Kenneth Allott and the Cleft Stick

by D. H. Tracy

Kenneth Allott. Collected Poems. Edited by Michael Murphy. Salt Publishing 2008. 169 pp. $18.95 (paper)


Some lines from Kenneth Allott’s anthology piece “Lament for a Cricket Eleven,” about the taking of a photograph and the fates of its eleven subjects:

From the camera hood he looks at the faces
Like the spectral pose of the praying mantis.
Watch for the dicky-bird. But, O my dear,
That bird will not migrate this year.
Oh for a parasol, oh for a fan
To hide my weak chin from the little man.

In the fullness of time the players turn into twilight figures meeting gothic ends in desperation, illness, institutionalization, dissipation, and apathy. The camera as trap of temporal doom is skillfully set and sprung, and considered as nothing more than an atmospheric ubi sunt the poem is well imagined. At the end, though, the photographer obsessing over his prints becomes in a way the twelfth victim, and the poem turns, incrementally, into a statement on the thankless futility of bearing witness.

For an Allott poem, “Lament” is atypically presentable, in the sense that its mission is clear from the title on. Allott’s is usually a case, for me, of poetry’s communicating before it is understood. The time is the 1930s and the mood is the dread of imminent war, a mood so thick that Donald Davie suggests using a pair of Allott’s lines as the Thirties Society motto: “From this wet island of birds and chimneys / Who can watch suffering Europe and not be angry?” “Suffering Europe” is Allott’s primary provocation, at the point of which the poet styles himself “An active Roscius of general doom”—Roscius being the parricide defended by Cicero, the comic actor, or (I prefer to think) both, high prophesizing tending to a pathetic theatricality. Comic opera figures appear here and there: a Pierrot, a soubrette. Doubts, about art as well as the future, are immediately evident, but they manifest themselves in vital intensities of language and in something like political responsibility. The language has a heat to it, a “calenture” (to use Allott’s word), while subjects are treated with a cooling irony. There is no reaching irritably after ideas, no idolatry, even of love. Allott discerns in Matthew Arnold a faint but pervasive “bracing of moral intention” that produces an effect of “ravaged composure,” and Allott similarly has this face of an imperfect, aspiring stoic. He feels too acutely the “impotence of anger” to be called a proponent of action, but on the other hand he has a streak of anti-intellectualism, in the sense of the term parallel to anticlericalism. He hated Oxford, where he did work on the Elizabethan poet William Habington, for its predictability and willed deadness, its “mucilage of pedantry” and “talk of perpetual motion and homoousion”:

I see no time for games in Elysian groves,
Nor are we cats with nine successive lives
To spend one on a mudflat caterwauling,
Mocking the non-Athenians. Out, my friends,
And mix in the heat with the smell of the other slaves.

(“The Museum”)

The squeamishly democratic exhortation in the last line—don’t mix with the slaves themselves, mind you, just get a good lungful—proposes an alternative to elitism that is closer to isolation than populism. It is not quite the gesture of a demagogue.

In many of the poems there is this clear sense of being spoken to untenderly, and in that straitened conversation the possibility of politics is being built from the most basic elements Allott can trust. Sentimentalities about social relations cannot be maintained (in “Lullaby” we are reminded of “The voices of peasants not singing to you”). Allott was poor at times in his childhood, and he is a little bit the class warrior, though in this mode his besetting fault is likely to appear, namely an over-literal and loveless remonstrance. On the rich:

Who should have perished with Napoleon
Persist like the kiwi or a nursery rhyme

Thinking, when the birds sing, they sing of them.
I pity them for their dreadful relaxations:
The gaming-table and the gillie’s rudeness,
The furtive evenings with a complaisant mistress,
The bonhomie of rivals, and the brown masterpieces.

(“The Plutocrats”)

The list here has an imaginative competence (Allott seems to know his subject firsthand), and the poem’s authority rests principally on that competence. The rhetoric is again not pitched for persuasion. The chosen locution is “I pity them” (and I think he means it), not “Let us overthrow them and expropriate their belongings.” He has class enemies, but nothing like class solidarity, and his landscapes and cityscapes are allowed to be scenes of real desolation, even if it hurts the residents’ feelings. Elsewhere he refers coolly to “The stunted pasty wonder of the slum, / Like a cracked bicycle frame / On which a short vocabulary is hung.” Davie, writing in 1980, finds this kind of talk aggressive enough to “rock our frail national consensus,” and marvels at how tough-minded the poetry of the era could be, how little shilly-shallying it felt necessary. Indeed Allott construes his responsibility to his fellows as a defect: “The flaw of charity lets in the trickle of water / Now as wide as the Ganges, and black and angry.” When this flaw gets the better of him, especially in the later poems, its victories are the more believable for running counter to his wishes.

In his sternness of voice Allott may be compensating for a perceived weakness inherited from Romantic poetry; sometimes, in his view, “it is not clear to whom it is addressed, and . . . consequently it suffers from a lack of confidence about the tone to be maintained or the modulations of tone possible.” (This point was borne in on Allott by, of all people, the society wit W. M. Praed.) A definiteness of address locates Allott’s speech acts, and gives him situation at the expense of warmth of tone and Gemütlichkeit. But this is not to say he is present to us. The endured pressure of apprehension, the continual difficulty of communicating a private foreboding as public warning, tends to prise the poet out of his environment and impose a certain dissociation. In the writing, the result is a state of semiotic isolation in which the shared world is less described than used for description—instead of recording responses to a thing, Allott has it point to thoughts and feelings already there. A rainy day, for example, doesn’t bring about an emotion but is pressed into serving as a simile for one:

The rain falling from uninhabited stars
    On macs and umbrellas
    And this is like misery.

