In these Four poems written by Sylvia Townsend Warner in the years after the death (on November 9th 1969,) of Valentine – “The treasure of my soul” – is retained the echo of the profoundest and grief and loss one can imagine. Sylvia and Valentine had been partners for 39 years. After the cremation Sylvia wrote “I unmake the death-bed, I remake the marriage-bed I said. And as I lay thinking of all the beds we had lain in, she came and pulled aside the sheets and leaped in beside me. And so I slept all night with her ashes in a respectable little fumed oak tabernacle beside me.”
Warner’s biographer Clare Harman writes that when Warner came across Walter De La Mare’s poem ‘Autumn’* in a book she was given as a present on the Christmas following Valentines death, Warner thought she would die then and there from “The shock of this sudden assault of the truth.” She wrote in her diary that “Total grief is like a minefield: No knowing when one will touch the tripwire.”
Valentine had chosen Non omnis moriar for her epitaph, and for Sylvia this underscored Valentine’s promise that she would never leave her. Valentine continued to appear in Sylvia’s dreams, and she felt “not so much haunted but possessed.”
Sometime in 1972 she wrote, rather remarkably for such a determinedly secular person as she was, ” … somewhere about 3 a.m. I woke in my sleep and there she was beside me in actuality of being: not remembered, not evoked, not a sense of presence, Actual.
I was sitting in the kitchen and she standing beside me, in a cotton shirt and grey trousers, looking down on me, with love, intimately, ordinarily, with her look of tantalising a little, her easy amorous look. She was within touch of my hand. I looked at her and felt the whole force of my love for her, its amazement, a delighted awe, entrancement, rapture.
We were familiar, ourselves to ourselves. I was withheld from speaking. I looked. I gave myself. I loved with my whole being. No words occurred to me. I knew I must not try to touch her, and I was wholly an embrace of her. And then, without ending, it was an end. I was conveyed into another layer of sleep.”
Since then, and following her sorting out of the letters and other papers relict of her life with Valentine, Warner abandoned completely her style of writing realistic stories, and began her stories of ‘Elfindom’ – indelibly tinged with a strange mix of fantasy and reality – set in a time that was no time, yet steeped in the unhistorical medieval, and about a fairy-folk who thought and acted more like irascible and capricious humans than anything resembling Tinkerbell.
Warner died on the morning of the first of May 1978 aged 84 years.
“On this plain house…”
On this plain house where I
Dwell and shall doubtless die
As did my plain forefathers in times past
I see the willow’s light-limbed shadow cast.
I watch in solitude
Its flying attitude
Laid on that brick and mortar soberness
Like the sharp imprint of a fleeting kiss.
Just so, I think, your shade,
Alien and clear, was laid
Briefly on this plain heart which now plods on
In this plain house where progeny is none.
‘Ah, sleep, you come not…”
Ah, Sleep, you come not, and I do not chide you.
You the ever-young, the sleek and the supple,
Who am so harsh with care, so grimed with trouble?
You to the child’s cot and the lover’s pillow,
You to the careless creation in field and steading,
And to my roof-mate swallow
Come with goodwill, who come not to my dull bidding.
Like lies down with like. If I am to woo you
I must disguise myself, and in youth’s green
Habit pursue you,
Or imagine myself to what I never have been:
Or you in pity put on death’s leaden likeness
To follow my weariness.
Who chooses the music, turns the page,
Waters the geraniums on the window-ledge?
Who proxies my hand,
Puts on the mourning-ring in lieu of the diamond?
Who winds the trudging clock, who tears
Flimsy the empty date of calendars?
Who widow-hoods my senses
Lest they should meet the morning’s cheat defenseless?
Who valets me at nightfall, undresses me of another day,
Puts tidily and finally away?
And lets in darkness
To befriend my eyelids like an illusory caress?
I called him Sorrow when first he came,
But Sorrow is too narrow a name;
And though he has attended me all this long while
Habit will not do. Habit is servile.
He, inaudible, governs my days, impalpable,
Impels my hither and thither. I am his to command,
My times are in his hand.
Once in a dream I called him Azrael.
“Fie on the hearth-ill-swept…”
Fie on the hearth ill-swept
Where sorrows over-kept
Sodden with tears and foul
With mildewed revenges,
Grown tasteless with time’s changes,
Limp wraths and mumbled visions,
Fly-blown into derisions,
Delights jellied to slime
And tag-ends of rhyme
Life! Grant me a harder
Housewifery in my larder,
And if I may not eat
Crisp joy and dewy loathing,
Let me have done with loving.
Aye, though philosophy’s
Wan pulse my palate freeze
Ere I to carrion swerve
Carrion-like, let me starve.
There is a wind where the rose was;
Cold rain where sweet grass was;
And clouds like sheep
Stream o’er the steep
Grey skies where the lark was.
Nought gold were your hair was;
Nought warm where your hand was;
But phantom, forlorn,
Beneath the thorn,
Your ghost where your face was.
Sad winds where your voice was;
Tears, tears where my heart was;
And ever with me,
Child, ever with me,
Silence where hope was.
Walter De La Mare.