No-one entered the second world war prepared "to die as cattle." There is a wariness and intelligent objectivity in the poetry it produced, a wry sense that, after all, no we haven"t been here before, this is a different kind of struggle. Laurie Lee's late, 1991, memoir A Moment of War captures the mixture of muddling through, idealism and wily self-preservation engendered by the Spanish Civil War, a spirit carried through to the forties. While there was pity and horror, the spectre of Field Marshall Death, still potent in Russia, had become more myth than reality in western Europe. Writers felt that visions of hell were too easy; there was no heaven lying about them to be shattered and shat on. War meant work, deprivation, disruption, misery, all familiar enemies, death not so much fate, more like bad luck. The attitude was to hold tight, piece it together. Maybe that was the only way peace ever could be created. This new collection rediscovers a woman's view of a civilian war, a long poem pieced together out of moments of love for and trust in other people; a superb, nearly a great poem. A Heroic Poem, as it is subtitled.
Publication of Lynette Roberts's Collected Poems is a significant event in the re-assessment of London-published and Anglo-Welsh poetry in the C20th. Roberts had two collections published by Faber in her lifetime, Poems, 1944, second impression 1945 (clothbound, printed on watermarked Barcham Green paper, priced six shillings) followed by Gods with Stainless Ears. A Heroic Poem, 1951 (paper not so good, green cloth, 8/6d). The manuscript Gods, written between 1941-1943, was submitted before the Poems collection. By the time it was published fashion had made it irrelevant. By that time, for example, Hamish Henderson's Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (John Lehmann, 1948) was lying around unregarded in second-hand bookshops, Douglas's Alamein to Zem-Zem piled as a remainder in Smiths for two shillings, 10p a copy. Roberts herself was soon to give up writing verse. The editor, Patrick McGuinness, prints her two books as found. He adds 36 uncollected or unpublished poems, a BBC radio play, "El Dorado," and the transcript of an associated talk, "Patagonia," given by Roberts on her childhood in South America. McGuinness himself contributes a long, considered and informative introduction together with a touching preface by the poet's daughter, Angharad Rhys.
A year or two ago Bradford Haas sent me a copy of the Faber Gods with Stainless Ears, now an uncommon book. Roberts wrote the poem in and around 1942 and sent it to T.S.Eliot later that year. I think I may have been fortunate to read it before the short poems. I liked seriousness of the voice, the energy of the vocabulary and observation. And the formalism of the verse structure delighted me. I found the same qualities in the first published Poems. McGuinness reprints both books as published, preserving the sequence, opening with "Poem from Llanybri."
If you come my way…
The notes identify this as an open letter to Alun Lewis, still training in the Royal Engineers establishment at Longmoor, Hampshire, early in the war. The poem uses a traditional style of address, from Come live with me and be my love, Robert Frost's You come too, and the first lines of Eliot anyone remembers, Let us go then, you and I, /When evening is spread out against the sky, all of them love poems addressed to the reader, an invitation to read on. With this opening poem Roberts instantly establishes her own clear voice. It is a mark of the professional poet to speak so directly, one to one.
Lynette Roberts was born in Buenos Aires 4 July 1909 to an Australian family of Welsh descent. Her father, Cecil Arthur Roberts, was a railway engineer. Appointed to be General Manager of Buenos Aires Western Railways, he achieved standing in the expatriot community, owning yachts and racehorses. The family of Lynette's mother, Ruby Garbutt, was also of Welsh descent, originating from Pembrokeshire.
Cecil Roberts moved his family to London during the first world war, in which he served and was wounded. Lynette and her sisters, Winifred and Rosemary, returned to school at The Convent of the Sacred Heart in Buenos Aires. The day before Lynette's 14th birthday her mother died of typhus, 3 July 1923. The girls were then sent to school in Bournemouth. (I wonder if it was to Canford Cliffs, a school from which a friend of ours ran away twice). Their only brother, Dymock, was sent to school at Winchester, "but after a mental breakdown was in a mental institution in Salisbury from the age of sixteen." As someone who was privileged to receive a public school education as an impoverished scholarship boy myself - just so you know where I am coming from - I would say this was a transfer from one mental institution to another, less challenging. Never the less Lynette was clearly a well-educated girl and accustomed both to style and strangeness. Not rich, though; the money seems to have dwindled to nothing, perhaps finally when her father remarried.
