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Review of Sylvia Townsend Warner - Claire Harman, the Guardian29 March 2008
Lightning from skies
Sylvia Townsend Warner's passionate love poetry became profoundly sad as she experienced betrayal, bereavement and old age. It's time her genius was more widely recognised
Shortly before her death 30 years ago, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to the publisher of her planned Selected Poems, "it is the most astonishing affair for me to be taken notice of in my extreme old age". Her surprise was understandable: she hadn't published a book of poems since 1934, though her first collections had won plaudits from AE Housman and Arthur Quiller-Couch, and Yeats had included her in his Oxford Book of English Verse. In the meantime, her novels, including Lolly Willowes, Mr Fortune's Maggot and The Corner That Held Them had gone through the whole cycle of acclaim, neglect and rediscovery; her New Yorker stories had a devoted following, but hardly anyone remembered her first success as a writer. She couldn't help being ironical about it, saying "I intend to be a posthumous poet!"
A reviewer of her debut 1925 collection, The Espalier, had commented on Warner's "un-Victorian mind", a rather restrained description of a young woman whose poetry went against the grain of the Georgians and the Modernists. Not many poets of the period would have dared put the word "bum" in a poem ("Blue Eyes"), nor juxtaposed it with sombre pieces like "The Lenten Offering", "The Soldier's Return" and "I Bring Her a Flower", Warner's tribute to the Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. She was supremely confident in her own powers at the time, claiming in 1929 that poetry was all she wanted to read or write: "My fingers drop myrrh. I really am writing a poem a day." So why did this bullishly energetic poet stop publishing?
It happened around a somewhat ill-conceived initiative of her own. In 1930, Warner fell in love, madly and for life, with Valentine Ackland, a promising poet 12 years her junior. Soon after the two women began living together, Sylvia had tried to recommend Valentine's work to her publisher, Charles Prentice, who visited the couple at their home in Dorset and "talked about publishing", as Sylvia recalled in her diary. "I think he would have made a proposal [ ...] were things not in such a bad way now. As it was, he counselled that she should write more, and more let-out-ly."
The use of the hoary excuse of current business difficulties and the advice that Valentine might do well to change her manner entirely should have been more than enough to signal Prentice's real feelings. But 15 months later, with no offer forthcoming on Valentine's poetry, Sylvia came up with another plan, to send their work out as a single volume under the joint authorship of TW and VA. She wrote "a most suavely blackmailing letter to Dear Charles", as Valentine noted amusedly in her diary, and after some deliberation, Prentice accepted the book, clearly feeling the pressure from his bestselling author and friend. Sylvia was delighted, though Valentine had reservations privately. "I still have a lingering desire to be only myself - but I suppose it is foolish to wish so", she wrote, "at least: to wish to appear so publicly."
Whether a Dove or Seagull appeared in America first, in November 1933, and in Britain the following March. The concept of TW and VA had gone; both names appeared on the title page, but there were no attributions within the text. On the dustjacket was an assurance that "the authorship of specific poems will be given by the publishers on request", but few readers would have been encouraged to apply by the authors' preface, explaining their design:
Of the poems in this book 54 are by one writer, 55 by the other. No single poem is in any way the result of collaboration nor, beyond the bare fact that it contains the work of two writers, is the book collaborative. The authors believe that by issuing their separate work under one cover the element of contrast thus obtained will add to the pleasure of the reader; by witholding individual attributions they hope that the freshness of anonymity will be preserved. The book, therefore, is both an experiment in the presentation of poetry and a protest against the frame of mind, too common, which judges the poem by the poet, rather than the poet by the poem.
The "Note" challenged the reader to adopt an attitude of strict impartiality from poem to poem and savour the distinctness of each, while presenting texts that keep wanting to re-knit into a conversation between two intriguingly different voices. The dynamic between the two poets was unmistakeable, even if the gender of "Valentine Ackland" wasn't. Several reviewers assumed she was a man, and those who knew or guessed otherwise didn't remark on the eroticism of the love poems:
For long meeting of our lips
Shall be breaking of ships,
For breath drawn quicker men drowned
And trees downed.
Throe shall fell roof-tree, pulse's
A cry hurl seas against the land, a
raiding hand, scattering
lightning along thighs
Lightning from skies
That was Warner; Ackland was even more explicit, and employed some arresting imagery: "My hand, being deft and delicate, displays / Unerring judgement; cleaves between your thighs / Clean as a ray-directed airplane flies." The only person to record his response to this was the book's unwilling dedicatee, Robert Frost, who wrote privately to Louis Untermeyer of his disgust and perplexity:
You won't take it as an infringement of the liberty of the press if I ask you not to connect me with the book any more than you have to in your reviewing and lecturing. Don't you find the contemplation of their kind of collusion emasculating? I am chilled to the marrow, as in the actual presence of some foul form of death where none of me can function, not even my habitual interest in versification.
Frost dithered for weeks before sending a note of acknowledgement, utterly at a loss how to address "that couplet in England???".
