Laurie Lee: Selected Poems
A Rose For Winter
…..my copy, The Hogarth Press 1955
Most recent edition of Selected Poems: Vintage Classics 2003 paper £7.99
52 poems included, selected by Laurie Lee for my 1985 publication. Current ed. is the same content.
Here’s an admission: I have never read any Laurie Lee until these two books. Never seen any tv film either, maybe for the future…..
Noting that all 15 poems in My Many Coated Man are included in Selected Poems. The remaining 37 have mostly been included from his two previous collections: The Sun My Monument (1944) and Bloom of Candles (1947). In his forward to Selected Poems he says he cut the total number from others published by about half for S.P.. Whether for the sake of quality or space he doesn’t make clear, possibly the former.
The blurbs says he read Edward Thomas poems of 1915 and was responsive to the style of poetry Thomas had invested in. Poetry seems to have been the starting point of Lee’s successful writing and his development as an autobiographical writer seems to have continued in that ‘countryman’ style. His writings continue with a skill for description that helps the scenery burst from the page. Lee seems to follow the thread of Thomas but in the opposite direction. Edward Thomas learned his writing style could be pared down, concentrated, filtered and spun down from his natural history notes and writings into concise more silk-like poetry.
Wider reading than I have done would show more of the influences on Lee’s poetry and the enlarged world of autobiography that sealed his fame.
The poetry varies from those with a more formal rhyme scheme to those that are blank. Sometimes the rhyme is pure, others half-rhyme, usually at the ends of lines. I don’t recall more than a few mid-line rhyme or much deliberate alliteration. Well, each poem should be read for itself for study. Subjects cover war, love direct and symbolic, religious context, and memory. The natural world flows descriptively throughout. Despite the subjects I did not find the spikes or hard edges I expected. Nudges, inferences but all softened by the overall language used; therefor for me the collection was a little disappointing. The poems will all stand closer analysis if you like breaking things down. Remember that Lee admits that these poems are from his past and he feels he has changed since writing them. They still work but are not as strong as some of the previous poetry I have talked about. I think his poetry may fade more over time but should still be read as a preview to his later writings. However, the book, A Rose for Winter still reads well though perhaps as a period piece. As are Freya Stark, Fleming, Hemingway et al, all still effective today.
For me the poems to recall are:
A Moment of War, The Town Owl, On Beacon Hill and Shot Fox.
Reading ‘A Rose for Winter’ you discover a fascinating picture of Andalusia, Spain in the mid 1950s, some 15 years after his years wandering in Andalusia and brief involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Here the Spanish world is full of wildly different lives and scenes in comparison to England of today, or then. Spain too, no doubt. His descriptions were as a visitor but also recalling and re-establishing memories and places of his travels in earlier years.
The book is full of movement and description with evocative splashes of colour and emotion that fill the air despite it being a period of great hardship for so many after the Civil War. Most frequently he conjures with the gypsy, the itinerant and also the seemingly huge quantity of street urchins, the homeless children and homeless families. Focus often falling on the music and dance of the flamenco which seems to dominate his love of the country and people. With his wife Kati they visit the Spanish coastline after accessing via Gibraltar. A countryside, at least here, that is shown to us as almost deconstructed structurally and economically. Maybe his preference was for the poorer, humbler areas but the people he meets with and describes seem to have the music of life within them. Be the areas humble, they are not all bleak and the scenery and descriptions are rich. The section on Alhambra is especially memorable. Maybe he treats all the hardships around a little casually whilst travelling. A sign of the man or sign of the time? Most likely just an observing eye. He describes the grit and harshness of the lives he sees but honours the pride within all; sadly accepting it as the way of the world at that particular time. Mind you, he himself seems non too prosperous, except relatively.
His travelling notes are fascinating and plentiful almost preliminaty pauses between the entertainments. Which abound, usually occasions where music, song and dance fill the book with the electric gravity of the flamenco and Spanish gypsy character. Bullfights, not the grandiose but the local affairs, get honest descriptive coverage several times. Lee’s writing is a scenic tour part memoir-cum-travel that covers a factual viewing with a touch of nostalgia. I am fond of flamenco so find the book quite fascinating as part travel, history and musicology. His continuous flow of descriptive adjectives and adverbs is potentially overwhelming but luckily for me I can work with it in this book. However I may well search out A Moveable Feast to counteract it.
Two for the price of one, eh!
I found this poem without the potency of Lee’s descriptions but I include because it sets a scene:
From: Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Translated by Jessie Lamont. Published 1918
The Spanish Dancer
As a lit match first flickers in the hands
Before it flames, and darts out from all sides
Bright, twitching tongues, so, ringed by growing bands
Of spectators – – she, quivering, glowing stands
Poised tensely for the dance – then forward glides
And suddenly becomes a flaming torch.
Her bright hair flames, her burning glances scorch,
And with a daring art at her command
Her whole robe blazes like a fire-brand
From which is stretched each naked arm, awake,
Gleaming and rattling like a frightened snake.
And then, as though the fire fainter grows,
She gathers up the flame – again it glows,
As with proud gesture and imperious air
She flings it to the earth; and it lies there
Furiously flickering and crackling still – –
Then haughtily victorious, but with sweet
Swift smile of greeting, she puts forth her will
And stamps the flames out with her small firm feet.
With thanks to Gutenberg Project for this extracted poem.