I’m reading around my next DPhil chapter, on Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, and thus there might well be a little spate of Warner related posts coming up here over the next few weeks. I have an inkling that this might be one of those reviews which is very specialist, and might not attract much interest (1930s narrative poem, anyone?) but I shall plough ahead and see what happens!
I read Opus 7 (1931) by Warner mostly as a counterpoint to Lolly Willowes, but it is also interesting on its own account. It’s a narrative poem, about fifty pages long, about Rebecca Random – an unsociable woman who lives in an idyllic cottage, ‘lives on bread and lives for gin’, and has an almost uncanny ability to grow flowers:
Some skill she had, and, more than skill, a touch
that prospered all she set, as though there were
a chemical affinity ‘twixt her
stuff and the stuff of plants.
And down what leagues of darkness must I yet
trudge, stumble, reel, in the wrought mind’s retreat ;
then wake, remember, doubt, and with the day
that work which in the darkness shone survey,
and find it neither better nor much worse
than any other twentieth-century verse.
Oh, must I needs be disillusioned, there’s
no need to wait for spring! Each day declares
yesterday’s currency a few dead leaves ;
and through all the sly nets poor technique weaves
the wind blows on, whilst I – new nets design,
a sister-soul to my slut heroine,
she to her dram enslaved, and I to mine.
I rarely read poetry, as you know, so perhaps I am not the best judge of quality. I recently wrote a little bit about Warner’s collection Time Importuned, which I didn’t really like or dislike. I felt I got a lot more out of Opus 7 – perhaps because it had a sustained narrative, and everything which comes along with that, particularly the foregrounding of character. Once I had that all set in my mind, I could sit back and enjoy Warner’s writing. It was occasionally a little forced, and I didn’t approve of all her attempts to create end-rhymes. This was rather inexcusable:
But now Rebecca, wont to chatter ding-
dong with the merriest, and when drunk to sing
But in general I found it rather beautiful – her use of metaphor is quite striking, for instance. This excerpt isn’t to do with Rebecca, but concerns the aftermath of village life after the first world war – looking back to the war with quite a chilling, effective image. Even with all the writing about the trenches which I have read (which we have all read, I imagine) this made an impact on me:
I knew a time when Europe feasted well :
bodies were munched in thousands, vintage blood
so blithely flowed that even the dull mud
grew greedy, and ate men ; and lest the gust
should flag, quick flesh no daintier taste than dust,
spirit was ransacked for whatever might
sharpen a sauce to drive on appetite.
I can’t imagine any publisher willing to publish Opus 7 now, simply because of its form and length. It’s not long enough to be considered a novel in verse, but it is obviously too long to be merely a poem. However I am glad that Chatto and Windus decided it was worth issuing back in 1931, in their lovely Dolphin Books series (which I collect when I stumble across them) – it’s not my favourite book by Warner, but it is rather powerful and striking. And, for a poetry ignoramus, rather an accessible way to enjoy the form, without forfeiting the qualities which make me primarily a lover of prose.