All this biographical information comes from McGuinness's introduction, where he tells us that Roberts then went to the Central School of Arts and Crafts, rooming in Museum Street and later in Newman Street in Fitzrovia. After studying with Constance Spry, the celebrated cook and wrencher of flowers, Roberts, aided by her friend, Celia Buckmaster, set up a florists business called BRUSKA. During an interval in their commercial life, Roberts and Buckmaster sailed by cargo boat to Madeira, an island known to Roberts -- "For the British born in Argentina there are many voyages" -- as a port of call. Roberts's daughter, Angharad Rhys, writes in her brief preface, "Lynette found a small house high up the hill and a woman called Angelina to work for them. It was during those long days of freedom that Lynette found her vocation as a poet. She sent a telegram to London announcing 'Have found my voice at last.'" From this and other evidence and sub-texts I take it that Roberts had been writing poetry since girlhood. The majority of her lyric poems are either about her early days and her father's life, "nostalgic suadaded " … "during the war, from a Welsh village," or they are about birds, both subjects influenced by W.H.Hudson, about whose reputation Jonathan Bates writes in his The Song of the Earth, Picador, Macmillan, 2000.
Roberts then was an informed but as yet unformed poet when, breaking off her engagement to a self-styled model for James Bond, she met the Welsh poet and editor William Ronald Rees Jones at a Poetry London event organised by Tambimuttu in 1939. Jones wrote under the name Keidrych Rhys, the name-change legally registered in 1940. Within the year the couple were married 4 October 1939 at Llansteffan (then Llanstephan), the village at the estuary of the Tywi (Towy) later made more famous by Dylan Thomas. The wedding, according to Thomas, who was best man, was notable for the beauty of the bridesmaids, Celia Buckmaster and Kathleen Bellamy, a reporter for the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion, whose articles Roberts had illustrated. Lynette herself, from the photo frontispiece of the book and from another photo on the press release with review copies, was a handsome woman. There are portrait drawings of her by Wyndham Lewis dated 1948. It is pertinent to note she is listed as the owner of Lewis's Inca with Birds (1933), shown at the Leicester Galleries in 1937 and reproduced by Myfanwy Evans in The Pavilion (plate 12): an oil painting in which, according to C. Handley-Read, The Art of Wyndham Lewis, "the lightly drawn birds have a significance out of all proportion to their weight and treatment… they are responsible for the disquieting and dreamlike air pervading the whole scene… as a result of the birds the picture stirs the imagination, haunts the memory." This could be a description of any of Roberts's own bird poems.
Through the war years Roberts wrote and studied in quiet penury in a rented cottage at Llanybri. She suffered a miscarriage in March 1940. Rhys was called up in July 1940, with postings to the Orkneys, Yarmouth, and Dover. He then went AWOL in 1942. He was transferred to the Ministry of Information. Between times the couple made frequent visits to London together. At the end of the war their two children were born, Angharad in May 1945 and Prydein in November 1946. In 1949 the couple were divorced, the children staying with Lynette.
Through the war years Lynette met and corresponded with T.S.Eliot at Faber. Robert Graves became a friend - he acknowledges her contribution to The White Goddess, which Faber published in 1948. Her Faber 1944 Poems acknowledges previous publications in Life and Letters Today, Tribune (edited by George Orwell), Horizon, Poetry London, Penguin New Writing, Agonia (Buenos Aires), New Directions, and The Field. Keidrych Rhys, of course, published her in Wales, of which he was the brilliant founder editor and shaper. Wales first appeared in April 1937 as a fortnightly poetry review, closed down after eleven issues in 1940. It was restarted in July 1943.