(“Sunday Excursion”)

Removing the “like” results in a conventional sentiment. As the passage stands, the “like” contains a disorienting and oddly winsome interstellar gulf. It effects a roundabout intimacy, as only in the poet’s interior could misery show its points of difference from the thing it is said not to be, but to be like. There is a similarly weird, floating moment at the end of “The Statue”: “Strange to have lived so long upon this planet, / Daylight and moonlight, all the fun in the world.” Allott appears to have come from another planet, one where there is no fun.

Allott was born in Wales in 1912, the same year as F. T. Prince and Roy Fuller, and the year after R. S. Thomas and George Barker. His mother was first-generation Irish; his father, English, was a doctor. His childhood was somewhat threadbare and sad: After his parents separated and his mother died, he and his brother were taken in by some aunts. He was educated at a Jesuit prep school, where he conceived hatreds of religion and the military and abandoned his mother’s Catholicism. He shone at the University of Durham, then did graduate work at Oxford. He married in 1936 and fathered two children. Up to and through the war he made his living in journalism and adult education. He assisted Geoffrey Grigson at New Verse in the mid Thirties, and would build on that apprenticeship, later editing the Penguin Contemporary Verse anthologies (a story unto themselves) of 1950 and 1962. He wrote the first English biography of Jules Verne (1940) and edited the poems of William Habington (1948), as well as selections of W. M. Praed (1953) and Robert Browning (1967). He did extensive work on Matthew Arnold, including an annotated edition of Arnold’s complete poems (1965). From 1947 until his death in 1973 he was at the University of Liverpool, where he earned a reputation as something of an outgoing wit (a reputation that doesn’t square easily with the poems). After divorcing his first wife in 1950 he married his colleague Miriam Farris, who, among other things, edited the complete annotated Keats. The two collaborated on several projects, including a book on Graham Greene (1963) and the Victorian section of the Pelican Book of English Prose.

Allott published his two books of poems, Poems and The Ventriloquist’s Doll, early and close together, in 1938 and 1943 respectively. Poems consists mostly of work done in the two years prior, after Allott’s New Verse period ended and his writing took a surrealist turn. What once appeared to be willful figuration is in the light of subsequent developments relatively tame, and the “surrealism” may even appear fresher now than it did at the time. In the Seventies, Roy Fuller was already able to comment that time had domesticated the style into “an amusing and audacious imagistic freedom.” The writing is full of epithetical constructions like “smoky wishes,” “perfunctory west,” “snobbish dark,” “silly shores,” “waxen certainties,” “unpeculating hours,” and “uxorious streams.” These are generally susceptible to ingenuity (shores are silly as being a kind of border, which transportation threatens to make nonsense of), though it can reasonably be said that Allott’s attention tends toward rhetorical effect and away from things’ appearances. Applying an adjective to a noun is more an opportunity for conceptual torture and verbal texturing than for perceptual revelation. The same could be said, with even more justice, about Hart Crane, and with his White Buildings having come out in 1926 it is difficult in hindsight to take seriously the puzzlement Allott met with. For that matter Allott seems in more than one way the English Hart Crane, one with a war to dread and a scholarly turn of mind. “Offering” reminds me of “Voyages” and “The Broken Tower”:

I would offer you so much more if you would turn
Before the new whisper in a forgiving hour.
Let all the wild ones who have offended burn,
Let love dissemble in a golden shower;
Let not the winds whistle, nor the sea rave,
But the treasure be lapped forever in an unbroken wave.

There is possibly some French influence in Allott but little or no American, unless he did in fact read Crane. He read Stevens early enough to matter but didn’t care for him, and he actively disliked Williams and Pound. Free verse seemed to him “a cul-de-sac,” though little of his own work really scans. During Allott’s coming-up, W. H. Auden eclipsed Eliot as the young poets’ model, largely on the promise of meaningful political content. In other conceivable tutors, such as Eliot, Pound, and Yeats, there is an anti-democratic bias in favor of institutions, traditions, and judgments that maintain or elevate the poet’s status in the abstract. This is their “politics,” interesting to them insofar as it enables aesthetics. “To none of these poets,” Allott writes, “is man primarily a political animal with his natural habitat the hustings or the conspiratorial backroom of a shabby café in a dock area.” Allott saw in this shift of anthropology a “basic difference” between the poets of the Twenties and the Thirties. Poets of the Thirties tended to seek, as Stephen Spender put it, “a communal cure in psychology and leftist politics.” This cure was often taken very mildly (it could mean in practice little more than an injunction to be socially observant), and Allott recognized that the underlying impulse to examine and self-examine gave rise to a generational habit of demystification, even to the extent, ironically, of paralyzing political will. In “Aunt Sally Speaks,” he writes of those “Who have been educated out of naïve responses, / The hoodoo of love, the cinderella of class,” and “Who think too much perhaps of elegance / And the form of wisdom.”

