England’s Dammed Stream Of Poetry
‘Good writing, like clear thinking, is very hard to teach or to learn. If the writer has something to say, the words come naturally; if not, no amount of instruction will help.’
A magazine such as Standpoint must be a refuge for good writing, or it is not worth the trouble of reading. In this double issue, we have gathered together some of the best writers in English, young and old, past and present. For those who want the art of writing condensed into a set of rules, the “Ten Commandments” of Hugh Trevor-Roper are a sound and characteristically waspish guide by a master-craftsman of prose.
Yet good writing, like clear thinking, is very hard to teach or to learn. If the writer has something to say, the words come naturally; if not, no amount of instruction will help. It may, indeed, inhibit writing altogether, or — worse —cause the words, when they do flow, to be stillborn into the purple. Trevor-Roper’s Tenth Commandment ordains: “Thou shalt carefully expunge from thy writing all consciously written purple passages, lest they rise up to shame ye in thine old age.” For example: The mixing of metaphors and recycling of clichés infest the grammatical garden, where subordinate clauses become insubordinate, multiplying like weeds, while the iteration of alliteration and the ascendancy of assonance are snares and delusions that stifle style and stymie sense. (That’s enough purple — Ed.)
Everything that appears in these pages is original to Standpoint. That includes the posthumous fragment by the late J.W.M. Thompson, my father-in-law, which describes in typically limpid prose his induction aged 16 into the mysteries of journalism. As editor of the Sunday Telegraph, he fostered writers of the calibre of Sebastian Faulks, who wrote after his death in November: “An appreciation of good writing was high on Thompson’s wish list; he thought it extraordinary that hacks were hired and fired with no regard for this basic requirement. This didn’t mean fancy prose; it meant clarity and wit…One did not wish to displease JWMT, as his black-ink memos were always signed. A piece I had written about the Slimbridge Wildfowl trust provoked a letter of protest. I was called in. John was a knowledgeable countryman and, although what I wrote may have been literally accurate, there was exaggeration for effect. The look of disappointment in his eye was eloquent.”
John Thompson was indeed knowledgeable about rural England: his only book, published under the Shakespearean pseudonym Peter Quince, was Country Life, based on a column he had written while deputy editor of the Spectator. It is not only infused with a deep love of the country, but replete with sentences that sing. The little memoir we publish is a reminder that its author was born as long ago as 1920, yet in a passage from his book (read at his funeral) he puts the elapse of time into perspective:
“No wonder the young look at me with a certain alarm if I tell them I can remember so different a world. I can even recall the day when my father pointed out a farmer marching up and down a field sowing seeds broadcast, like a Biblical figure. The nineteen-thirties are not so very distant, however, in the eye of history. Time is a deceiver. The paradox is that when we are young we believe that we ourselves have experienced all the time that is of true significance. When we have lived longer we see our own span as of no greater consequence than one beat of the heron’s wing as it journeys steadily down the valley into darkness.”
This is writing of a high order: not a single word is redundant; “broadcast” is used in its original meaning without artifice or pretension; and the heron image, deployed to indicate temporality, is what Trevor-Roper calls “a true metaphor, created by the active eye of the imagination”. Such a strong feeling for the English language goes hand in hand with a love of the country and its inhabitants. “When I try to guess the effect of England upon its people,” John Thompson writes, “I am tempted to see the land and its climate as the nursemaids both of a particular kind of individuality and of a distinctive perceptiveness about the natural world; which suggests a notional Englishman who is half Laurence Sterne, half William Wordsworth; and I do not think that is quite as fanciful as might at first appear.”
There is indeed something distinctively English in what Michael Oakeshott called “the voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind”. No other nation has anything like Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey because no other nation could have populated such a place. Even today there are English poets alive — Geoffrey Hill, for example, or Alan Brownjohn, whose latest work appears in this issue — capable of powerfully evoking a sense of place, urban or rural, and of the ordinary lives that are led there. John Thompson wrote of “the English passion for domesticity” as “the overflowing of a dammed stream of poetry within the race”. Perhaps our enduring taste for art, music and literature that are rooted in the landscape is indeed a sign that, even as our lives are increasingly spent gazing into virtual space, abstracted from once familiar rustic sights and sounds even as we walk down the street, we have not quite forgotten our origins in the mists of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “This green plot shall be our stage,” declares Peter Quince. England is still an incomparable stage and it still boasts players and playwrights, alive or dead, who are second to none.