If you cut and paste it, this URL should take you to The Poetry Archive and a recording of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s voice, as she reads this wonderful monologue (a soliloquy but for two asides) worthy of, if not surpassing Shakespeare in its sheer Englishness.
The backward-glance upon her life and loves of England’s greatest monarch and Shakespeare’s queen, Elizabeth Tudor, in the moments preceding her death, is here convincingly intuited by Warner, in lines and images which flow with a terrible dignity of purpose, as if defying the inexorable drift towards the final loss of consciousness that death imposes.
Much could be read into the almost broken ending of the poem, which leaves us with the image of a schoolboy concentrated on reading his lessons by firelight – or perhaps a young man reading a romance or a book of poetry.
One senses that Elizabeth knows that after the boy, or the young lad has read on until the last lively sparks of light from his brand are extinguished, and darkness comes to reign within his little home, that for him that darkness will last but for a night, whereas for her it will last much longer.
Everything in this poem fits so neatly, that I am tempted to infer that Sylvia may also have been thinking of this fragment from Catullus V….
Soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidie brevis lux
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
Suns may set and yet rise again, but
We, with our brief light, can set but once.
The night which falls is one never-ending sleep.
Warner’s almost magical reading, in her strong and aged voice, carries us with fluent assurance along the mysterious path through which our own minds can sometimes find their way into the minds of others, across the wide removes of stations of life and the centuries-long chasms of death and long-lost time.
None shall gainsay me. I will lie on the floor.
Hitherto from horseback, throne, balcony,
I have looked down upon your looking up.
Those sands are run. Now I reverse the glass
And bid henceforth your homage downward. falling
Obedient and unheeded as leaves in autumn
To quilt the wakeful study I must make
Examining my kingdom from below.
How tall my people are! like a race of trees
They sway, sigh, nod heads, rustle above me,
And their attentive eyes are distant as starshine.
I have still cherished the handsome and well-made:
No queen has better masts within her forests
Growing, nor prouder and more restive minds
Scabbarded in the loyalty of subjects;
No virgin has had better worship than I.
No, no! Leave me alone, Woman! I will not
Be put to bed. Do you suppose
That I who’ve ridden through all weathers, danced
Under a treasury’s weight of jewels, sat
Myself to stone through sermons and addresses,
Shall come to harm by sleeping on a floor?
Not that I sleep. A bed were good enough
If that were in my mind. But I am here
For deep study and contemplation,
And as Persephone, and the red vixen,
Go underground to sharpen their wits,
I have left my dais to learn a new policy
Through watching of your feet, and as the Indian
Lays all his listening body along the earth
I lie in wait for the reverberation
Of things to come and dangers threatening.
Is that the Bishop praying? Let him pray on.
If his knees tire his faith can cushion them.
How the poor man grieves Heaven with news of me!
Deposuit superbos. But no hand
Other than my own has put me down –
Not feebleness enforced on brain or limb,
Not fear, misgiving, fantasy, age, palsy,
Has felled me. I lie here by my own will,
And by the curiosity of a queen.
I dare say there is not in all England
One who lies closer to the ground than I.
Not the traitor in the condemned hold
Whose few straws edge away from under his weight
Of ironed fatality; not the shepherd
Huddled for cold under the hawthorn bush,
Nor the long dreaming country lad who lies
Scorching his book before the dying brand.
This biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner is courtesy of The Poetry Archive.
Sylvia Townsend Warner [1893-1978] is best known today as a groundbreaking feminist and lesbian writer who championed the cause of the outsider in novels such as Lolly Willowes. However, this is only one aspect of a writer whose literary career also encompassed poetry, short stories, essays, biography and translation. The publication by Carcanet in 2008 of a Collected Poems has prompted an overdue reassessment of Townsend Warner as a poet of great imaginative scope and variety.
Townsend Warner was born in Harrow-on-the-Hill where her father was a housemaster at Harrow School. They shared a close relationship and his early death brought her happy childhood to an end. By contrast, her relationship with her mother was always strained.
Her first love was music – only the outbreak of the First World War prevented her from studying composition with Schoenberg. Instead she moved to London and embarked on a decade-long task of scholarship, editing the 10 volume Tudor Church Music. She made friends among the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the 1920s one of whom, David Garrett, was instrumental in getting her first book published by Chatto and Windus, a poetry collection called The Espalier .
However, it was the publication of Lolly Willowes the following year that brought her recognition on both sides of the Atlantic. 1926 was also a turning point for Townsend Warner personally when she met and fell in love with a young poet, Valentine Ackland. The couple lived together until Ackland’s death in 1969. Their first home was in Chaldon Herring in Dorset where they were able to live in comparative freedom. For the rest of their lives the couple tended to seek out rural seclusion, in Norfolk and finally Dorset again. The English countryside, its beauty and hardships, is an important shaping force in Townsend Warner’s work.
This relative isolation did not stop them from being actively engaged in issues of their time. Alarmed by the rise of Facism, Ackland and Townsend Warner both became active members of the Communist party and made several trips to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Their lives at this time, and much of their writing, were charged with politics, such a Townsend Warner’s 1938 novel After the Death of Don Juan.
In all, Townsend Warner published seven novels, four volumes of poetry and a huge number of short stories, 144 of which were published in The New Yorker. She wrote right up to her death, her last book of stories, Kingdoms of Elfin, appearing in 1977. Townsend Warner died on May Day 1978 and her ashes were interred, along with Valentine Ackland’s, under a single stone in Chaldon churchyard.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Townsend Warner’s writing is its sheer variety, not just in terms of genre, but also subject matter and approach. Her novels range widely across time and place, from revolutionary Paris [Summer Will Show], the South Sea Islands [Mr Fortune’s Maggot], to a 14th century priory in East Anglia [The Corner that Held Them] while her poetry encompasses ballads, epitaphs, narrative, love poems and burlesque.
However certain themes thread through these contrasting works: what one critic has described as a “sardonic rural and suburban pastoralism” gives much of her writing a witty, subversive edge. Alongside an appreciation of the absurdist aspects of human behaviour is an empathy with the outsider – the misfits struggling to protect their individuality within an oppressive society.
Her poetry is also distinctive for its formal complexity, perhaps not surprising given her early immersion in music. Sometimes this musicality is combined with a tough realist edge, as in her hard-hitting poems about her experiences in Spain and the Second World War. Elsewhere, particularly in her love poems to Ackland, she captures an emotional intensity in which “the kindling of language and flesh seem one” [John Wilkinson, University of Notre Dame, Project Muse].
Another powerful theme is the onset of age, exemplified in her Archive recording, ‘Gloriana Dying’. A dramatic monologue in flexible blank verse, it movingly imagines the aging Elizabeth I as she faces her impending death. Read by the elderly poet, it’s deeply touching in its combination of physical vulnerability and toughness of spirit and mind. The poem ends with a remarkable acknowledgement that the great Gloriana now has more in common with the least of her subjects – the prisoner, the shepherd and the humble “long-dreaming country lad”.
Townsend Warner once commented wryly “I intend to be a posthumous poet”. The revival of interest in her poetry has encouraged a fresh appreciation of this aspect of a writer described by one critic as “second only to Virginia Woolf among the women writers of our century.”