Poetry In The Works Of Elizabeth Goudge~
( A National Poetry Society Centenary Article)
In 2009 the National Poetry Society celebrated its centenary. So it seemed appropriate that the discussion I should lead at the Henley Convention should have been on the subject of the Poetry in Elizabeth’s work and the importance it had in her life. Firstly the importance of the poetry of place that she used, and then the way she used poetry to give depth to her characters. Finally I went on to talk about the anthologies she had compiled, Elizabeth’s own poetry and the poets she had known.
What is meant by the Poetry Of Place? This is an important concept for me as a Poet. In fact I can say that Elizabeth was one of the major influences on my wishing to write descriptive verse. The Poetry in her prose is evident, she is an extremely lyrical writer. Elizabeth herself attributed this to her time at Reading University, which she attended just after the 1st World War, and where she was taught the arts of painting and embroidery among others. In her auto-biography “The Joy Of The Snow” she says,
“I used my handicraft training for such a short while that from the point of view of earning a living it appeared sheer waste. Yet looking back I see what an excellent thing it was for a writer. It taught me to observe things in minute detail; the shape of a petal, the sheen on a bird’s wing. It taught me the balance of pattern. Above all it stimulated imagination. I think now that every writer should have a period of work at an Art School as part of his training.”
But her father Henry, was also responsible for her ability to really look at the world. Elizabeth while writing the forward to Henry’s book “Glorying In The Cross” remembers him becoming exasperated with her on a train journey they were taking, “If you don’t look out of the window at the scenery it is an insult to God who put it there for your pleasure.” he said. He loved birds and the sight of butterflies hovering above flowers, and the combination of the two became a metaphor for wonder and contentment in several of her books.
So to her, her places are more than stage settings, they are inspirational manifestations of God. She is almost Pantheistic in her love for the beauty of the natural world. There are trees, rocks, birds and of cause houses that have distinct personalities of their own. The tree above Weekaborough Farm in Gentian Hill where Zachary has his moment of revelation, rocks, such as where the Abbess and Marianne meet to place their footprints in the same place as the legendary sisters had done hundreds of years before them. Birds are always a symbol of the freedom from the mundane in her work, the spiritual rising of joy, and the Homes that she writes about so compellingly all have strong personalities which are to be trusted, nurtured and protected.
The opening of Elizabeth’s books are like Old Master paintings, a favourite metaphor of Elizabeth’s, filled with hidden messages and symbolism if we care to look. Instantly we are transported to the world the writer is making for us. It is a device which seems to be going out of fashion, as most modern novels want to plunge you straight into the thick of the action. The former seems a more gentle way, a gradual removal from the mundane world. We are lifted up out of ourselves rather than being bewildered as to where we are and what’s happening.
Elizabeth opens doors for us, doors onto another world, somewhere we would like to be. But unlike other contemporary writers such as C. Day Lewis’s Narnia or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, they exist. We don’t have to slip on a magic ring, or find an enchanted wardrobe, we can go there, today, now, it only takes a shift in our perception to get us there. Our own lives and surroundings are filled with magic and spiritual significance.
Poetry provided backbone for her characters, and here we come to the Eliot family, the most famous of the families that Elizabeth wrote about. She says of them in the introduction to The Eliots of Damerosehay the following:-
” Of my various book people the dearest are the Eliots. I am almost ashamed to confess how devoted I am to them all. The families in the other books I sometimes forget about for weeks together but the Eliots, especially Lucilla and Meg, are always there, and of cause much has happened to them that is not recorded in these pages. One must stop somewhere. Readers are very patient, but one can not expect them to be as deeply attached to one’s book people as one is oneself, and the compass of this book is more than enough about one family. But I may say that all has gone well with the Eliots since the birth of Christiana, and it is only occasionally that I find myself worrying about them. ”
How intriguing! Doesn’t it make you wish there had been a fourth? I’m not fond of other writers writing sequels to an authors work, as in Mrs De Winter/Rebecca’s Tide genre. They can never know what the original author intended and can never stand for me convincingly in their shoes. The Eliots live because Elizabeth gave them life, they were her surrogate family. She never married, had children. This she felt was denied her due to the 1st world war and the dearth of men after the carnage. But I really wonder if she would have married anyway. There was always the example of her heroine Jane Austen before her. She had chosen the single life so that she could devote herself to her writing career, and I think that Elizabeth too shared this slightly selfish writers streak.
