Tuesday 24 January 2017

From the Fifties

To return to the Fifties (ah, there's a prospect), it's certainly the best decade in the TLS 100 anthology - things go downhill with the Sixties and never really recover. As well as the poetic luminaries mentioned in my earlier post, others represented include Muriel Spark, with this -


We found it on a bunch of grapes and put it
In cotton wool, in a matchbox partly open,
In a room in London in wintertime, and in
A safe place, and then forgot it. 

Early in the cold spring we said "See this!
Where on earth did the butterfly come from?"
It looked so unnatural whisking about the curtain:
Then we remembered the chrysalis. 

There was the broken shell with what was once
The head askew; and what was once the worm
Was away out of the window, out of the warm,
Out of the scene of the small violence. 

Not strange, that the pretty creature formalised
The virtue of its dark unconscious wait
For pincers of light to come and pick it out.
But it was a bad business, our being surprised. 

A shame she isn't more descriptive of the butterfly (or moth, as it might have been), but that last stanza is very good.
And there's a well-made, bittersweet piece by John Betjeman, aching with nostalgia -


How did the Devil come? When first attack? 
  These Norfolk lanes recall lost innocence, 
The years fall off and find me walking back 
  Dragging a stick along the wooden fence 
Down this same path, where, forty years ago, 
My father strolled behind me, calm and slow. 

I used to fill my hands with sorrel seeds 
  And shower him with them from the tops of stiles, 
I used to butt my head into his tweeds 
  To make him hurry down those languorous miles 
Of ash and alder-shaded lanes, till here 
Our moorings and the masthead would appear. 

There after supper lit by lantern light 
  Warm in the cabin I could lie secure 
And hear against the polished sides at night 
  The lap lap lapping of the weedy Bure, 
A whispering and watery Norfolk sound 
Telling of all the moonlit reeds around. 

How did the Devil come? When first attack? 
  The church is just the same, though now I know 
Fowler of Louth restored it. Time, bring back 
  The rapturous ignorance of long ago, 
The peace, before the dreadful daylight starts, 
Of unkept promises and broken hearts.

And in 1958 the TLS published a poem by R.S. Thomas that was to become one of his best known. It's a sonnet of sorts, in four-stress lines with much enjambment, no rhyme scheme and no turn. A meditation on time and death, on Christian ministry, on God of course - present or absent - it evokes a world already gone in Thomas's time. The tone is certainly not nostalgic, but this is Thomas in tender mode - and somewhere near his best.

The Country Clergy

I see them working in old rectories
By the sun's light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels. They left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes; rather they wrote
On men's hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten. God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.


  1. I've been reading your blog for nearly a year now and cannot go any longer without thanking you for the books, the music, the butterflies and so many things I would not otherwise have known or thought about. Always worth reading, always interesting,often fun, please don't stop. Angela

  2. Your posting tends to reinforce my unprovable theory: good writing went into hiding after the middle of the 20th century. That peculiar POV, however, might just be the narrow perspective of an over-the-hill curmudgeon who prefers literature that precedes my own birth. In any case, I am enjoying your TLS 100 postings, and I hope I can find a copy of the book somewhere. Thanks!

  3. Well thank you very much Angela - it's always good to know people are reading and enjoying the blog. And I can't wait for those butterflies to return - how I miss them...
    And thank you Tim - I'm inclined to share your view. I think the Fifties were a kind of golden age for poetry, as so many of the greats of an earlier generation were still active, while the best of the next generation were getting started. It's hard to see anything remotely like such riches in today's poetical landscape. The TLS volume - A Century of Poems - is available on Abebooks, albeit at more than I paid for it...