No 8 - Autumn 2005
Michael Riviere – Mutability in Norfolk
To end here, in this region,
Long seemed appropriate
To one who has made of it
The region in question is Norfolk, and the author of this verse was a Norwich man who turned himself into a country gentleman. Michael Riviere, the son of a doctor, worked for a brewery in Norwich and then in London and Belgium, but in the mid-1970s retired early to the rural life at his large brick-built Victorian house in the north of the county and there dwelt among his books and pictures, spending much of his quite modest funds on eighteenth-century Italian engravings. As a young man there had been sailing, shooting and point-to-points also – he rode well – but later in life he was not strong. Very thin, very tall (his legs longer than the horse's), he had a weak heart and became increasingly frail. Thus, with time, he grew ever more quiet and still.
The house, Dilham Grange, stands in a few acres of wooded ground on a gentle slope above a small lake. It is a pleasant if not an especially beautiful house, but it is singularly peaceful, which was very much to Riviere's taste. It enabled him to pay close attention to his inner ear, and the ceaseless refining of his poetry. This small body of poems – reissued in 1999 – has proved remarkably enduring. They offer a curious, poignantly anachronistic picture: a poet of the sixteenth century islanded in the late twentieth.
How did this come about? Michael Riviere's life had certainly not been all rural placidity. He began reading English at Oxford, but was swept up by war. He served in the Army and was caught in the debacle of Crete in 1941. He escaped from two camps, so was consigned to Colditz along with three hundred of the more bloody-minded PoWs. Of the poems he wrote there, one in particular has often been anthologised. It describes the German sentries' inability to hold the prisoners entirely:
Unheard, invisible, in ones and pairs,
In groups, in companies – alarms are dumb,
A sentry loiters, a blind searchlight stares –
Unchallenged as their memories of home
The vanishing prisoners escape to sleep.
(“Oflag Night Piece”)
The military tradition was strong throughout the family: in a downstairs toilet at Dilham hung a small framed chart illustrating the skill with which Riviere's submariner father-in-law outmanouevred and sank a U-boat. But there was also a long commitment to the arts. His grandfather, Briton Riviere, was a Victorian academic painter, a specialist in animals. In Briton's grandiose canvases, lions pad about in classical ruins and white chargers bear Christian knights into gloomy forests; the interest is entirely on the horse. Michael Riviere's own tastes were considerably more sophisticated; the engravings he bought were by (inter alia) Giambattista Tiepolo. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, his library contained splendid folios of neo-classical architectural prints, while his cultural heroes were the great patrons of the Italian Renaissance, Leo X and Duke Federigo of Urbino, that ideal of the civilized prince:
The mature man, proven and vigorous to mount
A horse a woman or a muse with the appropriate skill;
Like Theseus not concerned merely to live, and to have lived,
But to leave a hero's mark, a palace, an invention, an example,
To carry the defiance of Time a little beyond Death.
Riviere's own defiance of Time became increasingly fastidious, disdainful of fashions, enthusiasms, fads, politics. He could seem like a latterday Montaigne, immersed in contemplation, discarding more and more that failed to meet his exacting standards – not least his own poems. He revised and tinkered endlessly and, if something could not be perfected, it was dropped. The corpus of verse that he would acknowledge shrank steadily as he saw failings and excesses in his youthful work: the Selected Poems contains just twenty-two pieces, and these are all that he thought worthy of preservation. Here is one of the very few pieces from his Romantic vein that survived the cull:
All Summer through
The gods of loin and eye
The glimpses of her hair and shoulder
In forests from whose startled foliage
Like doves the spiritualities fly.
But when the green
Is scythed away with snow
Only her eyes are seen,
And one God stands declared, to link us
In this transparency of Winter
With neighbourly angels to and fro.
I think that Robert Graves may already have visited that particular wood.
Dilham Grange and its ways are described in close detail in the novel Echoes of War, by Michael's son William Rivière, in which the men of the family are conflated into one, a portrait painter. The image that Michael Riviere himself cultivated was elaborate, including a coat of arms and an Italian motto: Sprezzatura. The word translates most readily as 'nonchalance', but with strong overtones of 'disdain, contempt'. He pursued an interest in certain Huguenot ancestors (he insisted on pronouncing it with a final 'knot'). When he lit the log fire in the drawing room, he would leave the door open for a minute, so as to give the air a delicate taint of woodsmoke. There were moments when one caught a hint of self-parody, of a tongue slyly buried in the cheek.
