No 12 - Autumn 2007
Charles Hobday’s Poetry: A Personal Appreciation
After a false start in the 1940s Charles Hobday wrote his mature poetry continuously from about 1960 till his death two years ago in March 2005 at the age of 87. It appeared quite widely in the magazines throughout that time, but only one book of any size appeared, a Selected Poems, How Goes the Enemy (Mammon Press, 2000). The result has been the neglect (to my mind at least) of one of the most considerable bodies of poetry of the period, and also incidentally one of the bodies of poetry to which I myself have had most frequent recourse. The purpose of this essay therefore is to put down something of what I myself have found in this body of work in nearly forty years of my acquaintance with it.
Hobday’s poetry falls naturally into various periods. 1. The 1960s up to the suicide of his first wife Inez in 1972. This work is often domestic, but also haunted by the essential failure of Hobday’s period in the Communist Party of Great Britain (which ended in 1957). It includes however the long piece The Return of Cain (Outposts, 1974), which is the first, and perhaps most considerable of his ventures into myth. 2. 1973-82. This is a period of darkness, but also achievement. It includes the fine elegies for Inez, A Wreath for Inez (Hub, 1976), written after her death (almost a modern “In Memoriam”), some very dark ventures into myth (notably Lancelot failing to find the Grail, with unstated but real reference to the failure of Hobday’s youthful left-wing ideals), and poems (usually bleak) about the history of Bristol, but also the lovely ecstatic poem for William Morris’s funeral, some interesting poetry occasioned by visits to Italy (notably “David”, about Michelangelo’s statue certainly, but even more about the politics of Republican Florence that occasioned it) but also some good light verse. The local poetry group, The Circle in the Square, provided a constant, if not always sympathetic audience. In 1983 Hobday married Helen Strauss and moved to London, and the tone of the next decade reflects their happiness. The poems are urbane and gentle, and often very wise. Finally, as Helen became more and more ill with Alzheimers in the late 1990s the urbanity became much sadder, but also richer. Finally came the long poem Elegy for a Sergeant, written at great speed and issued as a pamphlet by Lapwing in 2002. This is about the tragedy of the First World War, largely from the point of view of the ordinary soldiers, who died in that conflict, and is added point to by the losses suffered by Hobday’s male relatives in the 1914-18 struggle.
The poetic style employed by Hobday is at once plain and pragmatic, and very musical. There is a constant tension between apparently plain clear statement, and making that statement unexpectedly sonorous to the point of adding a whole non-verbal layer of meaning. He was drawn to a free verse that ultimately owed much of its sound to his deep early experience of Shakespeare and Langland, while being powerful as colloquial statement. Thus, rather obviously, from his fine poem on the death of William Morris, “Harvest Home”:
Not for him a glass sided hearse,
mourning crepe round the hats of hired mutes
and blackdyed plumes tossing on horses’ heads
but a yellow harvest wagon with red wheels […]
But this style is equally capable of the satirical. Thus, the reunion of former university students, and Communist party members in “Thirty Years On”:
Glyn’s teaching up in Norfolk. Roy’s in airports
and wades in fivers to the bathroom.
When last heard of Phillip was in Tass.
But this mode of composition is also capable of ironic nostalgia in the late, and very fine “Tea in the Orangery”, where (among other things) the poet plays with the metrical possibilities of “carrot cake and cappucino” in different word orders, finally concluding:
Now, all passion spent, I have come home
to where I can meditate at leisure
the finer points of metrics and cadence.
Carrot cake and cappucino please.
And yet twenty years and more before those delicate late lines the same poet wrote in the voice of Seth in “The Return of Cain”:
I find my truth in action.
I am what I create and I destroy
knowing destruction must precede creation.
What is interesting is the singleness of the means used throughout these wide-ranging poetic adventures in colloquial, rhythmically sensitive and sonorous free verse, which has a tone quite different from anyone else’s.
However brilliant these successes, free verse was not the only mode available to Hobday. He also used brilliantly spontaneous metrical verse, which often has something of the exuberance of the Byron and Auden he loved. Thus the humourous seriousness of his “Hyde Park Corner” at the height both of Thatcherism and the Nuclear Alarms of the early 1980s:
You’re just five minutes’ walk from Speaker’s Corner –
pick up your soap box, Byron, take it there.
Our England badly needs a moral sauna,
so speak the truth, as only you would dare,
speak for the hopeless, the oppressed, the mourner,
speak for our moods of anger and despair.
Humbug still reigns, that you so much detested,
so speak your mind – peers seldom get arrested.
However Hobday’s metrical voice is also capable of the deeply dissonant “Lancelot”, which really must be about the failure of his own Communist ideals, but is ostensibly about Lancelot’s failure to find the Grail. The poem is constructed on a simple, widely separated rhyme on find, repeated in every stanza, but is full of secondary sounds that are outside the standard rhyme scheme.
Menacing crags to right and left,
dark forests creeping in behind.
Gnashing its black teeth upon the rocks
before me the black river howled.
I sought for what I could not find
Thus in this opening stanza there is a ferocious tension between the fairly standard rhyme of “find” and “behind” and “howled”, which introduces a strong discord.
It is fashionable to talk of neglected poets, and indeed more than one genuine case of neglect is to be found among the poets of Hobday’s generation – the late Brian Merrikin Hill and Edward Boaden Thomas, or the Irish poet Brian Coffey, or Jasper Rootham. Nevertheless the neglect of Hobday seems to me by far the most unaccountable. He was a poet who wrote with immense clarity and real verbal music upon the main themes of life – death, love and politics. He ought to be a household name. It is quite absurd that he is not.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
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- Brando's hat
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- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
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- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
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- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
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- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
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- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
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- Poetry Salzburg Review
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- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
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- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
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- Yellow Crane, The