Llanybri, pronounced approximately clan ubree, is a half-hour walk from Llansteffan and a similar walk and ferry-ride from Laugharne. The third issue of Wales, Spring 1944, has most of the text of Village Dialect, Lynette's affectionate and wondering account of her neighbours in Llanybri and Cwmcelyn, hamlets and settlements around the Y-shaped estuary of the Tywi and the Taf. With Laugharne at its heart, this remains one of the most magical stretches of the superb Welsh coastline, OS Landranger map Swansea & Gower, No 159, grid reference 3112. A few miles inland lie Jeremy Taylor's Goldengrove, the Paxton Tower, and the other side of the floodplain valley, Dryslwyn Castle and Dyer's Grongar Hill overlooking the newly restored garden of Aberglasney at Llangathen.
Village Dialect, using the Wales typesetting (printed by The Western Mail & Echo's Tudor Press, Cardiff), was also published in 1944 by Rhys's Druid Press, from which R.S.Thomas's two first books later appeared. This orange-wrappered booklet is worth searching for, though it is scarce - full title An Introduction to Village Dialect with Seven Stories. The magazine omits the last two stories, "Swansea Raid" and "Fisherman." Since it has the tempo of a prose poem, it is a pity the text could not be fitted into this Carcanet collection.
Dylan Thomas' 1944 radio piece, Quite Early One Morning, is partly based on Laugharne, from which he dreamed up the small town of Llaregub (Bugger all) in Under Milk Wood c1950. Thomas first visited Llanybri in 1934 with Glyn Jones, who owned a car. The ancestors of both of them were buried in the churchyard there, within walking distance of Blaen Cwm, a pair of cottages owned by Thomas's mother's family. A mile away lies Fern Hill farm. Glyn Jones, as forgotten outside Wales as Lynette, appears in Modern Welsh Poetry, Keidrych Rhys's anthology published by Faber in 1944. Jones's "Park" is a beautifully composed poem, owing something perhaps to Montale's "Hastings." The Welsh flow to it exceeds Roberts's versification skills though Lynette was a more ambitious and original poet. Rhys includes eight of her poems in the anthology, including the most Welsh-nationalist lines from Gods with Stainless Ears. Perhaps it was her choice, or maybe it was "political." The anthology also included Dylan Thomas, of course, David Jones, Vernon Watkins, their friend Alun Lewis, and the relatively unknown R.S. Thomas. Rhys' selection from his own work includes his "Ephemerae for Bruska:" it tells of heroes.
These, without apparent purpose; what the postcards say
Maybe it is husband and wife in a later stanza, "the lidded couple beside the misty lake / On their way to Woolworths." (As an aside, when I worked in the Welsh valleys in the 1950's the local usage, strange to my ears, was Woolworth). The references to Welsh folklore are beyond my recognition. The final line of the poem, "And we learnt madness by degree and ate our father's hearts." has a future pathos.
The Roberts selection includes "The Circle of C," included in Poems, which has the line: "As a curlew stabbed the sand." In a note the poet writes "... curlews crying at night are said to hunt for souls of the dead. I have used this image as an interpretation of the raiders droning over the estuary and the hill."
The most striking of her bird poems, "Curlew:"
A curlew hovers and haunts the roomdemonstrates the metaphysical dimension common to all Roberts's best verse. Evocations of Hopkins in that accented hís and further in the poem as printed in the Faber edition:
Wail-íng…pal-íng…a desolate phantom(Accents omitted in the new edition.) It was instructive to hear this poem beautifully read by Margot Morgan at a launch of the book in Swansea early this November, with no spurious attempt at avian histrionics. A good actor makes a better reader aloud of such lines for an audience, simply because it is a pleasure to listen to a cogent human voice. However, a poet's own reading, uncomfortable though it can be, is always the true poem to be listened-for silently in the head, as a solitary reader, where the words can be accented in the verbal abstract, a place dear to Roberts's universe. The four italicised rhymes, Crept, slept, wept, kept, are similarly placed for the eye and the understanding. They are riders that direct the destination of the form, indicate a road the poet will not take, pre-echoing Veronica Forrest-Thomson's c1975 Address to the Reader:
DANGER SUBMERGED STRUCTURESThe rhythms of two poems in sapphics follow the pun of the title of the first of them,"Crossed and Uncrossed." Its first line, "Heard the stream rising from the chill blue bricks" requires emphasis on the word "blue" to realise the perfect balance of the poet's ear for the weight of words. These poems owe something, mainly example, to Thomas Hardy's superb first poem in his first collection, "The Temporary the All" in Wessex Poems, 1898. Rather like Forrest-Thomson, Roberts habitually refers back to earlier poets and to proverbial speech. Plasnewydd (the word means New Place - as best known from the Ladies of Llangollen - with a Shakespearean under-voice) opens with an Eliot trick of inversion:
You want to know about my village.Yet also, as though in homage to Eliot's demotic games, there is a strong echo here of a music-hall joke at the time, now less acceptable, of an East-End toyshop owner, who storms out of his shop to berate a woman with a small child looking in at the dolls. "You wanna buy my goods, buy my goods! You don"t wanna buy my goods, take your baby's dirty nose off my window!" But beyond all this there is the desire and aim, shared by W.S.Graham, "To speak of everyday things with ease," the first line of another early poem.
