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The poetry of Laurie Lee is not as well-known as it should be, unless Cider With Rosie counts as a poem, which at a stretch it might. His first volume of poetry, The Sun My Monument, was published in 1944, fifteen years before the book that made him famous. Until then, with The Bloom of Candles in 1947 and My Many-coated Man in 1955, he was first and foremost a poet.
He made it into Robin Skelton’s anthology, Poetry of the Forties (Penguin, 1968), but Philip Larkin left him out of his Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse (OUP, 1973) and there is nothing of his in The New Penguin Book of English Verse (2000, ed. Paul Keegan). By then he was known as the author of one book, a best-seller about growing up in the English countryside. His publisher wanted sequels and he obliged. Everyone forgot he was a poet. Even he forgot he was a poet. There were no more volumes of poetry after Cider With Rosie and we are still waiting for a Collected Poems to appear.
He was born a hundred years ago this year. An opportunity to re-discover and celebrate his poetry. So what kind of poems did he write?
The short, tautologous answer is that his poems are poetic. They are what most people expect poems to look and sound like. Most of them consist of five or six four-line verses. A verse is usually a sentence. The words are words that everybody knows. There is usually a rhyming scheme. The first verse of Milkmaid will serve as an example.
The girl’s faint treble, muted to the heat,
calls like a fainting bird across the fields
to where her flock lies panting for her voice,
their black horns buried deep in marigolds.
A somewhat longer answer is that his poems are subtle, sensual and musical. A second reading reveals half rhymes, internal rhymes, repetition and the assonance of long vowels. Faint, fainting, panting. Muted, heat. Calls, fields. Lies, voice. The end-of-line half-rhyme on the second and fourth lines is (like the girl’s faint treble) faintly heard: across the fields, marigolds. Each line is dense with stressed syllables, the verse cannot be read quickly. Five stresses in the first line, four in the second, three in the third, five in the last. The densely packed words evoke sensations of sound, movement and heat.
A more complete answer would need all four verses, but the last will suffice to bring out another important quality.
Look, what a cloudy cream the earth gives out,
fat juice of buttercups and meadow-rye;
the girl dreams milk within her body’s field
and hears, far off, her muted children cry.
‘Muted children’ recalls, if you have been listening carefully, the singing of the milkmaid with which the poem began, ‘muted in the heat’. In spite of her song, the girl is mute. Nourishment is milk and grass, grass that makes milk, milk which is, in the third verse, ‘the brimming harvest of their day’. The circularity of the poem, surrounding the physical event of milking which is at its heart, is what the poem is about. All nature cares about is life and keeping it going from one day to the next, the milkmaid’s body to her (muted) children as fields are to the cows.
Nature in many of the poems is seen, Hardy-like, as both greater and less than humanity. We are part of it and outside it. Its indifference to war is the subject of this short poem, the last line of which is deeply ambiguous.
The evening, the heather,
the unsecretive cuckoo
and butterflies in their disorder,
not a word of war as we lie
our mouths in a hot nest
and the flowers advancing.
Does a hill defend itself,
does a river run to earth
to hide its quaint neutrality?
A boy is shot with England in his brain,
but she lies brazen yet beneath the sun,
she has no honour and she has no fear.
There is in this poem something of the structure of a sonnet, not in the verse form but in the way the idea is developed through the poem and resolved in the last two lines. It is a quality we find in other poems too, some of which are not unlike those of Donne, Marvell and Herbert. The Long War is written in a style which could well be called Metaphysical.
Less passionate the long war throws
its burning thorn about all men,
caught in one grief, we share one wound,
and cry one dialect of pain.
Compare that to these lines from Marvell’s The Garden.
Meanwhile the Mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find.
Compare these lines from George Herbert’s The Answer to the lines that follow from Laurie Lee’s The Easter Green.
My comforts drop and melt away like snow:
I shake my head, and all the thoughts and ends,
Which my fierce youth did bandie, fall and flow
Like leaves about me, or like summer friends…
I, from the well new-drawn,
With root and flower am crowned –
Drowsed, but not drowned.
The Easter-father blesses with a lamb;
The son is not disowned.
Cider With Rosie has made Laurie Lee in most people’s minds a poet of nostalgia, a poet who writes in prose about growing up in a rural England that no longer exists. Opening a book of his poems, they would expect to read something like Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. What they would find instead would be this from Music in a Spanish Town.
In the street I take my stand
with my fiddle like a gun against my shoulder,
and the hot strings under my trigger hand
shooting an old dance at the evening walls.
Or this from At Night.
I think at night my hands are mad,
for they follow the irritant texture of darkness
continually carving the sad leaf of your mouth
in the thick black bark of sleep.
I know few poets whose poems are of such consistently high quality. I look forward to the Collected Poems. I hope his centenary year includes more than a dramatisation of Cider With Rosie on the radio. I hope he gets as much attention as Dylan Thomas. But I’m prepared to be disappointed.
My next essay, due on 5 February, will be about Ben Jonson.
Next week’s entry in my Reader’s Diary, due on 29 January, will as usual be about whatever I’ve been reading lately.
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