Most of the reviewers seemed glad of the distraction provided by the "experiment in the presentation of poetry", which became the focus of every review, conveniently displacing the issue of lesbianism and the need to address the poems themselves. The depersonalising device was "not wholly a new one", the TLS thought, refering to the precedent of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, "nor can it be quite accounted complete". Austin Clarke in the New Statesman felt the poets were trying to "bedevil" critics - a remark which could only have pleased Warner, though she certainly did not want to bedevil ordinary readers, indeed felt anxious on that count.
Almost as soon as the first copies of the American edition were in their hands, she and Ackland anticipated that the experiment with anonymity might provoke irritation in "our island critics"; also that it was very likely to disadvantage Valentine at her debut. When they gave Llewelyn Powys a copy of the book and asked who he thought had written each poem, he credited all Valentine's best work to Sylvia.
Subsequently, a key was added at the back of the British edition, but far from quelling criticism, it generated more:
No doubt an idealistic impulse has driven both into protesting against the weak-mindedness of those who judge by names [ ...] Nevertheless, Miss Townsend Warner and her fellow-poet actually encourage this disgusting frame of mind, for they provide at the end of the book a four-column index of page-numbers and their respective initials. In fact, they give poor human nature all the distracting material for a guessing competition complete with solutions.
That crushing description of "Miss Townsend Warner and her fellow-poet" indicated that the anonymity the authors had been striving for was only likely to apply to one of them. Whether a Dove or Seagull in effect put an end to the poetic careers of both. Valentine became increasingly despondent about her talent and ability to reach an audience, and is only now, with the publication of Journey from Winter (Carcanet, 2008), about to have her due. Sylvia's decision not to submit another collection, jointly or singly, after Whether a Dove or Seagull, has to be seen as her recognition of a disastrous error of judgment.
Warner and Ackland became frequent contributors to the left-wing periodicals of the 1930s, with trenchant poems about Spain and the build-up to war. There was an air of bitter amazement in Warner's poems long before 1939; after the fall of France in 1940, this turned into a crystalline clarity and harshness. "Road, 1940" is an extraordinary depiction of the disintegration of human sympathy as soon as individual survival is threatened while "Recognition" concludes that there can be no special case made for one's own casualties in war:
This was an English child
that lay in the road.
They told me to weep
once more, but I found
No tears, and though the
Threw stones at me in
grief's and God's name
I had no blood to quicken
for God or man.
For I remembered how to
my childhood had come
Hearsay of Justice. Now,
Rang the inflexible music
of her sword;
Blindfold she went over
with sure tread.
I knew, and
acknowledged her, and adored.
The poem was published in The Nation in December, 1941, and reprinted in the 1982 Collected Poems, but has attracted very little commentary. It is too severe, perhaps, for many people to stomach.
Warner could rise magnificently to this sort of public eloquence, but she also wrote a great deal of personal poetry, and the end of the war, which coincided with a period of intense unhappiness over the threatened break-up of her relationship with Ackland, saw an outburst of heartbreaking lyrics, published for the first time now in her New Collected Poems. She kept these very private verses to herself, not even including them in the parcel that she left for posthumous publication:
O here is my left hand and here is
my right hand,
And I on myself cast up as on a
In my right hand a dagger and on
my left hand a ring,
And from under my feet the earth
O here is my beginning, and here
is my ending,
And at my bedside the armoured
Saying, Rise up, my lost one, and
Into reality as into a prison.
Warner got used to being a private poet and found a freedom in it (rather like that of her painfully eloquent diary) to articulate the suffering she endured through Ackland's infidelity, withdrawal of passionate intimacy and finally from the irrevocable loss when Ackland died. Sometimes, this inmost writing shows a ferocity and acuteness that she could only trust to herself. The poems are often profoundly sad - especially those about her bereavement and old age. They are not only very beautiful, but written in the loneliest circumstances:
With morning I inherit
The evening's merit:
Emptied garbage pail,
Rinsed towel on the rail,
Kettle reversed, solitary
Cup and platter left orderly,
Floor mopped and dried -
Detritus of a day;
The day I put away
Thinking with remnant pride
"All will be right and tight
If I die in the night."
This mocking merit
Each morning I inherit.
When Warner's prediction of being a posthumous poet came true in 1982, with Collected Poems, she emerged as a sort of "sleeper", the ghost contemporary of the "Martians"; Hughes and Gunn; as well of Larkin, Auden, Bridges, even Hardy, Housman and Mew, for her earliest dated poem, "Hymn for a Child", is from 1914, the latest, "Changed Fortune", from 1977. She had been of the times for more than 60 years, but out of them too.
I wonder whether or not it is possible for Warner to be inserted retrospectively into the canon, regardless of however many admirers she has now or in the future. The record is, to some extent, sealed, and she is on the outside. But though she may not appear in literary histories for many years to come, if her work is kept in print, her penetrating and rather shocking genius will find an audience.
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