Jocelyn Brooke’s poetry…
Stop right there, a stray person accidentally reading this might say, why start with his poetry? Why start at the obscure end of an already slightly obscure figure?
Circumstance, I’m afraid. I’ve got his two volumes of poetry, December Spring (1946) and The Elements of Death (1952) next to me, and they’ve got to go back to the library soon.
As I’ve already said elsewhere, I’m not really very good at poetry, having a bit of a tin ear and tending to like stuff that people have shown me how to like, rather than having that natural feel for The Singing Line that enables the best critics to pick a single jewel out of a load of dross.
Still, we can only use the tools we’ve got…
(Rather long again, I’m afraid; my only excuse being that there’s very little on his poetry anywhere as far as I can tell, and while I’m hardly qualified to produce anything definitive, this may at least provide some grist to put to the mill of any future thoughts or discussions.)
So – Jocelyn Brooke’s poetry: it has, as you might expect, an awful lot of the flowers and soldiering that fill his prose works, evocations of lost lands that are at once geographic, temporal and psychic. Unlike his prose though he tends to avoid concrete examples, continually gesturing towards the symbolic –
Here I stand, in the halflight,
At the paths’ crossing, by the tomb
Of the warriors; waiting for winter,
There are elements of a rather dilute Eliot –
The journey over the waters and
The fight in the western islands. I
Am the Victim, Life-in-Death: the Holy Boy.
The Scapegoat (again, but it’s the best example of what I mean; Brooke needs to remember he’s Prufrock with his trousers rolled, not The Waste Land)
Or a similarly dilute Auden –
The epoch draws to a close –
The stations are closing down,
The voices are off the air,
Weasels swarm in the town;
The King is dead of typhus –
The portents multiply;
An epoch draws to a close
And it is hard to die.
Quite often the writing doesn’t feel quite fully formed, in the sense that you can hear Brooke struggling to mould his influences so they serve to honestly express his thoughts rather than dictating them. There isn’t really a coherent voice; not something I think he would have disagreed with. This does not mean that even in the course of this struggle there are not moments of felicity –
The nights are unkind, unkind –
Winding in dull oblivion the evening mind
Which now like night-moth wakes
At sundown, eager and alert to sip
The sweets from many a ghost-white bloom
Very like Eliot at the start I know, but transformed into something else by the end, and even that chiming ‘unkind’ in the first line has a lyricism not usually found in the flattened Laforgue of Eliot – I’m reminded of the falling strain in Tennyson’s beautiful ‘Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean’, delivered with perhaps the same disbelieving shake of the head in contemplation at the burden of its sorrow.
Another aspect of the struggle with his immediate poetic forebears is that he is rather belatedly keen on Myth, and Death, and Rebirth, and Towers, the Thing and the Act, Shining Cities – all that millennial hokum, the tidldywinks with symbols that even in Yeats and Eliot is the least appealing part of their poetry. In Brooke’s it all feels rather shiny through overuse (these are the late 1940s); the poetic diction itself perhaps needing a bit of rebirth through more concrete and personal imaginings, needing to be less bogged down by recent tradition.
Easier said than done of course – possibly as with most tyro poets, Brooke is both at his best and his worst when his own voice comes through. Behind all that mythographic stuff, for instance, is a repeatedly iterated belief in the rebirth of civilisation through rather heavily sexed military violence. This is not perhaps an unfamiliar poetic concept at any time, but directly after two world wars it is surely monstrously innappropriate and may go some way to explaining his lack of success as a poet (£85!).
‘So let me learn not to hate’ he says (fair enough, you think) –
The hating and the hurting, but acclaim
The phallic and hairy thrust
Of the direct ambition –
Simple and coarse as love,
Which in time must
With cropped and red-faced laughter
In callow morning light,
And the belted, hobnailed
Contact of warm friend
In the singing night
Renew the valued image
Of tree and rare flower
And in the loved landscape
By the sea’s salt verge
Rebuild the ruined tower.