But the point of this is that the Eliots were important characters to Elizabeth and she wanted us to know them warts and all. So when she wants to point out a weakness or give her character advise poetry is used to do so. When David struggles to come to terms with the fact that for the greater good of the family he must give up his chance of a relationship with Nadine, he turns to the poets to do so. Alone in his room and desperately trying to deny the truth of his situation he picks up the work of Humbert Wolfe.
Shall I not see that to live is to have relinquished
beauty to the sequestration of the dark,
and yet that the spirit of man, benighted, vanquished,
has folded wings, and shall use them as the lark
into the sun beyond the cold clouds flinging
her desperate hope, not reaching where she has striven
but soaring forever beyond herself, and singing
high above earth as she is low in heaven?
Shall I not confess that mine own evil humour
and not man’s failure forged this black despair,
and, while I wept, high up the golden rumour
of the lark ascending fringed the quiet air?
From the Uncelestial City.
This is powerful stuff. David seeking solace, probably sympathy has come up against abrasive advice. He is a proud man, regarding himself as honourable and upright. Yet he has been spoilt by an indulgent Grandmother, and shielded so far from life’s hard knocks by his good looks and charm. He is a successful actor, used to having his way, and the thought of having to relinquished beauty to the sequestration of the dark ,is unthinkable and frightening. But he comes to realise that throughout life we are continuously relinquishing; our, looks, youth, health, work, children, friends and loved ones. And that if we can see this as relinquishing, a graceful surrender to the inevitable, how much better than seeing it as a tearing away of and continual loss.
Humbert helps him to see that aspiration and the love for life go on, even at a time when we would almost rather they didn’t, so painful is it to think about living without that person. David wants to be part of the tradition of Damerosehay, and like all those members of the spiritual family of the house has to sacrifice something precious for the greater good of the family. In the case of Captain Christopher Martin is it reason itself. Over coming this will he believes be not only right for the Eliot family, but good and right for himself, David. the man.
Although Nadine agrees with David and goes back to George it isn’t really until half way through the next book,” Herb of Grace” that she has her epiphany.
On a night of storm when she can’t sleep, goes to the art studio set up in the house for John Adair the famous artist staying there, and tries to work out why she can’t quite let David go. Although she has returned to George and had twins, the thought that if it doesn’t work out and it all gets unbearable she can always go back to David has been at the back of her mind. She now realizes that this is an impossible situation, and the thought that David might be a reluctant escape route and is unable to move on himself, only out of pity for her, galls and annoys her. She wants to be in charge of the situation and realizes that she is not. She is more reliant on the thought of David than he is on her. She picks a book up off the floor , and sees a jay’s feather marking a page. She reads the lyric.
Should thy love die;
O bury it not under ice-blue eyes!
And lips that deny,
With a scornful surprise,
The life it once lived in thy breast when it wore no disguise.
Should thy love die;
O bury it where the sweet wild flowers blow!
And breezes go by,
With no whisper of woe;
And strange feet cannot guess of the anguish that slumbers below.
Should thy love die;
O wander once more to the haunt of the bee!
Where the foliaged sky
Is most sacred to see,
And thy being first felt its wild birth like a wind-wakened tree.
Should thy love die,
O dissemble it ! Smile ! let the rose hide the thorn!
While the lark sings on high,
And no thing looks forlorn,
Bury it, bury it, bury it where it was born.
Again, not the advice she had wished to hear, as it so seldom is. But she comes to realize that David does want to move on, be free to find his wife. She realizes to her shame how selfish she is being, and that love for a middle aged woman is just plain silly out of wedlock. She has only been chasing her lost youth. What she has in children and husband is all she ever wants to have. They in the sum of their parts are worth more than the whole of David to her. But it takes a Poet to show her.
My last example is taken from Scent Of Water. It concerns cousin Mary and her meeting with the queer old man, a Vicar that her mother feels obliged to invite to tea. He is an embarrassment to her Mother and Mary is asked to show him the garden to get him out of the way. During the course of their viewing, Mary ends up pouring her heart out to him, telling him things about her mental illness that she has never revealed to another before. She tells him how afraid she is and wonders why God lets her suffer like this, she has not done anything so very wrong. He asks her why she is afraid of losing her reason if she loses it into the hands of God, and he gives her three short simple lines of Prayer to recite daily.
Lord Have Mercy
Into Thy Hands
I thee Adore.