Allott’s contemporaries found his early poems lacking in ideology and reportorial spirit, and his Thirties conscience tends to act in the service of the writing, not vice versa: “wind and sea grind the granite / Hard as the landlord of the very poor.” His poetry is not political, if by “political” we mean poetry that maintains a forum where competing interests may be presented and judged, or where the events in that shabby café may be dramatized. But he does have a notion of society as a thing that needs talking about, and is alert to the problem of poetry’s role in that discussion. If poets are to make any distinctive contribution, the reasoning goes, it must be by dint of their distinctive imaginations. But since imagination is by nature private, and society by nature public, poems beginning in one and ending in the other have a certain span to bridge. Allott calls this problem of poetic communication “having to serve two masters,” and notes that it “results in a worried art.” The generation before Allott’s had been spared this worry by the discovery of new verse techniques and by a commitment to difficulty: Eliot and Pound were content to be hermetic, and did not feel any strong anxiety about self-prostitution or accommodation to other discourses. Poetry was moving under its own steam; it was society’s problem to figure out how to talk about poetry, not vice versa.

Auden’s influence on Allott’s early poems is plain enough, though this, too, was probably more evident at the time, when Allott’s epithetic license looked more obviously like Auden’s cowboy phrasing—by present standards Auden seems like a smooth rhetorician, but he was criticized in his day for being a sound-bite artist, insufficiently dedicated to wholes. Allott was alive to the silly excesses of Auden worship (at least in retrospect) but maintained that in its “insistence on social reference” the period had gotten something right. The insistence experiences a slight transformation on being naturalized to Allott. Even in his darker moments Auden has a buoyant glibness, whereas Allott seems to me authentically troubled. Putting them side by side, you can tell which poet is entitled and which isn’t. Consider “Men Walk Upright,” which, according to the critic Francis Scarfe, was probably inspired by Auden’s “Spain.” The poem is certainly Audenesque in its essayistic ambit, but it is difficult to picture Auden behind the sentiment of passages like this:

Who can bear this? Who can face without wincing
 The noseless in a mean alley, the fellowship
 Of the loud saloon, the housewife losing a sixpence
                     And hopelessly crying?

This reads like an excerpt from a nightmare version of “As I Walked Out One Evening.” The syntax and cadence are Auden’s; the feeling is not. A “Letter to Lord Byron” by Allott is unimaginable, and we are in the hands of someone liable to think three times before writing “the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.”

If there is anything unassimilated in early Allott, it is Yeats:

Angel of any fire,
Warm my slow worm of blood
So that I may forget to brood,
Walking the waves of the future as on air
With fair and foul and furious understood.

(“Any Point on the Circumference”)

Unsure about the particulars of impending doom, Allott is obliged to talk about it in general and symbolic terms like these. Presentiment might come out as “And he who looks behind / Sees the dead wolf pad from his shadow of pine.” This universalizing tendency does a great deal to rescue his poetry from period curiosity. You could call the idiom a euphemism of the imagination, where one is not so gauche as to declare outright that Hitler is about to invade Poland. But topicality is sometimes not far from the surface:

I hear the thunder break on the floor of China
Its senile anger and archaic woe;
I hear the ape deafen the peninsula
Because his hands will not invent the plough

(“Historical Grimace”)

This may refer to the outbreak of war in China in the summer of 1937. The ape: atavistic man; the peninsula: a geographic dead end, suggesting a political one; the plough: as opposed to the sword, which man does invent, continually. Clock and statue imagery are thick (Allott has more clocks than Dalí), supported and textured by a high degree of metaphorical ingenuity: “Everything going on between morning and evening / Is crumpled by the wrinkling hand of Greenwich.” As Fuller points out, the impending doom is felt fully enough that the motifs tend to gain in depth and meaning with repetition. The fact that Allott is truly scared frustrates the stoicism toward which he is pushing himself, and that failure is a propellant of the poems in which his preoccupations reappear.

A further irony of the drawn-out apprehension is that it silhouettes a dream of the good, even of radical innocence. Fuller remarks that “such acute consciousness of disaster in a poet implies an equally deep-felt wish for human happiness and indeed of final hope.” In “Men Walk Upright,” Allott writes:

Is this the end? The distant stars are ironic
 To see so much self-torture. I am like you.
 The blackbirds sing and I see no end of agony,
            The pink and white blossom
 Spangles the chestnuts, the theatres pour into the streets
 The unimaginative. And the earth renews
 In Europe its solar gaiety, and the earth moves on
            To no destination.

The eschatological décor consists of singing birds, flowering trees, theater, and gaiety (though in his reference to “the unimaginative” there is a dose of Allott’s presumptuousness). Nature offers partial asylum, but the rest is imperfect there, nature having no mirror to hold up to his distress. It is as empty a diversion as the show in the theater. The poet and possibly Europe have an end, and if there is to be an escape, it must be into endlessness. Allott is often squeezed in this direction, having no concrete sponsor for his hope and no particular faith in the past, let alone the future. The poems never end on human moments, like watching a mother play with her kid in a park. The force of his worry, as funneled through his universalizing and isolation, can only be dissipated by dissolution in the sublime. Often these are celestial or oceanic panoramas:

The sea shall have our heirs,
And the nebulae climbing nowhere in the dark
Know that this rural world is dead like Greek.


