By Mel Haagman
One of the most remarkable comic creations in British literature is the schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, a fictional chap, the supposed author of a series of books about life in an English preparatory school named St Custard’s.
The books were written by Geoffrey Willans (1911-1958) with cartoon illustration by Ronald Searle. Nigel Molesworth is a hilarious fellow and his congenital inability to spell makes him even funnier. The books have not lost the charm they brought to the world between their initial publication in 1953 and Willans’ tragically early death. The first book, Down with Skool! was published in October 1953 and, by that Christmas, had sold, according to Searle, 53,848 copies.
Nigel’s views about the world, both of St Custards and beyond, are pretty much always witty and entertaining, but perhaps his finest hour is when he gives us his opinion of what poetry is. As he puts it: “Peotry is soppy stuff that rhymes.” This forthright statement is certainly a challenge to all of us who love poetry.
The trouble is that like many of Nigel’s comments, it contains much that is true. Plenty of poetry written throughout the ages, even by people who should have known better, is indeed ‘soppy stuff that rhymes’. But what Nigel didn’t say is that poetry is also possibly the most effective way human beings have of communicating their experience of being alive to other human beings. Not even a great novel can be as succinctly moving and universally informative as a great poem.
I particularly like Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge,. Keats and Byron, and also three more modern poets: W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), T.S. Eliot (1888- 1965) and Phlip Larkin (1922-1985). There are other poets whose work means a great deal to me, including John Betjeman, but these are the ones I myself enjoy the most.
Yeats, Eliot and Larkin are three very different poets.
Yeats was an Irishman steeped in Irish folklore traditions and in the central tradition of English literature. The poem of his I want to mention here, ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’, reads as follows. I can quote it in full as Yeats is now out of copyright, which is not true of Eliot and Larkin.
The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
But a raving autumn shears
Blossom from the summer's wreath;
The older is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant.
I know not what the younger dreams –
Some vague Utopia – and she seems,
When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,
An image of such politics.
Many a time I think to seek
One or the other out and speak
Of that old Georgian mansion, mix
Pictures of the mind, recall
That table and the talk of youth,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
The innocent and the beautiful
Have no enemy but time;
Arise and bid me strike a match
And strike another till time catch;
Should the conflagration climb,
Run till all the sages know.
We the great gazebo built,
They convicted us of guilt;
Bid me strike a match and blow.
Lissadell, which still exists, was a stately home in County Sligo, Ireland where Yeats was often invited as a guest. The two girls, Eva and Con, were both the daughters of a wealthy aristocrat and friends of Yeats. The poem seems to me to be about how the poet fundamentally regrets, as the girls grew older and their beauty decayed, that in his view they became compromised.
What I find particularly remarkable about the poem is the final stanza where Yeats pours scorn on the idea of a life wasted, as he sees it, on political matters. The sadness of the final few lines, with Yeats the poet remembering how enjoyable his friendship was with the two girls when they were all younger and how it deteriorated and in the end vanished, are I think among the finest lines of poetry ever written.
T. S. Eliot was very different from Yeats. For one thing, Eliot didn’t write very much, though what he did write was mostly wonderful. His life’s work could easily be read over a weekend. Eliot’s poetry is essentially, I think, about the fragility of emotional experience and always seems written with a sense of enormous urgency of communicating how fragile that experience is, with the clear intimation that and moments of insight need to be preserved forever. I particularly love the short poem Journey of the Magi, although I think Eliot’s The Wasteland and his Four Quartets are greater works.
I think ‘Journey of the Magi’ is a great way for anyone to get to know Eliot. It’s a fundamentally realistic narrative poem told by one of the Three Wise Men who go to see if they can find any information about Jesus’s birth.
We keep a religious theme with the third poem I’d like to mention, which is Philip Larkin’s Church Going. It’s a remarkably accessible and wonderful poem about a man, not at all a believer in any conventional religion, who comes across a country church on a solitary cycle ride and starts to think about what the church and the churchyard means to him. I can’t put the poem heen in this article as it is still in copyright, as is Journey of the Magi and I’m not keen to quote fragments from these wonderful poems. But I deeply recommend that if you’ve never read them consider doing so.
Despite not being keen on quoting fragments from these two wonderful poems, I will quote just one line from Church Going. ‘Since someone will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious’ are perhaps the most profound of all in the poem. Larkin is saying that, even in our everyday lives of making money and falling in love, and enjoying friendships and everything else we enjoy, we do instinctively look for a deeper meaning and that the church, for all its outdatedness and rather tatty elements, such as the browning flowers, not only attempts to meet that need but does so triumphantly.
Those are just a few comments about a few poems I love. I certainly think that poetry can be, and indeed certainly should be, very much better than ‘soppy stuff that rhymes’. I like to think that if Nigel Molesworth had grown up, and had got to know the work of writers such as Yeats, Eliot and Larkin, he might not have been quite as scathing in his denigration of the wonderful, exultant, insightful and profoundly life-affirming art of ‘poetry’.
James welcomes submissions of novels, memoirs, non-fiction books and collections of poetry to firstname.lastname@example.org Theconradpress.com