Sunday, July 19, 2020

In Auden's Shadow: Geoffrey Grigson

Geoffrey Grigson (1905-1985)
"one of the most important figures in the history of English taste in our time, the history of taste in painting, and in the sense of landscape and history, as well as taste in poetry"
- G. S. Fraser, "Rebellious Poet"
[Times Literary Supplement (12/12/63): 1030.]

I have to confess this is one case where I am a bit at a loss where to begin. As you can see from my attempt at a Geoffrey Grigson bibliography at the end of this post, no-one could accuse the man of a lack of industry.

That overall total of 84 items is in fact misleading, as some of the entries signal the overall editorship of entire series of books - as in the Festival of Britain "About Britain" guides (1951), or (for that matter) the periodical New Verse, which he edited throughout the 1930s.

The Cold Spring
from the Greek of Leonidas

Traveller, don't drink the sun-warmed water
Of this beck muddied by my trailing sheep,
But climb the hill, there, where the heifers graze,
Go on a yard or two, and you will find, below
That shepherd's pine, bubbling from wet rock,
A spring colder than northern snow.

- Poetry Foundation: Geoffrey Grigson

No matter which way you count it, Grigson produced a huge volume of poetry, prose, and editions of other people's work. It's hard to move sometimes without stumbling over one of his books: flowers, landscapes, John Clare, you name it, if it's rural and English, he's onto it somehow.

So why do I see him "in Auden's Shadow", like the other (at least arguably) overlooked and underappreciated authors in this series?

There's an interesting anecdote about Geoffrey Grigson, Edith Sitwell and Roy Campbell which puts the problem squarely into focus. Here's the opening of Grigson's review of Sitwell's posthumously published autobiography, Taken Care Of (1965):
How are we to explain or explain away (since it is going to need some explaining away for our posterity) the eminence or the acceptance or the at times reverential praise of the poems of the late Edith Sitwell? The poems will fall apart. They strike me, when I look at them again, as a tumble of imitation reliquaries. Of her early poems — the reliquaries are the later ones — some had the tinkliness of a broken music-box, some exhibited the arch simple-mindedness, not always pleasant-mindedness, of a neo-Victorian bouquet of wax and silk under the jags of a dome. Then the war, the bombs, the Great Bomb, and the reliquaries, inside of which there might — or might not — be the scraps of some body of holiness.

I was skeptical when these earnest poems began to appear and to be praised. The psalm sounded — O praise Miss Sitwell in the holiness of her pity and imaginative insight — and swelled; and even old skeptics were converted. But not this skeptic, who looked inside, and found precisely the nothing he expected to find, on past form. It was — I shall vary the exposition and call upon St. Adelbert of Prague and the luminescent fish once caught in the Danube — a fishy to-do.
This passage rather sets the tone for his criticism early and late. Taking no prisoners, might be a positive way of referring to it. Brutal and pitiless demolition of anything he perceived to be second-rate, would be another description.

Roy Campbell (1901-1957)

It seems that at some point in the early 1950s he turned his critical eye on Roy Campbell, the South African poet (and uncritical apologist for Franco and Fascism), who had, by then, become a rather pathetic reactionary drunk. It was in response to this that Grigson was - according to some - slapped by Campbell in the queue at the BBC canteen.

Another version of the story (Grigson's own) has it that he was walking along Upper Regent Street in London when Campbell accosted him, waving his knobbed walking stick, and calling him out for being "so rude to my daddy" (by which he apparently meant Desmond MacCarthy, the senior writer who'd persuaded the BBC to give him a job in the first place).

Grigson replied - according to him - "'Don't be a fool, Roy,' and after a moment or two of nothing that was that."

Roy Campbell: Collected Poems, Vol. III (1960)

Some version of this incident was reported to Sitwell, who - assuming the fight (if fight it was) had been over Grigson's repeated impertinences to her - immediately co-opted Campbell as her white knight-errant, and started to praise his work extravagantly in print - as in her preface to the third volume of his Collected Poems, where she calls him: "one of the very few great poets of our time."

That's one side of Grigson: the attack-dog of mid-century poetry. The other side is a little more difficult to characterise. Part of it was the hero-worshipper: Auden, John Clare, Henry Vaughan - he had his pantheon of the elect. How did he put it in his 1937 essay "Auden as a Monster"?
Auden does not fit. Auden is no gentleman. Auden does not write, or exist, by any of the codes, by the Bloomsbury rules, by the Hampstead rules, by the Oxford, the Cambridge, or the Russell Square rules.
- New Verse, 26–7 (1937), 13–17.