                                                       . . . letting the eye
Turned inwards on yourself lose power to image,
But hopeless now slip down into the sea
And melt into its vistas endlessly.


Poems doesn’t close on a note like these but rather ends as it begins, in a questioning, what-shall-we-do despair, “Under the zeppelin shade of catastrophe.” In a way it is a wonder there was anything left for a second book when the catastrophe actually arrived. Allott, who had long held pacifist convictions (and became a conscientious objector during the war), might easily have been paralyzed as events ground into motion. The Ventriloquist’s Doll does have the feel of a last stand. The book’s title seems to be a sly, despairing comment on the role of the author, and the epigraph from Goethe, “Hier oder nirgend ist Amerika” (“Here or nowhere is America”), has Allott planting a flag in his own here and now to maintain a counterfactual sense of possibility as long as he can. There is a bit more about sex, children, and, indirectly, other people. Domestic situations are more caringly seen and felt: “Out of one bed even indifferences grow / Root-knotted into dependency like Wales.” The writing mellows slightly, and in poems like “Morning and Evening,” “Christmas after Munich,” and “City Nocturne” Allott sees particularity in a way he hasn’t before. A preservative impulse, a tenderness toward his own memories and blessings, asserts itself, with a quiet defiance. In “The Children,” one of the five poems written before September 1939, the poet (with an educator’s insight) marvels that the conveyer belt on which the young are being prepared is, incredibly, still in motion:

It is the sun ripens: heads bent over copybooks,
And the scratch of steel pens clutched and wielded inexpertly
Lights the barbed wire between desire and performance,
Even when desire is stunted like the Arctic willow
And money and power and the fatal gifts of appearance
Whisper of the scope and freedom of the lavish sea.
Children stare through a metaphorical distance
Which conceals the psychotic, the cripple, and the refugee.

Vulgar ambitions continue to take form in the world, as if it were not ending. And although Allott has been gripped by morbid visions of war for years, he doesn’t now close that metaphorical distance for us. As he won’t allow himself to report on events he hasn’t seen, there are no troops getting dive-bombed at Dunkirk, no roads jammed with refugees. Instead, there is a mild firsthand hodgepodge of furloughed soldiers, sirens, and aerial bombings. An almost relieved optimism is now possible (“Tomorrow or a day after tomorrow / Do what you will and when, love whom you please”). Though this optimism is not attended by a belief in any increase in humanity’s fund of prudence or political wisdom, Allott’s dream of innocence has been brought to the fore by the actuality of conflict. In “Blackout,” love, like childhood, carries on:

The searchlights prying on the loves of clouds
Like constables, the guns waiting to hiccough,
The tea-drinking basements waiting for the All-Clear.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Starlight, lovers under ivy wall, I saw,
Whispering, it might be so, Io t’amo,
Ich liebe dich, as well as I love you.
The mind rocks softly on its pedestal
Like dusty chalk-eyed Roman emperor.

This reverie of the moral imagination allows Allott to see, so to speak, behind enemy lines, where the couples’ secret sharers are just as intent and surreptitious before the constables of war. The intelligence gathered comes at the cost of making him seem mentally imperious and outlandish: brittle, unfleshly, lacking commonality, not of his own time, and fit to be cordoned off. It is too much perspective.

Allott nevertheless finds his charity gently defeating his disgust. In “City Nocturne” he offers his fellow citizens a prayer for narcosis rather than good fortune:

Now I would beg for three hundred thousand people,*

Dreams that will not impinge on the day’s contumely,
But jack up worry on a poppy stem, or that sleep will
Drown all five senses in non-identity.

Here and in “Ragnarok” there is a chime struck on the modern insight that the city, where once we gathered for protection, is in this new circumstance an enhanced killing opportunity. Allott’s movement toward other people is more convincing for its feebleness, and neither the wish nor the modesty of it would have been possible in Poems. The pressure in the boiler is now lower, and although certain effects suffer for it, humility is possible. “Out of the Dream,” Allott’s last collected poem, ends on a note of centripetal self-admonishment:

Never forget that you are one of the natives.
Life is a New York reception for a world-flier,
The shreds of telephone directories spinning in the air;
The unstemmable brouhaha of the club bore,
The thousand-voiced partisan football roar.
The ivory tower is mined. Come down while you can.
If you cannot enjoy it, pretend to enjoy it then.
Groan Ephphatha—be thou opened, rinse out each ear,
Keen as a convalescent to know how things are.
No more to glide through transparencies of mind,
Facing up to windy corners, the clinker and sour fruit-rind;
Outlawing the umbilical wisdom and the lightning flash
Humble at last in the ways of world and flesh.

“Ephphatha” (“Be opened”) is Jesus’ command to the deaf man healed in Mark 7 (Allott twice in his criticism compares artistic isolation to deafness). The couplets here lock just enough to bring home the conclusion, and one can see Allott’s enthusiasm for Wilfred Owen’s pararhyme at work (perhaps by this point he had also begun his study of Browning). The image of telephone book shreds tumbling in the air, simultaneously a celebration and a vulgar, illegible litany of the dead, is virtuosic. The poem does not seem to represent the exhaustion of a gift, but Allott has gotten to a certain stopping point in working against his isolation. Considered on this axis, his body of work makes a satisfying shape. By analogy with Freud’s “normal unhappiness,” you might say he has worked his way back to the citizen’s normal alienation.