But there was also seriousness about scholarship, the arts, a measure of civic duty (he chaired committees for the University of East Anglia), a thorough knowledge of his locality, all focused on the country house. And not just his own, but elsewhere across Norfolk:
… some rare
Country houses where
More than the land
Is farmed, quiet halls and manors
That have, in metaphor,
Stood two millennia
Or Horace would have recognised,
Or Ronsard, as civilized …
The contemplation of country houses and the values they enshrined became part of the theme that came to dominate his writing, and which in the sixteenth-century would have been called 'mutability'. It is a theme with which English Renaissance poets – Spencer, Daniel, Lea and others – grappled repeatedly. The great concern is the passage of Time. What does Time erode? What does it preserve? What does it change, or mutate? How might we, our behaviour and our works, come through its slow sifting? Does the shoring up of a gentleman's values offer any defence? How should we face up to death? In poem after poem, Riviere returns to Time and mutability as to an obsession, and frequently the setting is a country house.
In “Rippon”, the Hall is serene and the effect Yeatsian:
We had stopped to eat blackberries when we heard horses
And the three Miss Birkbecks arrived, riding back to the house,
Talkative, sunlit, beautiful, all on grey horses.
Those moments, had a painter been there, might have lasted
A painter, note: for Riviere, a photographer would not have done. But the artist was elsewhere, and the image is lost to Time. In another 'house' poem, he considers his old friend Robert Ketton-Cremer, scholar and last of the Felbrigg squires:
Families have no beginning, but can end,
Though 350 armigerous years
Brighten the vellum …
Here in his great library, ill and slow,
He leans between his lamp and the young moon
The slowness, the illness was something Riviere recognised only too well. When I myself visited Felbrigg Hall some twenty-five years ago, certain rooms were preserved in aspic, the books and papers on the desk, “just as they would have been the day Mr.Ketton-Cremer died”, as the guide assured me. Perhaps they still are, though this handful of dust tossed in the face of Time seemed faintly ludicrous. But while recognising that the very oldest English families are nonetheless the prey of Time, Riviere honoured the 350 'armigerous' (i.e. entitled to a coat-of-arms) years of the squire's family. Contemplating the end of those celebrated Norfolk Renaissance correspondents, the Pastons, he grieves that,
Eternity of blood's no longer, as once,
Any man's confident possession.
(“On Lady Katherine Paston's Tomb”)
It is a consideration one can hardly imagine occurring to a more contemporary poet.
Though Time will certainly get us and our heritors too, retreat to the country might perhaps slow the decay, the erosion. But with age one has to face up to the poor sum of what one is. In a sequence of short verses called Late in the Day, written when he was only in his early sixties, he considered his oncoming frailty:
It needs 'honesty and courage
To face the change? (of age)
Writes Eliot, and seldom a poet
That's man enough to do it.
Absorption in one's own decay in old age is, again, hardly fashionable and might seem to us rather self-obsessed. It was, however, a theme that the sixteenth-century mutability poets returned to repeatedly:
Far from triumphing court and wonted glory
He dwelt in shady unfrequented places,
Time's prisoner …
A man-at-arms must now go on his knees.
The words of Sir Henry Lea, courtier-poet to Queen Elizabeth I, writing circa 1603 about his own extreme old age; they might almost have been written by Michael Riviere c. 1980.
In the countryside, at least, one might escape the trammels of a bewildering, dishonest modernity, and be –
Clear of all that mars content,
Commerce, radio, government …
(“La Boétie jourd'hui, du soleil …”)
This comes from a translation, one of a number that Michael Riviere made from the French poets of the sixteenth-century, particularly the Pléiade circle. Riviere was published by Tambimuttu at Poetry London in the post-war years, when it was rather fashionable to include poems 'from the French' in one's collection (see, for example, David Gascoyne's Poems 1937-1942 published by PL Editions in 1943). Riviere did these particularly well. The insertion of'radio' here tells us that these are 'versions' rather than with strict renditions. One notes the very specific disdain; radio's particular crime was to be noisy: for Riviere, silence was decidedly golden. The one art he had little feeling for was music, which was seldom heard at Dilham. He preferred the ticking of a clock, or that potent consolation for those oppressed by mortality, the sound of children playing in the garden.
Riviere had a great love of the French Renaissance poets, Ronsard above all and, in Ronsard, particularly those poems that dwell on a withdrawing from the world:
My park-gate's locked, and town house door.
I'm not subscribing any more.
(Ronsard, “A Rémy Belleau”)
Not that Riviere would have wanted a town house. Ronsard's Mignonne poems (the “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” genre) perfectly suited Riviere's notions of fragile beauty at the mercy of Time. Here is his version of one of these:
'Let me love you in the sun
Now, while weather holds, Mignonne.
