Thursday, May 20, 2010

Neglected Poets: Bernard Spencer

The poetry of Bernard Spencer (1909-1963) reflects the fact that he spent most of his life as an expatriate, working much of the time for the British Council as a teacher, lecturer, and administrator.  His poems -- few and far between -- have as their locales Greece, Egypt, Italy, Spain, and Austria.  During the Second World War, he was stranded in Cairo, where he was one of the poets (including Lawrence Durrell, Keith Douglas, and Terence Tiller) associated with the journal Personal Landscape.  He died in Vienna at the age of 53.

His verse is conversational in tone, but at the same time it is elegant and exact.  It reminds me at times of the later poetry of Louis MacNeice (with whom Spencer was acquainted).  I am not suggesting that Spencer's poetry was directly influenced by that of MacNeice, only that the two of them independently shared a similar style.  (Coincidentally, they both died in September of 1963.)  The following two poems provide only a brief introduction to Spencer's poetry.         

             At Courmayeur

This climbers' valley with its wayside shrines
(the young crowned Mother and her dying flowers)
became our theme for weeks.  Do you remember
the letters that we wrote and how we planned
the journey there and chose our hotel; ours
was to be one 'among the pines'?

Guesses went wide; but zigzag past that ridge
the road climbs from the Roman town; there stand
the glittering peaks, and one, the God, immensely
tossing the clouds around his shoulders; here
are what you asked for, summer pastures and
an air with glaciers in its edge.

Under all sounds is mountain water falling;
at night, the river seems to draw much closer;
darling, how did you think I could forget you,
you who for ever stayed behind?  Your absence
comes back as hard as rocks.  Just now it was
those hangdown flowers that meant recalling.

With Luck Lasting (1963) in Collected Poems, edited by Roger Bowen (Oxford University Press 1981).  Although I am, in general, not a proponent of attempting to link a poet's poems to specific events in the poet's life, I think that one should know that "At Courmayeur" was written after Spencer's first wife died at a young age of tuberculosis. 

               On the Road

Our roof was grapes and the broad hands of the vine
as we two drank in the vine-chinky shade
of harvest France;
and wherever the white road led we could not care,
it had brought us there
to the arbour built on a valley side where time,
if time any more existed, was that river
of so profound a current, it at once
both flowed and stayed.

We two.  And nothing in the whole world was lacking.
It is later one realizes.  I forget
the exact year or what we said.  But the place
for a lifetime glows with noon.  There are the rustic
table and the benches set; beyond the river
forests as soft as fallen clouds, and in
our wine and eyes I remember other noons.
It is a lot to say, nothing was lacking;
river, sun and leaves, and I am making
words to say 'grapes' and 'her skin'.

                  Turner, Mont Blanc from above Courmayeur (1810)


Rick Sitoski said...

I couldn't agree more. This is powerful, spare, direct verse whose elegance saves it from sentimentality.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sitoski: Thank you very much for visiting and commenting. I'm pleased that you like the poems by Spencer. He deserves a wider audience. Thanks again.

Harry said...

This is lovely. I have not come across Spencer's work before but I shall make a point of finding it now. Thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Harry: Thank you very much for visiting and commenting. I'm gratified that I can play a small role in spreading the word about Spencer's poetry -- as you say, it is lovely. Thank you again.

Andrea Rumpel said...
You may enjoy these, being a fan of the romantic landscape

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms Rumpel: thank you very much for the link to George Inness's works. I've come across a few of his paintings in the past, and I've been meaning to explore him further, since -- as you anticipated -- I liked what I saw.

Thanks again. And thank you for stopping by.