First published in 1975, two years after his death, Allott’s Collected Poems was recently reissued, with a new introduction and notes by Michael Murphy. The new edition prints the poems one to a page, bless it, and corrects some typos. It also has eighteen uncollected poems not found in the first edition. Half of these are surprisingly polished juvenilia. There are poems about girls, and society poems of the “Portrait d’une femme” variety. Eliot and Yeats are more of a presence than Auden. Allott’s withdrawal from polite society, which I would have thought was a young man’s, must have occurred later, when he became a political being and the problems of the Thirties ousted the drawing-room element from his work or caused it to embarrass him. He shows doubts about art’s capabilities from the beginning—his was not a dawning realization of impotence—and whatever happened had happened by university: “Among coughing howitzers and grunting tractors / I tinkle a modest teaspoon in a cup” (he might be visiting a Stalinist fertility clinic). His background clearly rankled (“You have no publisher uncle to slip them a fiver”). One can see phrase collection going on—the “loser of sixpence,” who first appears in “Invocation,” turns up later in “Men Walk Upright.”

The other nine poems date from the postwar period, and in these we see Allott’s phrasal power rearing up recognizably. He was still in the game, to the extent of publishing internationally: “Cheshire Cat” appeared in Poetry in 1947. There is a chastened vulnerability newly in evidence, as though “Out of the Dream” were being taken seriously. You would not say, though, that there is the seed of a third collection. Of two recent discoveries, one, penciled in Allott’s copy of Donne, appears to be anti-Semitic (“Hebraic hands eclipse the light / the seconds golden sovereigns fluttering drop”), though I am not sure of its subject; it is apparently about industrialization, which Allott didn’t like, and cigarettes, which he did.

Counting generously (some are undated), Allott wrote eighteen poems after 1943. His tapering off has puzzled observers, and elicited some sympathy—Fuller remarks that “The premature termination of such a talent must have caused anguish to its possessor.” It was Scarfe’s impression that the breakup of Allott’s first marriage damaged him, and the war was of course in various senses an impediment. But this begs the question of why reinvention was so difficult. In a 1980 lecture, Davie, confronting the question of why Allott virtually stopped writing poetry, argues that he willed his own silence when his style drifted into an imitative Forties neo-Romanticism—a drift to which he was vulnerable, given his habit (still visible in his later poems) of letting association of sound do his thinking for him. Rather than make a show of normalizing his position, he stopped. On the ground this process happened over years, the accumulation of a hundred small decisions whose long-term consequences were never immediately clear. Davie hypothesizes that “on many occasions through his later years, when an idea for a poem came to him, he responded by saying in effect, ‘Oh, not that sort of thing again!’ or else, ‘For God’s sake, who do I think I am? George Barker?’” He may well have felt some measure of self-disgust at following Barker or Dylan Thomas—“When neo-romanticism [sic] goes bad,” he writes, “it dissolves into a nasty pool of feeling in which swim faint, evocative fishes”—but the question is whether he was really so exasperated with his later style that he gagged himself, or whether there wasn’t some deeper problem he couldn’t solve, with that style or any other.

To my knowledge, no one has approached the question of Allott’s diminished poetic output through the other things he wrote and continued to write. It seems to have escaped most commentators that Allott didn’t experience a general system shutdown. Lachlan MacKinnon speculates that “poetry simply wasn’t important enough to him,” but the remark doesn’t survive five minutes with Allott’s prose about poetry. Allott began writing critical prose in his New Verse days, but his mature voice only emerged in his Jules Verne biography, published in 1940. This voice carries through his introductions to Habington and Praed and the two Penguin anthologies, and deepens in his later works on Browning, Arnold, and Graham Greene (the last co-written with his second wife, Miriam Farris). The essay “Victorian Poetry and the Legacy of Romanticism,” which Farris assembled posthumously from his lecture notes, is quite possibly his strongest. Allott the mature critic is a treat, with fine powers of summation (Arnold is “an unfinished Leopardi comfortless in the Victorian Canaan”) and a deep feel for the limitations that a given historical moment places on a writer. One is tempted to apply Saint-Beuve’s aperçu that a critical vocation is often concealed in youth by poetry.

When Allott’s attention looked backwards it skipped most naturally to the Victorians and their European contemporaries, who scrambled to make sense of a time moving with a velocity similar to that of his own (Tennyson: “Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay”), and who were anxious to reassess the position of the poetic imagination in the new dispensation of progress, just as Allott’s cohort was unsettled by the Anschluss and the Spanish Civil War. This affinity, which was to manifest itself most profoundly in his work on Matthew Arnold, first materialized in his Verne biography.

