Places of learning attract poets, both as a source of income and as an environment sympathetic to literary activity that places creative achievement above worldly success. In ancient university towns poets can find congenial company. They will use the resources of the libraries and bookshops, and perhaps work in them. They may teach in the academic margins. Often they do not seek the endeavour of research nor the rewards of scholarship, but they find stimulus in the shadows of great learning.
Sally Purcell is the perfect example of such a poet. She arrived in Oxford as an undergraduate, and never left. A familiar figure in Oxford for many years, she devoted her life to poetry, her own original work, and to translations. Having read Medieval and Modern French, her first collection reflected her interest in the courtly tradition of the Provencal troubadours. The Medieval world of romance and mystery encompassed her work and her life.
This air of otherworldliness was no affectation. She was indifferent to worldly success and to the material emblems of competitive achievement. Without private money, she scraped a living, chiefly as a barmaid. She was in the world while remaining apart. She was different, her independence of mind earning her much respect.
At the end of her morning shift, Sally would walk across the road to the Bodleian Library for the afternoon. There, she translated Dante, her knowledge and understanding as profound as a formal scholar’s. She refused all academic offers. Although the gothic atmosphere of an ancient university town appealed to her, Sally Purcell remained her own person. She did not conform. She wrote as she pleased of the things that interested her.
Chatelaine of her fabled world, she wrote lovingly and perceptively about Oxford, her Oxford.
Impossible to register
each delicacy and shade,
each further richness and affectation
this feminine season adopts
for an audience captivated in advance
Autumn is not to every mind an especially delicate or feminine season. She is thinking perhaps of the colour of the leaves turning before they fall. She is thinking most probably of mists. The lyricism of this poem is enchanting, a word so appropriate to Sally Purcell’s mood of mystery and even of magic. Incantations are never far away from her. Sequestered in the mist, Sally Purcell in spirit wanders, although she died prematurely some years ago.
She had an admirer and friend, an older poet also in Oxford, who brought her poetry to wider attention. John Wain relinquished academic status and security for the happenstance existence of living by his pen. Unusually, he found his way back to Oxford, only accepting an academic position when it was as Professor of Poetry, a chair traditionally given not to a dedicated academic but to a writer (of equal dedication).
His reputation slid in the years following his death. The case for its rescue is strong. Feng, in particular, deserves to be recovered from the partial oblivion of being long out of print. A sequence of poems closely related to Hamlet, but going back to ancient source material from which Shakespeare’s tragedy was written. In place of the Prince’s rational questioning of moral purpose, there is the older myth that an Elizabethan before Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd, used in his Amleth, keeping closely to the Norse legend.
Feng, the uncle of Amleth, became for Shakespeare Claudius, the uncle of Hamlet. Wain puts Feng centre stage, a violent, bitter man intent on seizing the crown even at the cost of killing his brother. Feng is dark and cold, like a castle with ravens in a dark forest. There is no post-Renaissance humane rationalism. We are familiar with Hamlet’s moral crisis. The source of the problem offers a rich field of speculative explorations. Feng’s realm is one of raw feeling, of jealousies and visceral hatreds.
John Wain’s achievement in Feng is to engage the reader with the anti-hero’s point of view, without special pleading for the villain’s case. Understanding evil is so much harder than understanding love. Feng deserves neither sympathy nor respect, but he does command a hearing so that he may testify in his own terms. They remain villainous terms. The power with which Wain develops his theme is compelling.
I, the he that is I, shall be king. The crowning
is solemn. Stones in a circle
ranged roughly, with rude veneration
signify strength: in vain the sea-borne
storms hammer their humped shapes, all heroes
would wish for this weight, unmoved by winds.
Feng was published during Wain’s tenure of the Oxford Poetry chair. He followed a distinguished line, perhaps most famously Matthew Arnold whose Culture and Anarchy lectures voiced concern for the perceived barbarism of the mass society created by an urban industrial economy. Wain writes with something of Arnold’s vigorous humanism. Almost half a century has passed since Wain’s lectures, but their foreboding of populism has proven exceptionally prescient.
