit of Winter’s instruction will almost certainly be baffled by the high claims that he makes for a poem like this, so bare and seemingly so rigid. Such writing flies so directly in the face of current preconceptions about poetry that one does not come to love and admire it at all soon, or at all easily. A useful starting-point is Winters’s confession: ‘The quality which I personally admire most profoundly . . . is the ability to imbue a simple expository statement of a complex theme with a rich association of feeling, yet with an utterly pure and unmannered style.’ Serviceable short cuts to what Winters is getting at might be afforded by some of the early poems of William Blake, and by (in Blake’s background) the best of the congregational hymns of the English 18th century — by Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Cowper. And another way to get at the austere virtues of this style is to see them tightened into the fierce hostility of the epigram, as in this poem from Verses, Fourth Book.
It is pleasant to hang out
this sign at your open gate:
‘Succour for the desolate’ —
your neighbours praise you, no doubt;
but woe to whoe’er in need
at the inner door has knocked,
found the snug room barred and locked
where alone you fatly feed.
And we may well think that this caustic image of the professional do-gooder brings us back to the social consciousness of ‘Still-Life’ and ‘Children of Wealth’.
* * *
To have the poet-laureate for one’s father is a grievous disadvantage for any poet to labour under. And there can be no doubt that the shadow which has eclipsed Elizabeth Daryush is the shadow of Robert Bridges. This is complicated by the fact that for the most part we have an inadequate and distorted idea of Robert Bridges, remembering him above all as the author of the unreadable Testament of Beauty and as the man who withheld from us, for longer than we think necessary, the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. We do not remember for instance that Bridges esteemed Ezra Pound, and was esteemed by him. And it should go without saying that Bridges, the author of ‘Low Barometer’ and ‘A Passerby’, is now and has been for many years a poet grotesquely underrated. But what has brought this about (in so far as it isn’t merely the lax and heartless turn of fashion) is something that it’s quite easy to put our finger on; it is Bridges’s diction, his choice of vocabulary. Pound put his finger on it, in the Pisan Canto 80:
‘forloyn’ said Mr. Bridges (Robert)
‘we’ll get ‘em all back’
meaning archaic words . . .
Diction is what puts us off in reading Bridges, and it is also, though not to the same degree, the great difficulty that we are likely to have with Elizabeth Daryush. Here, Winters will not help us. For diction was one dimension of poetry which Winters, so splendidly alert to other dimensions — above all metre and cadence — was rather consistently deaf to, and obtuse about. For instance, in his essay on Bridges and Daryush, he quotes, as an example of Bridges at his best, ‘The Affliction of Richard’, which contains the lines:
But what the heavenly key,
What marvel in me wrought
Shall quite exculpate thee,
I have no shadow of thought.
And Winters is quite unperturbed by — does not even notice — the utterly slack, unrealized and unrealizable metaphor in ‘shadow of thought’. To say that the language of these lines is what neither Bridges himself nor any one else would in any conceivable circumstances ever say — this is a criticism of another sort, and one which, if pushed at all far, lands us in absurdities. Nevertheless, it undoubtedly has its force. And we may as well concede that a diligent inquisition of Mrs. Daryush’s poems would come up with passages against which these charges lie just as heavily as against these verses by her father.
On the other hand, if Winters pays too little attention to diction, other readers of our time — especially British ones — have concentrated on it to the virtual exclusion of all else. And this is probably a worse fault. One may make the admittedly hazardous suggestion that in all poetry except the greatest there has to be a sort of ‘trade off — of cadence as against diction, of diction as against cadence. And in that case what needs to be said is that, whereas with other poets we agree to buy a racy or pungent turn of speech at the cost of an ugly cadence (a bargain we are disconcertingly too ready to strike), in the case of Mrs. Daryush the trade-off is usually the other way round: we are required to tolerate a ‘timeless’ or archaic or improperly marmoreal expression for the sake of the beautiful and meaningful cadence which it makes possible. (This is not to deny that there are places where the game is not worth the candle, where the proffered bargain must be refused.)
But there is a stronger and a better case that can be made for the use of such ‘poetical’ diction as is customary with Mrs. Daryush. And this rests on linking her, not with Bridges, but with the greater poet, Thomas Hardy. In the unwontedly elaborate and ode-like poem, ‘The Waterfall’, from Verses, Sixth Book (1938; it will be noted that her austerity extends to the titling of her books as well as the writing of them), we read:
A thousand feet of torn stream falling sheer
In fog and thunder . . . Like a theatre
The rocks had taken curve as, year by year,
The torrent wore at its hard doom-way, inch by inch . . .
Imagination flew up, then would flinch
From looking down — hung dizzied, even here . . .
And who, that has read in the poetry of Thomas Hardy, would deny the epither ‘Hardyesque’ to ‘its hard doom-way’? Can we imagine Hardy ever saying those words, in conversation? And if we cannot, what does it matter? They are entirely in keeping with what we recognize as Hardy’s characteristic idiom. And however bizarre we find that idiom when we first encounter it, however heterogeneous and unaccountable, we recognize it — as we go on reading Hardy’s poems — as a universe of language which is self-consistent within its own self-chosen boundaries, allowing certain liberties and denying itself others. It is in this sense that every poet — except, once again, the very greatest — creates his own language within the language that we share with him, a distinctive language which is private only in the first place, which becomes steadily more public and available to us, the more we familiarize ourselves with it. To speak for myself, that process for good or ill works itself out in reading Elizabeth Daryush’s poems as in reading Hardy’s. And this, it will be observed, is an argument for not picking out the plums from the cake but on the contrary for presenting this poet’s work in bulk and in toto.
* Yvor Winters: Uncollected Essays and Reviews, edited and introduced by Francis Murphy, Chicago, 1973.
Elizabeth Daryush, Selected Poems: Verses I-VI (Carcanet, 1972) will be followed by the Collected Poems in 1975, including Donald Davie’s introduction, a new note by Mrs. Daryush on Syllabic verse, and previously uncollected material.
Donald Davie’s essays, The Poet in the Imaginary Museum, will be published by Carcanet Press in 1976.
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