Until it gets bogged down in plot summaries, and Verne’s life itself spills out onto the plains of being an Amiens burgher, Jules Verne is an extraordinary book, a synopsis of the run-up to modernism in which the complex of forces shaping a certain ascendant type of nineteenth-century European mind is analyzed with considerable clarity. Allott calls this complex “the positivist-romantic mythology,” and Verne, as a techno-dreamer susceptible to big ideas, transforms quickly from an eccentric choice of subject into a plausible Continental bellwether. Here is Allott’s tableau of the 1850s, Verne’s formative period:

In 1854 the Crimean War began and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed. It received a tremendous impetus to popularity in 1858 when the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes saw a vision of the Virgin, who declared that she was the Immaculate Conception in the dialect of the Hautes-Pyrenées. Zola was still at school with Cézanne. The Fox sisters knocked with the joints of their big toes in Boston and the Emperor’s court conversed with spirits by means of planchette. Pasteur was professor at Strasbourg and Darwin was still accumulating and arranging evidence in support of his theory of natural selection. Africa was drawing the explorers as a magnet draws iron filings. Duplex telegraphy, an improvement of Morse’s invention of 1835, was on the market; and Edison, whose favourite reading as a boy was Scott, Hugo and the Penny Encyclopedia, was seven years old.

In this swirl of positivist hyperconfidence and religious mania, Allott discerns, surprisingly, the surge of Romanticism. Modernity’s technicians, like Edison, are standing on a rainbow. The young Verne wrote to himself, “O my imagination, my imagination, neither a Crampton locomotive, nor an electric spark, nor a tropical cyclone can keep pace with you.” On an early trip to Britain the father of science fiction thrilled equally to the sight of the Great Eastern in the Thames shipyards and the Wordsworthian charms of Scotland:

Beaux lacs aux ondes dormantes
       Gardez à jamais
Vos légendes charmantes,
      Beaux lacs écossais.

A casual observer of the period would draw a line between progress and reaction, or what Auden calls the Railway Mania and the Gothic Revival. On one side, industrialists and Herbert Spencer types; on the other, sighing poets and panicking clergymen. But Allott’s point is that this line is bogus. Not only is there something like a “romantic technician,” Verne is a full-voiced champion (and exemplar) of the type. (Whitman is another—Verne comes across as a sort of hack French Whitman.) On this view, Romanticism isn’t a remora clinging to modernity, nor precisely its antagonist, but rather its sometime partner and ideological cover, expressing itself in wishful projects like Esperanto. Railway Mania’s stations are built, so to speak, in the Gothic Revival style. Verne’s most famous hero, Captain Nemo (“no one”), is an Indian fleeing the Mutiny with a bounty on his head: The wizard engineer of the Nautilus, tamer of the genie electricity, waxes poetic about the sea and daydreams through organ solos. His boat makes room for a twelve-thousand-volume library and an art gallery (Leonardo, Titian, Holbein, Velázquez, and Raphael) in its Second Empire interiors.

Nemo appears by name as the ventriloquist in “The Ventriloquist’s Doll,” and Allott surely means something by it (Murphy can’t find any record of an act by this name), if only to deprecate as “no one” the source of the dummy’s voice. Nemo’s act travels around with C-list vaudevillians, playing at local football games and hospitals presumably full of recuperating wounded. Bleak apostrophes punctuate their travels: “O crutches of a provincial capital,” “O rheumatism of Sunday stopping-trains.” The dummy, as a degraded music-hall oracle (“O Eleusinian wooden talking head”), stands in for the poet, occupying a privileged perch beyond conventional accountability. He is a harlequin granted freedom of speech with assurance of immunity (like Calchas in the Iliad), at the cost of social isolation and deafness. (In “Feast of Saint Swithin” Allott refers to himself as “A bow-legged jockey with a foul mouth,” there too a voice along for the ride.) The poem is allegorically strange, with an endpoint in pathos rather than desolation, still less the dissolution seen in Poems. This seems to me a significant step, the dissociated Allott finding a congenial host in the pseudo-automaton.

Jules Verne is able to show Nemo and his creator achieving some synthesis of the era’s forces. The apparent contradictions in Verne—glorifier of science and moderate anti-Darwinist, booster for exploration and technology and sometime sympathizer with their victims, enthusiastic colonialist and then not—are presented as the turbulence of a vigorous rise to the occasion of modernity, rather than as signs of confusion. In subsequent writing, Allott grew to see the Romantic poets as anti-Vernes, who resisted the synthesis, and the Victorian poets as failed Vernes, who ran into difficulty trying to ally (and alloy) themselves with positivism as Verne had. The Romantics, on his view, were successful at the cost of a certain psychological retreat; the Victorians (though he makes fascinating note of some uncelebrated successes) were by and large routed.

As for why poetry is on the defensive where science fiction is not, one has to consider its properties as a medium. John Crowe Ransom disarmingly argues that there is a sense in which any poem is implicitly aligned against rationalism (and rationalism against the poem), because by definition a poem does not take place in prose: In the matter of getting its paraphrase across, any poem can be made more “efficient” by turning it into something that is not a poem. Poetry is therefore intrinsically superfluous, and particularly vulnerable in periods and discourses that prize economy. Allott sees this existential threat as having first reached panic levels among the Romantics, and he reads Keats to understand that keeping one’s poetry alive means to some extent living moment to moment and, as Allott puts it in an essay on “The Ode to Psyche,” “preventing the withering of instinctive enjoyment by reflection.” In Lamia Keats identifies this generalized capacity for reflection with “cold philosophy,” that is, science. If poetry’s value is nonnegotiable, what are the poet’s options? According to Allott,

Keats could not doubt that the poetic experience was valuable, or fail to suppose that in forgetting Pan men had lost something which they would not find in the Transactions of the Royal Society . . . He felt that currents of thought, among the most reputable and influential of his age, were inimical to the kind of poetry that he was writing and perhaps to all poetry; and that he needed to develop his resistance to their influence, and to the influence of the reflective traitor within himself, if he was to remain wholehearted.