These lines written by the poet and mystic Thomas Traherne, Elizabeth used as a prayer all her life. They were printed on her memorial card, issued for the service, which was held in the church of All Saints Peppard Common which Elizabeth attended. They became her mantra, the kernel of the belief she lived by all her life. As well as helping Mary, they helped Elizabeth through her dark days too.
Mary is one of my favourite Characters in Elizabeth’s work, her struggle to live a normal and fruitful life in the face of such adversity and disappointment are a source of inspiration to me. Whenever I feel hard done by, or as if I want “my path strewn with red rose petals rather than pink,” I think of cousin Mary and the millions of other people heroically struggling against far greater obstacles than I and I pull myself together.
I could talk about any of the five Anthologies that Elizabeth worked on, my favourite is her Book Of Peace. But today I thought I’d speak about one of my constant companions, a book that I dip into almost daily, Elizabeth Goudge’s Diary of Prayer. Published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1966 it is set out in diary form with a prayer or two for each day of the year. The prayers are taken from different faiths and pertain roughly to the Church’s calendar, although as Christmas is the only static festival of the Christian year they do not always correspond to the relevant date, this does not detract from the anthology in any way.
People sent Elizabeth prayers and poems knowing that they would always delight her. One person, a lady called Adelaide Makower, sent her all the Jewish prayers that she uses and Elizabeth also credits her with sending or finding others for her too. The whole anthology took many years to put together, and there is no doubt that Elizabeth used the prayers on a daily basis herself. They were not collected with the intention of being put together as a book at first, but to help Elizabeth learn to pray in an organised and methodical manner. One of the Jewish prayers that speaks to me in particular is the entry for September 3rd which starts “Though our mouths were full of song as the sea, our tongues of exultation as the fullness of its waves,”
Each “chapter” or month starts with a verse that sets the tone. For example, April’s begins with a poem by the Welsh writer David of Gwylym. In it the poet is describing the dawn chorus in a cwm in Wales and attributing clerical roles for all the birds he can hear. “The Chief Priest was the nightingale: the lark and thrush assisted him: and some small bird (I do not weet his name) acted as Clerk.” Both Elizabeth and her Father were enthusiastic Ornithologists so the poem appeals directly to her as it is full of detail about birds, their calls and habits.
April is also the month most likely to contain the celebration of Easter, so the poem is echoing the most important Mass of the Christian Year. In fact the year the Diary was put together, Easter fell on April 1st.
The depth of Elizabeth’s reading is obvious throughout the work; she doesn’t use the trite or overworked. David of Gwylym was a 14th century medieval poet little known outside of Wales. Maybe she discovered him through Jessie who had extensive Welsh connections. She transposed this love for obscure writers to Hilary in the Eliots; he you will remember was always being accused of quoting from obscure poets at the slightest provocation.
The quotes she uses add another dimension to her writing. I’m always being sent off on literary adventures, discovering writers and poets that have helped to enrich my life. One of my favourite finds from this book was “The Prayers from the Ark “by Carmen Bernos De Gasztold, a poet and Benedictine nun who lived at the Abbaye Saint Louis de Temple at Limon-par-Igny, France. Most of the prayers/poems had been written during the war when she was forced to do uncongenial work in the laboratory of a silk factory near Paris. This took place under the Nazi occupation, when life was hard, cruel and she was often cold and hungry. She takes the animals and our attitude towards them and turns it around so that we can learn from them the virtues of their strengths of patience, hard work, and the putting to use of talents and abilities to the greater good.
I am not one to despise your gifts,
May you be blessed
who spread the riches of your sweetness
for my zeal………..
let my small span of ardent life
melt into our great communal task;
to lift up to your glory
this temple of sweetness,
a citadel of incense,
a holy candle myriad-celled,
moulded to your graces
and of the hidden work.
Carmen Bernos De Gasztold
Lastly there is Elizabeth Goudge, poet, a mantle she was always too modest to wear.
Hid deep in the heart of the woods, haunted and old,
The shell of a Castle still stands, a story told,
Built high on a rock in the woods, frozen and cold.
Deep are the night-dark shadows under the wall,
Breathlessly whispering downward the snowflakes fall,
Shrouding the desolate towers in a stainless pall.
Fearful within me my own heart, failing, has died,
I too in the woods am frozen, bereaved, sore tried.
Alone here…….There in the shadows, who was it sighed?
There, in the bastioned walls where the gateway stands,
Are there shadows within its shadows, weaving the strands,
Back through the loom of past sorrow with pain-worn hands?
