Friday, July 30, 2010

Neglected Poets: James Reeves

James Reeves (1909-1978) devoted his life to poetry -- as a poet, an editor, an anthologist, a teacher, and a critic.  But his devotion was a quiet one.  Hence, his poetry does not receive the attention that it deserves.  I urge you to seek it out, for I believe that you will find it rewarding.  The poems below may all be found in his Collected Poems: 1929-1974 (Heinemann 1974).

                    Things to Come

The shadow of a fat man in the moonlight
   Precedes me on the road down which I go;
And should I turn and run, he would pursue me:
   This is the man whom I must get to know.
                                      Stanley Roy Badmin (1906-1989)
                           "The Abbey Barn, Doulting, Somerset" (1930) 

To put the following poem in context, it may be helpful to know that it was written by Reeves after the death of his wife Mary (1910-1966).  He dedicated his Collected Poems to her.              

                         To Not Love

One looked at life in the prince style, shunning pain.
Now one has seen too much not to fear more.
Apprehensive, it seems, for all one loves,
One asks only to not love, to not love.

                         Stanley Roy Badmin, "Fallen Mill Sails" (1931)


Happy the quick-eyed lizard that pursues
   Its creviced zigzag race
Amid the epic ruins of a temple
   Leaving no trace.

Happy the weasel in the moonlit churchyard
   Twisting a vibrant thread
Of narrow life between the mounds that hide
   The important dead.

Close to the complex fabric of their world
   The small beasts live who shun
The spaces where the huge ones bellow, fight,
   And snore in the sun.

How admirable the modest and the frugal,
   The small, the neat, the furtive.
How troublesome the mammoths of the world,
   Gross and assertive.

Happy should we live in the interstices
   Of a declining age,
Even while the impudent masters of decision
   Trample and rage.

                                     Stanley Roy Badmin, "Priory Pond"


Dwell in some decent corner of your being,
Where plates are orderly set and talk is quiet,
Not in its devious crooked corridors
Nor in its halls of riot.         


Jeannette said...

I read this post yesterday morning. Last night, in a biography of Edmund Blunden, I read that Blunden was at one point "seeing a lot of James Reeves." I would never have known, so thanks!

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeannette: Thank you very much for visiting, and for leaving a comment.

That is a nice coincidence! As you can see from this blog, I am a great admirer of Edmund Blunden. Are you reading Barry Webb's biography?

By the way, Reeves wrote a poem about Blunden titled "On a Poet." I have been intending to include the poem in a post, but haven't got around to it. The first stanza is:

Having no Celtic bombast in his blood,
Nor dipsomaniac rage, nor very much
To give his time of what his time expected,
He saw his Muse, slight thing, by most neglected.

Thank you again.

Nige said...

Another connection is with Edward Ardizzone, who was a friend of Reeves and illustrated a lot of his work, especially his writings for children - but those Badmins fit the selection here perfectly. Thanks again for this endlessly rewarding blog.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nige: As always, thank you for visiting, and for the extremely kind comment.

Thank you for the reference to the relationship between Reeves and Ardizzone - I neglected to mention Reeves's work in poetry for children, and I am glad that you corrected my omission.

I am pleased that you enjoyed the Badmins. The early to mid-20th century was a wonderful time for British engraving/etching (both in metal and wood), wasn't it?

Thank you again.

Rags and Paper said...

The wood engravers Gwen Raverat and Claire Leighton are of that period, very different in subject and style, but equally outstanding.

Ravenat helped to usher in that "wonderful time" when she and her husband founded the Society of Wood Engravers.

Stephen Pentz said...

Rags and Paper: Thank you very much for visiting and commenting.

Yes, Raverat and Leighton are certainly wonderful engravers -- the 20th century was arguably (I am certainly not the first to make this observation) the 'golden age' of British wood engraving. (With all due respect to Thomas Berwick.) You may have noticed that I have previously included wood engravings by George Mackley and Joan Hassall in my posts.

The relationship between engravers and small fine presses in the U.K. has given us many beautiful books.

Thanks again for visiting and commenting.

Anonymous said...

The "Bestiary" is so true!

Its even better than "the sea"

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for visiting and commenting. I'm pleased that you like 'Bestiary' -- as I say, Reeves's poetry deserves a wider audience, and it is gratifying to have people respond positively to it.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm very curious about the meaning of the poem "The old wife and the ghost" by this great author. Have you had a read of it and have some suggestions?

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you very much for visiting. I'm sorry, but I have not read that poem.

Anonymous said...

nice blog

Anonymous said...

nice blog, interesting poet, great pictures

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you very much for visiting and commenting.

John Elwyn kimber said...

Dear Stephen Pentz - I am an obscure and terminally-unfashionalbe English lyric poet who publishes occasionally - right now a new journal in California of all places seems keen on my verses - but James reeves has always been among my pantheon of unsung heroes. I have a lot of reeves poems in my collection and a few by heart. The one about Blunden runs -

John Elwyn Kimber said...

Having no Celtic bombast in his blood,
Nor dipsomaniac rage, nor very much
To give his time of what his time expected,
He saw his Muse, slight thing, by most neglected.

She was no exhibitionist, and he,
With only the Queen of Elfland's gift to Thomas,
Could not afford to school her in the taste
For stolen gauds and ornaments of paste.

When he is dead and his best phrases stored
With Clare's and Hardy's in the book of gold,
She with her unpresuming saxon grace
In the Queen's retinue wil take her place.

I value Reeves for being as much the Muse-poet as his friend Graves but with his own distinct vision and a good deal less arrogant egocentricity. His later years were unhappy ones but he kept on writing wonderful poems, and everyone should know things like 'The Swan' and 'The Rose and Star' and 'The End of the Story'. It surprises me that 'The Swan' escaped the anthologies, but, as Graves once explained, the editorial hostility of W B Yeats at a crucial moment may have had something to do with it. Here's another I have by heart : 'Leaving Town'-

It was impossible to leave the town.
Bumping across a mass of obsolete rail
Three times we reached the gasworks and reversed.
We could not get away from the canal:
Dead cats, dead hopes, in those grey deeps immersed,
Over our efforts breathed a spectral prayer.
The cattle market and the gospel-hall
Returned like fictions of an old despair,
And like hesperides the suburbs seemed,
Shining far off toward the guiltless fields.
We ended in a little cul-de-sac
Where on the pavement sat a ragged girl
Mourning beside a jug-and-bottle entrance.
Once more we turned the car and started back.

Thanks again for featuring James Reeves - you are a man of very good taste. He needs champions: other so-called 'school of Graves' poets have been rediscovered, eg Alun Lewis, Norman Cameron, but Lewis is now a Welsh literary icon and Cameron more acceptably urbane than Reeves, who has the same intense yet quiet passion as, say, Gustav Holst or Edmund Rubbra - a quality terminally undervalued at present.


E J Kimber


E J Kimber.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Kimber: thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts on James Reeves.

I think that you and I share some similar favorites: I posted his Blunden poem on August 4, 1010, and I posted "Leaving Town" on February 17, 2011. And, speaking of Norman Cameron, Reeves's elegy to him is fine as well, isn't it?

I read an essay about Reeves once (in PN Review) in which the author suggested that the Blunden tribute described Reeves as well -- as you say, no "arrogant eccentricity."

It is surprising, and unfortunate, that his work is not more widely known. Your phrase "intense yet quiet passion" is excellent. And I also agree that -- alas -- those qualities are "undervalued" these days. But we can do our part to keep his work alive, at least.

Thank you again for your thoughtful comments. Please return soon.