The continued creation of poetry depends on the play of qualities essential to it, qualities that must be asserted with calculated irrationality if positivism is to be countered. In Allott’s view, the Victorian poets had run into this ontological problem (as Ransom calls it), but had not understood it, and it had damaged them in consequence. Browning essentially stopped developing by thirty. “Half a lifetime was to add hugely to his experience,” Allott writes in the introduction to his selected Browning, “but surprisingly little to the variety of ways in which he was able to respond to it.”

Arnold, meanwhile, wrote most of his poetry before thirty-five, and almost all of his criticism after. In a late essay on Arnold, Allott and Farris write that

when he mastered the discontent of ‘the mobile, straining, passionate, poetic temperament’ in the interests of ‘morality and character’ (though the mastery was never to be complete) the poetry slowed to a trickle and then disappeared. Arnold himself uses this image to illustrate the course of individual poetic development in the late lyric ‘The Progress of Poesy’: the youth strikes the rock and water gushes forth; the man ‘mature with labour’ cuts a channel for ‘the bright stream’, but the channel is now completely dry. The lyric has a clear autobiographical point even if it was intended to have a wider application and to be emblematic of the fate of the Romantic poet. To translate, there is a time when inspiration flows freely, but the poet may be unable to take full advantage of it because he is still technically immature; there is a time when inspiration is dead and the poet has enough self-knowledge not to be deceived by the mere wish to create. Between times there is an indefinite interim during which technical mastery serves a fitful and always declining inspiration.

Set forth here is the uncomfortable thought that poetry is something one produces only when half-baked. Arnold composed “Thyrsis” at the tail end of his decline, and, as Allott notes, “he reached his fullest command of expressive power when his creative impulse was already failing.” T. S. Eliot praises the Arnold of this later phase as a man “qui sait se conduire” (“who knows how to behave himself”), but this hadn’t always been the case. Saint-Beuve remembered a young Francophile “un peu romantique égaré là-bas . . . Depuis il sest marié, sest réglé” (“a little lost romantic . . . Since he got married, he straightened out”). Arnold was both pushed and pulled in the matter of this straightening: pulled by a desire to marry and to participate vocally in his times (as Verne did), pushed by the difficulties of composition, which involved such loneliness and disquiet and even internal violence (“an actual tearing of oneself to pieces, which one does not readily consent to”) as to seem taking the side of death against himself. His notebooks are full of the repeatedly scored phrase “les saines habitudes de la maturité” (“the healthy habits of maturity”). Choosing to live by these habits, he attained stability, moral authority, and a pulpit; the price was his poetry. As Auden puts it, he “thrust his gift in prison till it died.”

Though this pressure on poets to be relevant and modern was widely deleterious, it had different effects on different Victorians. Browning, for his part, fragmented and broke down into a poetic automaton; Allott speculates that “there was perhaps for Browning nothing but a congeries of heterogeneous impulses all laying equal claim to his allegiance . . . Even in private to himself Browning may have lacked a recognizable and stable identity.” (Even the upright Arnold wrote to his sister, “I am fragments.”) This mass of impulses could be turned to portraiture, dramatization, and human particularity, but nothing like grappling with the ideas and problems of one’s era. “Browning’s dismaying failures,” Allott ventures, “are precisely those pieces in which he attempts in defiance of his real limitations to disentangle values and clarify ideas.” In yet another response, the poet retreats from the cruel world into an internal castle and pulls up the drawbridge. From this strain of Victorianism one gets Rossetti’s medievalism, early Yeats’s Ireland, and William Morris’ Iceland. The imagination has a tourniquet around it, which saves it from bleeding to death but eventually cuts off the circulation:

Folk say, a wizard to a northern king
At Christmas-tide such wondrous things did show,
That through one window men beheld the spring,
And through another saw the summer glow,
And through a third the fruited vines a-row

This was written by Morris, a politically committed socialist who once unhorsed a policeman in a demonstration. The two halves of the man, the worldly and the frivolous, apparently exist on two sides of an internal block. Absent such a block, the poetry of the period appears to attenuate or die.

To Allott, therefore, “the Victorians were in a cleft stick”:

1. If, like Tennyson or Arnold, they tried to deal with their age in poetry, their poetry was muddied: they continued to write delightful and imperfect poetry like Tennyson or they fell silent like Arnold.

2. If, like Rossetti and Morris, they repudiated their age, then they saved their poetry from social dilution, but this poetry became increasingly remote from life.

Only Yeats (who remains the fascinating case of artistic development) escaped the trap. The similarities between the Victorians and the poets of the Thirties, and particularly between Arnold and Allott, are rough but clear. For Allott, the price of keeping his Ariel alive in Poems is practical impotence and the stanching of the trickle of charity. By The Ventriloquist’s Doll, the pull of the tribe strengthens to the point of making the price too high. The intensities of private vision have to be abandoned. And so Allott’s self-muting reflects less an aesthetic disgust with contemporary styles than a development of the poet’s social being—maturation, in a word—to the point where neo-Romanticism (the Rosetti-Morris solution of its time) was particularly untenable, and very possibly no other -ism could have helped.