Two more quotes from the shorter poems, from "Thursday September the Tenth:"
Who polished this day? String of mackerel and glue… the sentence ends five lines later. Really a great poem. More problematic, deeper layered still, from the middle of the final poem, pre-printed in the first Faber collection, "Cwmcelyn" (Roberts's note, "Pronounced Coom-kel-in, meaning "The Valley of Holly").
He, of Bethlehem treading a campaignThis I had read, as who wouldn't, as a reference to Jesus Christ, and looking up "cade" found a wealth of apt meanings. Lynette requires her readers to have a dictionary handy - she creates a vocabulary for each poem in the way a painter selects a palette and delights in the availability of a new colour. Now Patrick McGuinness in his introduction reveals that Keidrych Rhys in his autobiographical poem "The Prodigal Speaks," wrote:
Yes born on Boxing Day among the childlike virgin hillsand suggests Lynette had this poem in mind. Yes very likely, his wife, her self-mocking Hamlet from a hamlet. Her poems, like her drawing - the book reproduces in black and white a lovely painting of Llanybri Old Chapel - have lightness, sometimes a wonderful sense of fun and mischief within the seriousness of her voice.
"Cwmcelyn" being a section excerpted from Gods with Stainless Ears. A Heroic Poem, it is right it should appear twice in the new Collected Poems; although, as mentioned, it should have preceded the 1944 Poems , but had to wait for publication until 1951. Half a century later we can read it in historical context. A long poem as fine, clear, and complex as this about war by a woman writer is a rare treasure. The excellence of the writing lies in the relationship created between locality and the distances and presences (the Swansea raids) of war. The dimensions of the construction of the poem suggest a tesseract, a four dimensional cube: the immediate: the "eternal;" subjective physicality: objective consciousness; the referential rhythms of speech and language: the abstract reverence of the contemplation of meaning in words; words as communication: words as pattern; the order of nature: "the order of angels." "Finally," she writes in her introduction, "when I wrote this poem, the scenes and visions ran before me like a newsreel…. the poem was written for filming, especially Part V, where the soldier and his girl walk in fourth dimension among the clouds and visit the outer strata of our planet." I imagine Roberts had read Eisenstein's essays on montage. She will certainly have known Tambimuttu's undistinguished Out of This War. A Poem, The Fortune Press, completed in October 1940 in six sections, three of which appeared earlier in periodicals, e.g. such lines as, "The planet years / Return from spaces of white light."
Roberts opens her poem where she lives, "a bay wild with birds and somewhat secluded from man:"
Today the same tide leans back, blue rinsing bay,In the second section, "The challenge arises to all people to discard their sorrow, break through destruction and outshine the sun." A "healing hand and images of home" are offered by the girl narrator to her gunner, sick and dispirited in the artillery.
With magic and craftThe final section opens with a quotation in Welsh from Revelations - Death on a pale horse. The poem becomes centred in time and place:
Out of it. Out of it. To a ceiling and a clarityCumbersome boots? Her unmilitary husband not Christ after all, but a second Comberbache, the name under which the hapless Coleridge enlisted only to be almost at once discharged.