Roses fast as chances die,
And vice versa, so it's said.
Age will dapple that dark head
Soon, almost, as spring's gone by.
Time's in flower. Field and wood
Prompt this harvest of the blood.
Death, like lovers, has his wish:
Just as – look – we strip again,
Tongue to tongue and vein to vein,
He will strip us of our flesh.'
(Ronsard, “Cependant que ce beau mois dure”)
Here are mutability and death once more, expressed with a melancholic sweetness.
For Ronsard, and for Riviere, translation was itself a defiance of Time.
Anacreon made poems of
Inseparable wine and love:
I drink to him, and those true men
Who by their translations have
Fetched him back out of the grave,
English Cowley, French Estienne.
(Ronsard, “Nous ne tenons en nostre main”)
Riviere's admiration of Ronsard has its ironies, since the Frenchman was a Catholic zealot who would have had little time for the Huguenot Rivieres, and was notably keen that his poems should be set to music, even including scores as an appendix to his Amours – something that would have set Michael Riviere's teeth on edge. One notable difference, indeed, between the French originals and Riviere's is that the latter would resist musical setting.* With its dense, clipped syntax, its predilection for the run-over line ending (rather different in feel compared to the Pléiade enjambement), and its sometimes rather packed punctuation, Riviere's verse reads better than it sounds and can be a little thick in the mouth, perhaps the consequence of repeated reworking. But to my mind, the translations from Ronsard are very good indeed, Riviere's finest work. They achieve a nonchalance, a sprezzatura. The playful business of translation, of teasingly updating the Renaissance poet, liberates him from solemnity. In his excellent rendition of Ronsard's “De l'Election de son Sepulcre”, he has the shepherds sing of Ronsard that he was:
A man who, when alive,
Never had to contrive
Contacts or introductions
To important persons;
Used no obsequious tricks
On fashionable critics:
Employed no druggery, buggery
Ronsard, a glittering young aristocrat, had no need of cultivating anyone. Had the younger Riviere, in his Poetry London days, employed a few more such tricks, he could have been more 'famous'. He would have scorned any such thing, but might sometimes have wondered, ruefully.
For a man so inclined to melancholy contemplation, what part could art play?
Artists do no more
Than interrupt time a little,
Though they use blood itself to colour
Verse, palette or score
(“On the Limitations of Art”)
But, at the same time, through the voice of Ronsard (deftly 'Englished') , Riviere evokes the great poets and marshals them in the face of Time:
We Life-creating Dead
Perfect those skills with which
We made earth rich:
Sappho, fished from the sea
Marlowe called from backgammon,
Herbert from Heaven …
The Muse alone may cure
Sad hearts of this world's care,
And flatter the failing spirit
With dreams to inherit.
(Ronsard, “De l'Election de son Sepulcre”)
In one of his own poems, Michael Riviere achieved a charming, lighthearted fortitude in the face of death. It is a piece from his twenties, written as a PoW, but it has little of the war about it. Indeed, it seems curiously unlike a young man's poem at all, more of an old man's retrospective, and prescient of his later career:
Well, Riviere's dead. Muffle a smallish drum,
Beat it in a small way, let us be apt and just.
Small stir kept step with him and can see him home
Very well. The firing party? Simplest
To brief some children for a pop-gun squad.
Art (though he wrote some poems) seems none the worse.
He was in one battle, but unfortunately on the side
That lost. Once managed to ride round a steeplechase course
(Unplaced). Riviere is dead. Look moderate solemn,
Walk moderate slow behind his seven-foot corpse
Who was a half-cock, pull-punch, moderate fellow,
And symbol of so much and vain expense
For years carried pints and gallons of blood about
To manure this casual, stone-sprouting plot.
Michael Riviere died in 1997, more than fifty years after writing this. As Ronsard noted elsewhere, “It's time to leave houses and orchards and gardens, vessels and plate which the craftsman engraves, and to sing one's passing as does the swan …” (Ronsard, “Les Derniers Vers” (vi), 1586).
Selected Poems by Michael Riviere. Available from Peter Scupham, Old Hall, Norwich Road, South Burlingham, Norfolk, UK. £5, post free.
Echoes of War by William Riviere. Sceptre, 1997.
* While checking the notes to this essay, I discovered that someone has, in fact, set Michael Riviere's verse to music. This was the Italian composer Franco Donatori. The piece is Late in the Day, for soprano, flute, clarinet and piano. It was first performed in Norfolk in 1992 by the Logos Ensemble with soprano Sara Stowe.
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