Allott came late to the remarkable formulation of the cleft stick, in “Victorian Poetry and the Legacy of Romanticism,” and part of the reason I see his career as having a happy ending has to do with the critical perspective he attained. (I certainly wouldn’t trade his body of prose for another book of poems.) Always acutely conscious of having been keyed to a particular historical circumstance, he was, up to the end, thinking about literary output. From the same essay:

It is what a man makes of his talent—or, to speak more exactly, what he is allowed to make of his talent by his age—which determines the quality, and even to some extent the quantity, of the poetry he writes. This is a truism. It must matter whether the temper of the age is friendly or hostile towards the life of the imagination.

One’s organism is in its songbird phase, and then it isn’t. After that problems arise, which one may or may not be able to solve. Allott could have chosen a darker path and become a poète maudit like Baudelaire, self-sufficient and contemptuous before “the temper of the age,” but I think he was too good, the trickle of charity in him ultimately not stoppable and the ethic of social reference impossible to jettison.

Allott’s long twilight entailed more distress than I care to contemplate. In the last poem in the 1975 Collected Poems, “Words are not subtle enough to say how it is . . . ,” it has been raining all night,

And the clodhopper sun surprises
Grief who might always have been there and probably was
—how at home he is all at once taking your case.

So hard to tell how it seems
(And you so cross-patch and feeble)
Your eyes red-rimmed and the air stale,
How he does not bother at all
Sparing no time and no trouble
Who is really too easy to please
Wanting no entertainment.
See with what discernment
He gets down too, sweet Christ, when he gets you down on your knees.

The appearance of Christ is a surprise, and the more conspicuous for occurring where it does, in the last line of the Collected Poems. Davie cleverly reads this as an appositional phrase (that is, Grief personified is like Christ, with you in your grief) as opposed to a vocative or expletive. Yet even construed this way it seems to have a different character than most of Allott’s religious language, which is conventionally literary. It makes for an enigmatic coda. In Murphy’s edition, the last lines of the poem read:

See with what discernment
                             Sweet Christ,
 He gets down too, when he gets you down on your knees.

Murphy states that the 1975 version resulted from an egregious mistranscription, and if he’s correct we have to dismiss Davie’s reading. I would also qualify Davie’s insistence that we cannot unlapse Allott’s Catholicism on the strength of one line, as Allott never completely closed off Catholicism in his work as he did in his life. Religious matter in the poems usually has a faintly positive aura (“the angels and the draped funereal urns / Are adding a tipsy relish to the past and present”), though its reality, as opposed to its decorative effect, tends to be ironized, demoted, or excused. Still, in “Gnomic Verses” we find “better crossing yourself than a sinking heart.” The Incarnation, in “Out of the Dream,” provides a model for social engagement. Mount Ararat appears multiple times. In The Art of Graham Greene, Allott is sympathetic to Greene’s Catholicism and understands it to sponsor his conception of evil. Allott also remembers somewhat ruefully the reception of religious artists in the Thirties, then considered “reactionary if not neurotic.” Eliot, he remembers, had received a certain generational scolding as he moved from The Waste Land to “Ash-Wednesday” to Four Quartets.

Murphy ends on his own enigma, “He could not sleep . . . ,” one of the two recently discovered poems:

You thought it enough to love, that love went on
Was endlessly [     ] when once won
Not to be won each moment. You were wrong.

The blank, Farris notes, is a “word of 2 syllables not yet deciphered.” “Present,” perhaps, or “captive”?

Allott’s poems should be period pieces, but they have an irreducible strangeness to them. (His description of Verne’s stories as “sturdy and slightly unusual vegetables like Jerusalem artichokes or sea kale” might be applied to his own poems.) He is all-in and doesn’t plod. His poems have an audacious world-building quality that validates Camus’ observation that “the great feelings bring their universe with them.” Eliot speaks of the historical sense required to make it past twenty-five as a poet; Allott possessed this sense to the nth degree, but this sense is a necessary and not sufficient condition for longevity. He lived in interesting times, for which his line “Only one monster has to love his error” might serve as the epilogue. Oddly, his development, in recapitulating a Victorian pattern, finally has a great deal to do with modernity and little to do with modernism. His charity ultimately estranged him from his art, but I savor a certain victory in its becoming, though not as wide as the Ganges, at least a burbling stream:

But common still in the commonwealth of pain
Always to continue to wish them all well
And not fall sick too often of honour or duty,
But come back for punishment simply again and again;
Not rise to despise, and so to despair
Even of earth and air, but to regard and prize
Who comes to torture or who comes to care.

This kind of self-admonition, which comes to too many poets too easily or not at all, is endearingly humane. One feels in it the finest strain of Allott the poet, even as he is fading. Murphy (who died in 2009) has done well by Allott the poet, but the poems only fully acquire moment in light of Allott’s second act as a scholar and critic. If Allott’s older self one day receives corresponding attention, the Collected Poems is bound to ripen further.

Comments are closed.


Publisher & Editor: Herbert LEIBOWITZ
Co-Editor: Ben DOWNING
Associate Editors:
Assistant Editors:
Design and Art Direction: Alyssa VARNER
Printer: Cadmus Press

Contact Us

205 W. 89th St. #8F
New York, NY 10024