Patrick McGuinness draws attention to another poem "Raw Salt on Eye" which records the difficulties of living in the village by herself while Rhys was away, when she was gossiped to be a German spy (much as D.H. Lawrence and his wife in Cornwall were in the previous war).
Hard people, I will wash up now, bake bread and hangYet as Village Dialect shows, she fitted into the hard life.
It can happen that original poets achieve initial publication and recognition only to be dismissed and forgotten in their lifetimes. Two-book poets. Clare is a classic example, Ivor Gurney another. Morris Cox's Whirligig spiked at birth by a lone hostile review from the composer Vaughan Williams. Like Roberts, these three poets wrote at a time of war and rumours of war. They failed when peace brought a change of sensibility, a change of voice and music. Poets of Roberts's generation were children or teenagers at the time of the 1914-18 war. They served in or endured the 1939-45 war. They experienced the 1920's slump, the nervous thirties, and the cold miserable years of the late forties in Britain, followed by another financial crisis in the early fifties. Roberts completed a third collection, The Fifth Pillar of Song, which was rejected by Faber. Apparently this manuscript is lost. It is interesting, by the way, to compare Cox's nature poems (which he had to print himself) with Roberts' "Rainshiver" included here - the kind of poem Larkin and Amis helped to make unpublishable in the fifties. McGuinness prints Lynette's explanation of how her poem came to be written (some years after Cox's poems, though published earlier).
After the departure of Rhys in 1948, the address of Lynette and the two young children was The Caravan, The Graveyard, Laugharne. Later the caravan was moved to Bells Wood, Hertfordshire, then to Chislehurst, where Lynette set up an arts centre in Chislehurst Caves, 1955-56, moves recorded by Angharad Rhys in her preface. "Eventually her lovely sister Win bought us a house." Lynette was still giving poetry readings up to this time.
A prose narrative, The Endeavour. Captain Cook's First Voyage to Australia, first published Australia in 1953, was issued in London by Peter Owen 1954. I was delighted that Gloucestershire County Library still had a copy, rebound, last issue dates 1963 and 1983. The narrative reads beautifully, the characterisation is excellent, the form and balance of the story exemplary. I recommend it as a livelier and more enjoyable read than William Golding's sea trilogy. It rings true to itself. Roberts, of course, has personal experience both of voyages and of exotic fauna, and of the strangeness of encounters with people whose thought processes are alien. Her accounts of storms and wrecks at sea are excellent. Here is a passage describing the end of an eight mile walk by Cook and Banks, a shore interlude, at dusk by the Endeavour River, when they reach Australia.
The plaintive flutes of the curlews overhead; and the height of a large white bird standing above all other birds in the ebbing tide of the sun. All gathered for their last feed. The ducks in large coveys wheeling round from one sandbank to another, then fading into the darkness of the woods, mingled with the distant cry of the cranes and the peaceful coo of the doves now scattering in wild dashes down onto the soil, then up to murmur again in the low bushes and mangrove trees. Banks did not go on board, but walked instead out towards the setting sun and the reef of birds.The Towy estuary? And Argentina and W.H.Hudson. Throughout her writing life these are markers in her work.
Meanwhile the cave at Chislehurst collapsed, the Arts Centre foundered. Glyn Jones urged republication of her work, but Faber were surely right to see no market for it in competition with Larkin and Hughes. W.S.Graham, the poet nearest to her in style and perceptiveness, found life difficult enough across the Severn sea at Madron and Gurnard's Head. Dylan Thomas, another assailed writer in an unfashionable style, seems to have thought poorly of Roberts's work -he uses the word "hysteric" in a recorded sarcastic remark. In fact Roberts did from then on suffer from schizoid depression. Jenny Diski, in a review of Diana Melly's autobiography, Take a Girl Like Me, in the London Review of Books 17 November 2005, writes of "that curious period in the late 1950's and 1960's when acting out neurosis, particularly in young women, was de rigeur. … It was the behaviour of choice, just as neurasthenia and hysteria had been ways for women in the previous century…. I remember… how it seemed to me impossible to be interesting without being mad." While in Roberts' case there was obviously a genetic weakness, it is hard not to see these intervals as a result of maltreatment by fate, the hard luck of a difficult life. Who"d be a poet! As Hamburger has it, a mug's game. Again the parallels with Clare and Gurney.
