Tuesday, March 22, 2016

`Scarcely Known But By the Catalogue'

Remember to give thanks for the forgotten writers. Most of us will enter their ranks, if we haven’t already, because writing amounts to carving one’s initials on the trunk of a tree. Time will heal the tree and erase the scar, and then the tree will die. C.H. Sisson pays the compliment of attention to a poet whose name I had never heard, Clere Parsons (1908-1931). In English Poetry 1900-1950: An Assessment (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1971) he writes of the eighteen verses collected in Poems, published a year after Parsons’ death: “They are no more than the thumb-nail sketch of a possible oeuvre, but they have a clarity and elegance which is not exactly like anyone else’s work and that, for a young man of twenty-two or three, is notable.” Sisson cites this poem, “Introduction”:

“MallarmĂ© for a favour
teach me to achieve
the rigid gesture won only with labour
and comparable to the ease
balance and strength with which the ballet-dancer
sustains her still mercurial pose in air.”

A contemporary of Auden and MacNeice, Parsons honors a poetic forebear without aping his style. What an ear for vowels this kid had, and he already understands that writing a poem is work. Sisson says of the poem: “That is the work—and not merely the sentiment—of a poet who is setting out to learn his trade as Pound and Eliot set out. In spite of occasional archaism, as unfashionable when the verses were written as it is now, the tone of the volume is not merely contemporary but new.” Sisson quotes another poem, “Suburban Nation Piece,” and says of it: “The lines sing and there is about them a quality at once airy and metallic. There is no doubt that they emanate from a literary talent of distinction.” Coming from Sisson, whose taste was excellent and whose critical strictures were unforgiving, this is a powerful endorsement. He quotes another poem, “Garden Goddess,” and I find a fourth online, “Different.” Here is the final stanza of “Garden Goddess”:

“Now joy’s cartographer I trace
My acres of gay and wellbeing’s land
O my summer be music by Proust and Sisley and
With me in the dead season, pastoral days.”

There’s a special sadness about a gifted writer who dies before his promise is realized, when so many mediocrities live into prolific old age. Dr. Johnson had them in mind in The Rambler #106:

“No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue . . .”

1 comment:

Tim Guirl said...

I read John Wain's excellent biography many years ago. For any interested readers, a fine essay by John Wain about C.S. Lewis is included in Joseph Epstein's book, Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers.