No 6 - 1976
'In the Paralysis of Class'
Poems, Roy Fuller’s first book, was published in 1939. Later, speaking at Oxford on ‘Poetic Memories of the Thirties’, he recalled his ambition as a young poet:
It’s hard indeed to recover one’s attitude to the spate of poetry in which one was so completely immersed. But certainly at the start of the period one disapproved of the public school and university chumminess that sometimes accompanied the leftwing poetry. And at the end of the period one disapproved even more of the personal romanticism and reckless obscurity represented by one side of Dylan Thomas’s verse. One was searching, hopelessly it seems now, for a poetry with impeccable political orientation, yet as rich and free as the great English poetry of the past. (1)
In the late 1920s Fuller bought, and read, Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems, and T.S. Eliot’s Poems 1909-1925. A chance meeting with John Davenport introduced him to early Empson in Cambridge Poetry 1929, to Auden’s Poems of 1930, and to Spender, who had five poems in Oxford Poetry 1930. It was a good moment to begin an education in poetry (2). From Auden, as from a schoolboy hero, Fuller wrote, ‘one took a tone of voice, catchphrases, beliefs — the very cut of one’s poetic personality’ (3). Fuller’s early poems are exercises in the Audenesque, with the tone, scenery, symbolism and use of scientific and technological metaphors bearing witness to the dominant style of the age. He was a fellow-travelling solicitor, sharing the political frustrations of the left, that combination of rage and paralysis before the slump and the rise of fascism. (Fuller was twenty-one when Hitler came to power.) Faith in Uncle Joe, the certain knowledge that war must come, the equally strong conviction that the Tories would sell out to fascism, and a desperate faith in the revolutionary potential of the proletariat (sullenly brewing beneath the deceptively calm surface of English society), dominated the apocalyptic cast of mind of Fuller’s generation. He was an intellectual, sharing their isolation from the mainstream of the labour movement; as a literary intellectual, a poet, he was a member of a sect within a sect. After Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) the most brilliant evocation of the ethos of self-educated petty-bourgeois left intellectuals in the 1930s is Julian Symons’s memoir, Notes from Another Country (1972). Symons, working for the Dickensian Mr Budette’s Victoria Lighting and Dynamos, and editing Twentieth Century Verse, was close to Fuller and published his early poems and reviews.
That first book in 1939 could hardly be called an ambitious or even an independent-minded volume of poems. Alternatives to the Audenesque were available in the neo-Georgianism of J.C. Squire’s The London Mercury, in the surrealism sponsored by Herbert Read and David Gascoyne, and in the American moderns: Stevens, Hart Crane and Marianne Moore, all generously represented in Michael Roberts’s Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936), and W.C. Williams, who was not, but whose Collected Poems had been noticed, obtusely, by Geoffrey Grigson in New Verse (April 1934). In any event, Fuller’s grasp of the Audenesque was confident enough to suggest that Poems was no mean achievement for a first book.
The central poem in his first collection is ‘End of a City’, above which Marx, Auden and surrealism hover benignly. The city, inevitably, was a symbol of the condition of England. An initial perspective is granted by a flight of birds. (How often one finds, even in determinedly left writers, the lingering romanticism of the artist as free-wheeling bird, above class interests; or else, picked up from Baudelaire, a pathetic symbol of those finer spirits crushed by an uncaring philistine world: hence ‘The voice of the weeping and isolated bird’ in Fuller’s ‘Summer 1940’.) We see the monuments, white walls, buildings, the articulations of the city — aqueducts, drains, fountains — but there are no inhabitants. The whole scene is stagnant. Only birds move freely about. There is a soft wear of stone by water’, melted from ‘static glaciers’: an image of the surface calm of England in the depression years. Though we see no signs of movement in these ‘monuments of easy living’, the interior contradictions are intensifying:
But the crack is widening
Between the sun and moon, the rest and flow,
The vomitorium and immense sewers.
As the city comes to life ‘the naked slaves awake, / Who face another epoch of draining work’. A buddha-like figure, JA, sits within a mouldering, deserted temple.
This was he who ordered
For his tremendous dropsy the sanitation,
But whose emissaries sent timely hence
Brought no green leaf to soothe his helplessness.
The poem ends in apocalypse: roused by a trumpet, the ‘oldest inhabitants’ emerge:
. . . they come
Like grass between the stones, but grass like hair,
And growing goatishly along the sewers,
Over the stage, the temple and on JA.
The dominant feeling of paralysis robs the scene of anything but a chill timelessness. Fuller’s vision of England seems undialectical, even ahistorical; and he evades the fundamental problem of consciousness and will. The proletariat are summoned and promptly fulfil their historic role as prime agents of the dialectic almost as though they were part of a natural process. His use of evolutionary metaphors elsewhere in the early poems reinforces a fundamentally pessimistic attitude towards the working class, lightly masked by long-term confidence in the inevitability of revolution. Like Auden’ s ‘A Communist to Others’, the poem’s reticence stands for considerably more than Fuller’s personal reservations: there are no people in ‘End of a City’, no messy and contingent life within which the political drama of the age was being played out; nor was there an intellectual class, or any poets, and therefore no problem of the intellectual’s relationship to society. The poem avoids the inevitable contradictions between class and ideology on the part of a left-wing lawyer, an intellectual committed to the workers’ movement. The lack of dialectical movement in the poem may be attributed to the author’s ambiguity over his own role in a situation of revolutionary praxis, or even his place in the dying moments of the corrupt, sterile ancien régime. ‘End of a City’ is burdened down by a dilemma which Fuller sensed, but could not resolve.
Fuller’s next collection, The Middle of a War (1942), contained a small proportion of poems actually written on active service. He had joined the Royal Navy the year before. As in the war poetry of Randall Jarrell, the feeling of an individual swept along by the pressure of events, and of the sheer helplessness of ordinary men (and intellectuals) in such circumstances, dominate the book. Such feelings form the social motifs of Fuller’s generation.
Suddenly our relation
Is terrifyingly simple
Against our wretched times,
Like a hand which mimes
Love in this anguished station
Against a whole world’s pull.
(‘The End of a Leave’)
As the war went on Fuller’s language grew tauter, capable of greater focus; he writes in one passage of how a landscape, even perception itself, suffers distortion by the war:
Cigar-coloured bracken, the gloom between the trees,
The straight wet by-pass through the shaven clover,
Smell of the wet as if already these
Were salient or cover.
Henry Reed captured this effect with even greater economy:
. . . there is a row of houses to the left of arc
And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be
Appear to be loving (4).
Fuller’s imagination was most deeply touched by the enormity of events, ‘the grandeur of historical conceptions’:
One confronts the varieties of death and of people
With a certain sense of their inadequacy;
And the grandeur of historical conceptions,
The wheeling empires, appearance of lusty classes,
The alimentary organizations, the clever
Extrications from doom, seize the imagination
As though these forms, as gods, existed cruel,
Aloof, but eventually for our salvation.
People, quotidian reality, paled before the grand sweep of history for an imagination hungry for the apocalypse:
. . . on the quay, in our imagination,
The grass of starvation sprouts between the stones,
And ruins are implicit in every structure.
Gently we probe the kind and comic faces
For strength of heroes and for martyr’s bones.
(‘Defending the Harbour’)
Thrown into contact with the miscellaneous mass of men in the Royal Navy, Fuller struggled to find a way to incorporate them, and their experience, in his art. In a note in Ian Hamilton’s The Poetry of War Fuller refers to the salutary effect of ‘the proletarianization resulting from service on the “lower deck”’. There is little of the declassed intellectual in Fuller; it seems to have been a more theoretical than real experience for him:
. . . in the mess, on beds, on benches, fall
The blue serge limbs in shapes fantastical.
(‘Royal Naval Air Station’)
There are abstracted voices, ‘obscene realities’, in another poem, ‘Saturday Night in a Sailors’ Home’, but the generality of the phrase gives the game away. It simply will not do to say that obscene realities look like obscene realities — at least not in poetry. The aura of petty-bourgeois reservation, pickled for ever in Fuller’s endless reiteration of ‘One thinks’ or does, or is, remains undented. In later years he unforgivably refers to ‘the herd’, ‘the poor anonymous swarm’, the ‘stupidity of slaves’. One gets the same thing in Orwell: a flash of resentment, a moment’s lapsed vigilance, before the almighty pressure of the English class system.
But there can hardly be a socialist art without people, without a rock-solid humanism. Inevitably, the type of such an art is Whitman — warm, generous, open, and yet committed to the lot of the ordinary man. Fuller’s next book, A Lost Season (1944), attempts to make such a remarkably uncharacteristic affirmation:
My living now must bear the laceration
Of the herd, and always will. What’s done
To me is done to many. I can see
No ghosts, but only the fearful actual
Lives of my comrades.
(‘What is Terrible’)
The Whitmanian affirmation appears again in ‘A Wry Smile’:
No longer divided — the unhappy echo
Of a great fault in civilization; inadequate,
Perhaps, and sad, but strictly conscious no one
Anywhere can move, nothing occur,
Outside my perfect knowledge or my fate.
The sentiment is pure Whitman, but it is undermined by the severity of his tone. Fuller’s inflection upon ‘strictly’ opens other levels of meaning, for the aura of the Petty Officer is unmistakeable. By temperament Fuller was unsympathetic to Whitman’s prodigality. How utterly unlike Whitman is his dispassionate comment in ‘Sadness, Theory, Glass’: ‘I feel I should deliver a summing-up / Of all the passion, boredom, history, / Of all the suddenly important lives’. In the flesh people were ‘incoherent presences’ (‘Night’), whose ‘pathetic personal trash’ (‘Autumn 1942’) cluttered up one’s life. He wanted to enact a particular kind of reality and humanity in his verse, but it wasn’t something which could be easily picked up, like a fashionable verse style or political line. Fuller’s evolving political commitment presupposed a relationship to ‘the people’ that was constantly being undermined by his temperament, by his class position — by the complex net of personal and ideological factors which gave rise to the tension between Fuller’s politics and his class position. We need to isolate, and concentrate upon, a particular ‘moment’ in his creative life, bringing contradictions and tensions to the surface, for us to understand the relationship a writer establishes between himself and his age. For we need to see how acute was Fuller’s dilemma by the time he published A Lost Season in order to grasp how ripe he was for a general withdrawal from politics. There was a deliberate echo of Auden in the poem ‘Winter Camp’ when he stated that ‘man must be political or die’; but there is a stale confession of failure in the dedicatory epistle to Epitaphs and Occasions (1949): ‘We would have moved, were held, alas / In the paralysis of class.
Fuller’s subsequent career is a dismal, familiar spectacle of steadily advancing technical mastery and an impoverishment of energy and spirit. What he explained in ‘Obituary of R. Fuller’ was a withdrawal into a kind of emotional and poetic formalism:
. . . his life had all been spent
In the small-bourgeois element,
Sheltered from poverty and hurt,
From passion, tragedy and dirt.
Several poems in Counterparts (1954) make the same point; even when he praises the irrational, he never quite shakes off the tone of the ‘waking rational life’:
I would like to renounce the waking rational life,
The neat completed work, as being quite
Absurd and cowardly; and leave to posterity
The words on book-marks, enigmatic notes,
Thoughts before sleep, the vague unwritten verse
On people, on the city to which I travel.
(‘Rhetoric of a Journey’)
His Oxford lectures project the image of a craftsman, a professional, committed to a poetry enriched by ‘the wealth of historical reference, the insights of science, the sophisticated vocabulary and syntax’ which, like some glorious ancestral property had been ‘accumulated’ over the centuries. But in the decade after the war Fuller was writing poems about finding a spider in a bathtub, a robin singing in a garden, walking alone through snow, a visit to a derelict church, and poems on reading Soviet novels, Gide’s death, on Proust and on Ibsen. This was an ‘abdication from responsibility’ of the kind of which Fuller had accused Alun Lewis; by the mid-1950s Fuller’s position as a polished occasional poet was fairly secure. He was capable of a kind of crassness which, even then, was unusually forthright:
I will cease to blame the stupidity of the slaves
Upon their masters and nurture, and will say,
Plainly, that they are enemies to culture,
Advancement and cleanliness.
There would be no great puzzle about whose advancement is being meant.
At some point in the early 1950s Fuller began to write fiction. He had tried a few children’s stories after the war, but emerged (as did Julian Symons) as a prolific and interesting novelist, ‘trying to delineate in fiction the moral reality of the world I know’ (5). The consequences for his verse did not appear until Brutus’s Orchard in 1957, which contains some of Fuller’s finest work. Despite the general impression that Fuller’s novels are able in the way that the novels of C.P. Snow are ‘able’, writing fiction does seem to have been of considerable advantage to his work as a poet. It has also served to confirm the wholly occasional nature of Fuller’s verse, for the novels sustain more complex problems, particularly those with social ramification. Subsequent collections have carried Fuller further along the direction indicated by Brutus’s Orchard. He will never write a bad poem, nor a very ambitious one, nor will he ever become a technical innovator (unless the term is used in a strict sense). Fuller has become the possessor of a refined style only approached by Philip Larkin among poets writing today. But he may never understand why his achievement may be less than an unadulterated good for English verse; or why a brilliant formalism in which ‘the last trace of conviction / Has long since been extinguished’ (‘On the Mountain’), and which played no small role in shaping the emergent tone of 1950s poetry, can be scarcely less than disastrous for an entire generation of poets and readers who have not been taught to ask for more.
(1) Roy Fuller, Professors and Gods: Last Oxford Lectures on Poetry, London, 1973, p. 147.
(2) Compare the experience of a slightly older poet, Geoffrey Grigson, in The Crest on the Silver: An Autobiography, London, 1950, pp. 119ff.
(3) Fuller, Professors and Gods, p. 148.
(4) Henry Reed, A Map of Verona, London, 1946, p. 25.
(5) Roy Fuller, ‘Mood of the Month’, London Magazine, V. 11 (November 1958),
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The