McGuinness raises the academic question of where to place poets like Roberts, quirky, individual, to a great extent loners, on the "graph" of recognition. He quotes an essay by Tony Conran on Roberts that I have not been able to obtain. Like some of the poets already mentioned, and as with David Jones, Bunting, Zukofsky, the idiom, the vocabulary, and the referential fields of such poets commonly ignore fashion and contemporary reputation. The books are often unsympathetically reviewed, if reviewed at all. The poets don't belong to any groups, rarely live centrally (the New York, the West Coast, the London scenes), and essentially their books are less comfortable to read than those of mainstream poets. They need to be tuned in to. If a writer moves to a new country, as Roberts did, or by the fact of becoming a writer moves from one class culture to another, writing becomes in both senses of the word a displacement activity. The demands of the new culture, new language or idiom, lead to a more conscious and burdened thoughtfulness of style, usually a searching back and forward to alternative literary models. Roberts wrote in Village Dialect: "I am compelled to raise certain manuscripts out of the dust; and I will examine these in as clear and sound a manner as possible." She also wrote, "the word tradition is really a substitute for fear."
There can't be much doubt she was totally inspired to her best work by that corner of Wales. Roberts incorporated into her writing a living regional equivalent of the liveliness which Pasternak found when translating Shakespeare. "It is a rhythm which reflects the enviable laconic quality of English, a quality which makes it possible to compress a whole statement, made up of two or more contrasted propositions, into a single line of iambic verse. It is the rhythm of free speech, the language of a man who sets up no idols and is therefore honest and concise." (Translating Shakespeare, translated by Manya Harari, The Twentieth Century, Vol 164, No 979, September 1958)
McGuinness described a visit to Roberts's haunts at Laugharne, where an irate house-owner emerged, fed up to the teeth with pilgrimage tourists (presumably mainly Dylan Thomas fans), and dismayed to hear the mad woman's poetry was going to be re-issued. "That will be political," he muttered. I hope there is a political market, along with every other market, for Roberts. At the foot of page 8 of Village Dialect she writes, "I do not wish to imply that these plays are in any way Welsh. They are not. But I should like to point out that there may be more Welsh influence in them than has so far been admitted."
This would be the Welsh way of saying what you mean then. As for example, according to Jess Cartner-Morley in the Guardian, 8 October 2005, Charlotte Church, on the subject of another singer who allegedly criticised Church for copying her sound: "I"m like, love, you and me, singing competition, all right? That'd be brilliant. Geordie cow."
Not that everyone likes that brashness. I asked a Welsh friend about Roberts, had he read her books, or heard of her? He said no, he hadn't, then looked at the floor and hesitated, "She would be what we call an Anglo-Welsh poet. My own interest is, just happens to be, in North Wales." Another look at the floor and further hesitation, then he said, "There is a chasm between North and South Wales." Two Welsh traditions then in Roberts, the speech of the people around her, and the literature and mythology of past glories.
A couple of textual queries; first, an intrusive the in the first line of "Englyn," if the version in Modern Welsh Poetry is to be trusted, "Where poverty strikes (the) pavement - there is found..." The other query concerns the same anthology, her first poem from which is not included in Collected Poems. Is there some question over attribution?
TO THE PRIEST OF THE MIDDLESWhat is being said here I think relates to the last four lines of a rather longer uncollected poem, pp84-85 in the new book, on God's seven days of creation. A good strong feminist Welsh egalitarian view of things to end with. Eve speaks:
This, she said, and meant it for thousands of years after,Following the collapse of the Chislehurst Caves project Lynette became a Jehovah's Witness. In 1970 she returned to Llanybri. Four times she was admitted to a hospital in Carmarthen suffering from schizophrenia. Her final years from 1989 were spent at a residential home overlooking Llansteffan, where she died 26 September 1995 and is buried in Llanybri churchyard.
Alan Tucker's "E.P. for his Sepulcher" also appears in FlashPøint #8.