Grace and Good Works

New Collected Poems
, Sylvia Townsend Warner, ed. Claire Harman
(394pp, 18.95, Fyfield Books, Carcanet)

Sylvia Townsend Warner died thirty years ago at the age of eighty-five. Four years after her death, Claire Harman edited a Collected Poems for Carcanet, followed by a Selected Poems in 1985 and an edition of the poet's Diaries in 1994. She also produced a prize-winning biography in 1990. Here, a quarter of a century after Collected Poems, Harman has edited a New Collected Poems containing over ninety previously uncollected and unpublished pieces, expanded notes, a chronology, and what the back cover describes as 'an authoritative new introduction'. Some readers may have seen an edited version of this introduction in the Review section of the Saturday Guardian for 29th February this year.
Though it does not contain all of the poems from the controversial 1933 volume, Whether a Dove or a Seagull,
the pages of which she shared with her lover, Valentine Ackland [1], New Collected Poems is about as definitive as we are likely to get. Admirers of Sylvia Townsend Warner will certainly welcome it, and the hope is it will further widen her readership, bringing proper attention to a poet of great technical accomplishment and of much more substance than she has so far been credited with.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, if known at all, is rated primarily as a novelist and short-story writer. Her poetry has received very little of the attention it deserves. As John Lucas says in an essay for the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society Journal,
[2] 'Townsend Warner is a true poet. Yet to my knowledge her poetry rates barely a mention in studies of twentieth-century poetry. This may be connected to the fact that whereas her major novels are in print or easy to come by, her Collected Poems...has long been unobtainable.' Though this is no longer demonstrably the case, it is still a fact that critical attention has a lot of catching up to do. Harman's Further Reading list is evidence...though it misses out the above-mentioned essay of Lucas, which in turn refers to helpful writings on Townsend Warner by Peter Scupham and Arnold Rattenbury: the former describing her 'unillusioned way of seeing, feeling, and thinking', the latter reminding us of the context of radicalism with which she was associated. (She and Valentine Ackland joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, like other poets of the time took part in the Spanish Civil War, and actively supported The Left Book Club. Lucas also reminds us of her musical training, her rootedness in folksong and Elizabethan lyrics that offered an alternative version of Pound's 'Make it new!' and makes her soul-mate of composers like Howells, Finzi, Ivor Gurney, Vaughan Williams with whom she studied composition).
Ostensibly the New Collected Poems
throws down the challenge again. Is it possible to make Townsend Warner less a 'ghostly figure in twentieth-century letters'? To place her not too unfairly alongside, say, Virginia Woolf? Harman, for all her advocacy, seems unduly pessimistic. She rightly states that Warner 'had been a child of the times for more than sixty years, but out of them too'; she then goes on to declare 'I wonder whether or not it is possible for Warner to be inserted into the canon, regardless of how many admirers she has now or in the future. The record is, to some extent, sealed, and she is on the outside. If her work is kept in print, her genius will always find an audience, but I doubt if she will appear in 'literary histories' for many years to come, except perhaps as a case-study in the history of literary fashions.' Nothing, it should be pointed out, can ever be sealed to an extent. Are we really to consign Townsend Warner to history? I admit that some poems are more consciously 'literary' than we are now used to and some readers may be put off by archaisms, a superabundance of rhyme, the occasional inversion, her familiarity with abstractions, even by her sheer virtuosity. Lucas is right to tell us that her style is often 'deliberately mannered, knowingly out of kilter with its subject matter, maintaining an on-guard, even at times an ironic distance which can easily modulate into social or historical distance.' Certainly placing her in the context of her times is important but let's not seal her into it. The tradition she writes in is a living tradition and the majority of the poems are too forcefully alive for us to do so. There is a sense of being at home among them. I once had occasion to talk with Les Murray, telling him of the Australian poets I'd had the pleasure of meeting down-under. His laconic response was 'Y' keep bad company'. Townsend Warner keeps good company: reading her you get an intimate sense of the - dare I say - ghostly figures of a great number of English poets, and a couple of Americans too (Whitman, Frost) sharing her house with her. They are not merely influences but friends. In this sense the poems are companionable. This is not a book to read from cover to cover as one might a novel but one to keep dipping into and savouring. It has its fair share of humour, it has the kinds of soliloquisings we find in U.A. Fanthorpe and Carol Ann Duffy (the poem Gloriana Dying is a masterpiece); there are narrative poems (particularly the impressive 1400-line-long Opus7 which Lucas characterises as 'quite deliberately, pastiche Georgianism'). She can write movingly about war, both Second and First World wars; her descriptive and love poems and poems about loss and ageing deserve high regard. Her contribution to lesbian literature is huge. New Collected Poems is not merely a textbook enabling aspects of the 'history of literary fashions' to go on show; it is a living human experience.
       Matt Simpson 2008

[1]  Harman tells us that 'the whole text is being included in Valentine Ackland's Journey from Winter' which Carcanet is also publishing this year. As part of an attempt to interest her publisher in Ackland's verse, Warner came up with idea of a co-authored collection in which, in the first instance, the names of the poets were withheld.
[2]  Published in his Starting to Explain - Essays on Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry
, Trent Books, 2003.