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Sylvia Townsend Warner (Dec 5th 1893 - May 1st 1978)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Miss Green's house, first home of Sylvia and Valentine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.

West Chaldon - another home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘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,

How should I bride you

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

Sylvia in the garden at Frome Vauchurch (another of their homes) in 1948

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Azrael

 

Valentine feeding the cats at Frankfort Manor.

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?

 

Valentine.

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.

Sylvia with a kitten

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Fie on the hearth-ill-swept…”

 

Fie on the hearth ill-swept

Where sorrows over-kept

Sodden with tears and foul

Lie mouldering cheek by jowl

 

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

Sylvia in Valentine's sitting room, 1960s.

Housewifery in my larder,

 

And if I may not eat

Fresh-killed meat,

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.

Joyce Finzi's drawing of Valentine Dead, November 9th 1969.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Autumn

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.


			

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Sylvia Townsend Warner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=13831

 

 

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.

The death of Queen Elizabeth I

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

An effigy of the queen

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

The Queen's signature

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.

Queen Elizabeth I

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

Elizabeth when young.

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.

Sylvia Townsend Warner's signature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 [1925].

Valentine Ackland

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.”

 

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