It’s hard to know where to look isn’t it? I’m not sure the uneasy and embarrassed laughter which such sub-Lawrentian passages provoke is really part of poetry’s lexicon. But it can be part of Brooke’s (this despite the fact that he’s rather ambivalent about Lawrence in The Dog at Clambercrown). In fact, it can cast a retrospective twinge of uncertainty over parts of his prose writing, on the whole blameless in this regard and usually a deft blend of the drily effete and sardonically futilitarian.
He reminds me in these moods of a description in The Goose Cathedral of his landlady Miss Bugle, who ‘couldn’t have looked more delighted’ at the prospect of another war;
‘Well, of course,’ she said, paying tardy lip-service to a convention for which, obviously, she hadn’t really the least respect, ‘of course, nobody wants a war. But if you ask me, there’s some people in the world – and in this town too – who could do with a bit of a shaking up, and I don’t mind who hears me say so neether.’
Surely he can’t be suggesting, like Mrs Bugle, another war to refresh a society already broken and drained by two such holocausts? Well, as his other writings testify, personally at least this may well have been the case – at least, he found in the regimentation and coarse companionship of soldiering a process of self-renewal. One of the failures of his poetry is perhaps that he couches in social terms what is in fact personal desire. He is using the language of the tribe to describe the experience of the outcast.
When he avoids the jaded concepts, steps out of Auden and Eliot’s shadow, and dumps the gay soft porn masquerading as civic and spiritual redemption there are some marvellous moments; this from Night-Shift again –
…by night the tall
And acorn-headed anthropophagi
Creep from the toll-house on ungainly limbs
To dance their silent saraband
Beneath the jutting cliffside, and the small
And half-tamed soldiers peer
With bird bright eyes from the arboreal gloom.
(There is a tendency for his biographical works to provide a key for his poetry – the images here are rather ‘explained’ by an equally vivid passage in, I think, A Mine of Serpents)
Don’t read his poetry for lines like ‘The Man-God is reborn: now, like a snake,’
but for, a bare stanza later,
; the wind blowing soft;
The sea-borne breath of wallflowers and
The bare arms seen suddenly on the esplanade
from To a Communist at Easter: the lines above evoking a sort of seaside Imagism – the fresh whiff of ozone a pleasingly domestic antidote to the somewhat Oriental aesthetic of the more well-known practitioners like TE Hulme.
The Lament is strong and simply effective –
All men, they say, are brothers:
Wrong – wrong from the start;
I am not as these others –
The soldiers have eaten my heart.
And when he has these solidiers, not tubbily wrestling, but ‘half-doped with Orders and the Forces Programme’
scarcely aware that Civvy Street
Is the grey abandoned houses
Behind the esplanade, the empty teashop,
The bombed chapel and the shops boarded up;
(and the wind blows up from the marshes
Cold with unshed rain)
that deflating and melancholy wryness that gives so much poise to his prose gets to work in his poetry.
Not that I have anything against the poetic depiction of the glory of war, more accurately the poetic exploration of the closeness to death and consequent whetting of the spirit that war brings, it’s just that it doesn’t suit Brooke.
I’ve almost entirely concentrated on his first collection December Spring, a fact that will lead any cynical retired examiners passing to think that I have not read The Elements of Death. His second volume is rather weaker, consisting in the main of a retread of the themes of December Spring, which are the themes of all his writing, with no real development of the virtues or making good of the flaws present in that earlier volume. There are attractive moments, particularly The Garden Door, a neatly woven net of remembered images, and parts of The Deserter, with the soldier standing at the end
In the snow-bound silence-
Alone in the dawn-light.
Re-reading The Deserter just now has made me realise it is considerably better than merely attractive, with pastoral, dramatic and psychological themes intertwining very effectively. Not sure about lines like ‘Knee-holly and blackthorn/Pricking his shins and conscience’ though.
In sum, Jocelyn Brooke certainly doesn’t stand in the first rank of poets – I’m not even sure I can see him peeping over their shoulders. Nevertheless, given a rainy Sunday and a quiet withdrawing room, time could be most satisfactorily spent casting an eye over his poetic ouvre.
Don’t follow my example though – do the prose first.