Shadows weeping a world grown cold and stark with pain,
Mourning once more the lights put out, put out again,
The loveliness broken and lost, the young men slain.
Has sorrow alone lived for a hundred years?
Is only hatred immortal, men’s craven fears?
Only the weeping of women, their useless tears?
Not winter only reigns here in this haunted place,
As the cold clouds part, defeated, the sunbeams lace
The dark tress with their diamond light, touch the worn face
Of the frozen stone with colour, with azure fire
Of spring-times long past, yet alive, the hot desire
Of summers never forgotten, hopes that aspire
For ever, courage unbeaten, valour aflame,
The unshaken victory of the men who name
Holy things to their strength…….Nor fear, nor hate nor shame
Is theirs………I see the flashing of arms on the wall,
Here the deep roar of the conflict, the thrilling call
Of the silver trumpets sounding high on the tall
Towers of God’s immortal fortress, that he made
Against the evil out of the love of men laid
At his feet, their sweat. their blood to the last drop paid.
For this is the rock that for all time man defends,
The rock his soul against which all evil spends
Its fury in vain in the warfare that never ends.
And these the embattled walls that the heroes trod,
Swift-winged with flame, their feet with the gospel shod,
For this is the house of all life, the house of God.
Lift up, lift up your constant heart, the trumpet cries,
Lift them up to the shining walls, the sun-drenched skies,
For beyond the night for ever the sun will rise.
Its very reminiscent of Walter-de-la-Mare, whose poetry is dominated by abandoned buildings, haunted gardens and “presences”.
She was very ambivalent about her talents as a poet, and it certainly is the case that she was a better prose writer. Although this might only be because of her and mine old fashioned concept of Poetry. In Modern verse there is a school of thought that says it makes no difference if the words are in a block of text or chopped into shorter lines , its still a poem. So a piece of prose such as
“She was in a silver-stemmed beech wood roofed with green and gold. The floor of the wood was tawny with beech-mast beneath the polished darker green of low-growing hollies, the silver, green, and tawny faintly veiled by the gauzy blue air of spring. And the birds sang. That piercing clear deep ringing and ring seemed thrusting through her almost intolerably. She believed she had not heard such birdsong since she was a child; yet every year they had been singing like this in the tall woods of England. ”
If it was set out on the page like this:-
She was in a silver-stemmed
beech wood roofed with green and gold.
The floor of the wood was tawny
beneath the polished darker
green of low-growing hollies, the silver,
green, and tawny faintly veiled by
gauzy blue air of spring.
And the birds sang.
That piercing clear deep ringing
and ringing seemed thrusting through her
She believed she had not heard
such birdsong since she was a child;
yet every year they had been singing like this
in the tall woods of England.
People would except it as an example of modern free verse.
She did put a small book of her Poetry together called Songs & Verses, a copy of which is on display. Many of her Poems forward her books, as in The Little White Horse and The Castle On The Hill. But if you look closely you will also find some in her Diary Of Prayer, those that go unaccredited are her own.
She was certainly friends with modern poets such as Ruth Pitter who lived fairly close to her, and it was apparent that she enjoyed the stimulus and company of Poets. She greatly admired James Kirkup and Harold Munro, they appear frequently in her Anthologies. She never judged the person, but was capable of discerning the genius behind the personality. Ruth Pitter for instance had a crush on the very happily married C. D. Lewis, not something you would have thought that Elizabeth with her strong views on marriage would have had the patience with. But she never judged her.
James Kirkup came to particular public attention in 1977, when the newspaper “Gay News”published his poem “The Love that Dares to Speak its Name”, which dealt with a Roman centurion’s supposed love for Christ on the Cross, and was prosecuted, with the Editor, for blasphemy by Mary Whitehouse, the then Secretary of the National Viewers and Listeners Association.
It didn’t stop Elizabeth putting his poetry in her Anthology A Book of Faith, only published the previous year. Harold Munro too struggled with his sexuality and alcoholism all his life. Don’t think for one moment that Elizabeth was naive, she would have been aware of all of this. But she would have chosen to look at the work he did promoting Poetry and Poets rather than dwell on his personal short comings.
From the very first book she wrote, Island Magic to her last The Joy Of The Snow, Elizabeth’s love for poetry shines through. She was a prolific and wide ranging reader. Like Mary In The Scent Of Water, she felt that “The poets did at least put it into words for you and ease the pain of it.”