Poetry has become a protest against the media’s obsession with worldly success. Perhaps it was always so. For a poet, prizes and sales are not measures of literary worth and general cultural value. Prizes are possible, and occasionally a poet catches wider public attention. The usual condition is a minority interest. A poetry reading is a distant light in a dark wood. A poetry pamphlet is the leavening of a culture that otherwise should die of cliché-ridden predictability.
Reputable centres of higher learning therefore naturally attract the writer, or reader, seeking substance among the trivia. There is a network, barely visible in the mainstream media, of the like-minded and literate. The network is too informal to be quantified, but included are the informed, the articulate and the influential. They are not to be dismissed. There are works of literature whose influence exceeds their readership by a pervasive absorption into general ways of feeling. Next time someone remarks that April is the cruellest month, you’ll see what I mean.
Poets who are not taken up by the media may not reach a wide audience, but their success is to enrich the culture by a renewal of the subtlety and grace of language. The limitations of reference and vocabulary define a diminished state of mind. It stands in contrast to literary enrichment. When everything is ‘fantastic’ nothing is. What needs to be heard is the finely-honed line, the carefully-crafted stanza, the arresting image.
At the heart of writing is the concern for language, acknowledging that words are not simple matters of basic communication, and that writing is an exploration in the variety of meanings a word may contain.
Such concern requires a milieu sympathetic to intelligent creativity. A community of artists and thinkers is a useful resource, although in the real world no social environment is ideal nor should it be. Writing is very much to do with human frailty and failing. The world of Feng is not an earthly paradise.
Sally Purcell writes of ’an inherited, magic world,’ but not of an unworldly innocence. The serpent of cunning deception is never far away. Writing occurs within an imperfect world. An impulse to write may emerge from the contrast between what could be and what actually is.
In that sense all poetry carries a sense of social awareness. Writing seeks a readership. One cannot create anything in a vacuum. Writing is a response to the world, a world that is often contingent, prosaic or unaware of its possibilities.
In the social world, a visit to the zoo may prompt a reflection on the animal’s captivity. That may be the genesis of a poem once the symbols of empathy are discovered. The themes of poetry are found especially in love and creativity, and in suffering and death.
Of course, at the same moment in history, we have Montaigne as Mayor of Bordeaux, Shakespeare in the Southwark theatres, and Cervantes in prison. All were learning of the world, engaging with and reflecting on it in their different ways, high and low.
Some paths seem the obvious course to take. It may seem strange that T.S. Eliot did not pursue a permanent academic career, but his decision to work as a publisher, discovering and/or encouraging writers in the marketplace, was wise. Eliot is a poet of the city, even when he meditates on isolation. He was from time to time a visiting professor, one who withdrew occasionally from the practicalities to take stock before another round of editorial engagement with writers and writing.
If there is no ideal environment outside of paradise there are useful spaces suited to the poet’s personal needs. The contingencies of living may play their part. It is possible to write in a crowded and noisy room, and in the act of writing to find a tranquility that transcends actual experience. It is possible to be alone in a room that is peopled by the thoughts, images and sounds that stimulate your writing.
It can be that open country is oppressive in its emptiness and silences. A city may stimulate simply by the noise and nuisance of life encompassing our thoughts. And within that cacophony may be found the solitude to make sense of what we have heard and seen.
The world within and the world without are not separate spheres, but the complementary halves of the whole. It is not for anyone to prescribe where a writer should live, nor how a writer should live. Adversity can be as great a stimulus as sympathy. Every creative writer is wandering in a cold, lonely city. Every writer knows what it is to walk on the parapet of a bridge over a frozen river. The danger of falling is ever present. But when the writing works the writer takes to the air and flies towards the first dawn of Creation.