Stephen Spender, ed.: W. H. Auden: A Tribute (1975)

And then again, in his contribution to Spender's Festschrift in 1975, he rapturises about the experience of seeing each new Auden poem for the first time, as he received them at New Verse in the early thirties:
They came on half sheets of notepaper, on long sheets of lined foolscap, in that writing an airborne daddy-longlegs might have managed with one dangling leg, sometimes in pencil, sometimes smudged and still less easy to decipher. They had to be typed before they went to the printer, and in the act of typing each poem established itself. It was rather like old-fashioned developing in the dark-room, but more certain, more exciting
At the far end of the enormous room,
An orchestra is playing to the rich
- there at last on the white page, to be clearer still on the galley, the first entire sight of a new poem joining our literature.
Earth turns over, our side feels the cold ....
- "A Meaning of Auden", W. H. Auden: A Tribute (1975): 13-25.
It sounds as if these smudged submissions from Auden elicited emotions in his acolyte more commonly reserved for love letters than for new additions to "our literature". One wonders if Auden knew? I presume that he did. After all, the excesses of fandom seem to have been every bit as extreme in the 1930s as they are nowadays.

Denis Donoghue (1928- )

What of his own poetry, though? He certainly wrote (and published) enough of it, and made enough surly pronouncements about other people's poetry for us to expect quite a lot.

It seems pretty slight now, for the most part, I'm sorry to say. Critic Denis Donoghue said of it, in an article entitled "Just a Smack at Grigson":
[I]f I were to invoke the criteria that Grigson has enforced upon other contemporary poets, none of his poems would pass. ... Grigson’s peevishness might be justified if his own performances were always sound. But they aren’t. He’s not a scrupulous writer. In a passage denouncing clichés, he writes: "Fiction can survive bagginess or looseness (though it is never the better for it), whereas by those dropsical infections poetry is drowned." Drowned by infections?
- London Review of Books, Vol. 7 No. 4 (7 March 1985)
There's some truth in that, I'm afraid. When careful, they're too careful - as in the example below, quoted with (mild) enthusiasm by Donoghue:
His Swans

Remote music of his swans, their long
Necks ahead of them, slow
Beating of their wings, in unison,
Traversing serene
Grey wide blended horizontals
Of endless sea and sky.

Their choral song: heard sadly, but not
Sad: they sing with solemnity, yet cheerfully,
Contentedly, though one by one
They die.
One by one his white birds
Falter, and fall, out of the sky.

There are some better examples of his poetry out there, though. I particularly like the short epigram, quoted above, from the Greek Anthology. And this late poem, too:

Francis J. Taylor: Dipper on a Waterfall

The Dipper

Staring down from that broken, one-arched bridge,
In that vale of water-mint, saint, lead-mine and Madge,
I was amazed by that fat black-and-white water bird
Hunting under threat, not at all disturbed.

How could I tell that what I saw then and there
Would live for me still in my eightieth year?

[From Geoffrey Grigson: Selected Poems, ed. John Greening (UK: Greenwich Exchange, 2018)]
A number of essays and reminiscences of Grigson are collected in the following volume:

John Greening, ed. "My Rebellious and Imperfect Eye" (2002)
"My Rebellious and Imperfect Eye": Observing Geoffrey Grigson
edited by C. C. Barfoot, R. M. Healey (Amsterdam / New York: Rodopi, 2002)

So far as I can see, there is - as yet - no full-length biography. There do seem to be rich materials for a kind of mid-century chronicle of the Auden era (and after) in an account of his life and times, though. He certainly got into enough fights with his contemporaries to figure in a vast number of other biographies and memoirs!

Geoffrey Grigson, ed. New Verse: An Anthology (1939)

Geoffrey Edward Harvey Grigson (1905-1985)

[titles I own are marked in bold]:


  1. Several Observations (Cresset Press, 1939)
  2. Under the Cliff, and Other Poems (Routledge, 1943)
  3. The Isles of Scilly and Other Poems (Routledge, 1946)
  4. Legenda Suecana. Twenty-odd Poems (printed for the author, 1953)
  5. The Cherry Tree (Phoenix House, 1959)
  6. Collected Poems 1924–1962 (Phoenix House, 1963)
  7. A Skull in Salop, and Other Poems (Macmillan, 1967)
  8. Ingestion of Ice-Cream and Other Poems. Macmillan Poets. London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1969.
  9. Discoveries of Bones and Stones (Macmillan Poets; Macmillan, 1971)
  10. Sad Grave of an Imperial Mongoose (Macmillan, 1973)
  11. Penguin Modern Poets 23: Geoffrey Grigson / Edwin Muir / Adrian Stokes. Guest Ed. Stephen Spender. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
  12. The First Folio (Poem of the Month Club, 1973)
  13. Angles and Circles and Other Poems (Gollancz, 1974)
  14. History of Him (Secker & Warburg, 1980)
  15. Collected Poems 1963–1980 (Allison & Busby, 1982)
  16. The Cornish Dancer and Other Poems (Secker & Warburg, 1982)
  17. Montaigne's Tower and Other Poems (Secker & Warburg, 1984)
  18. Persephone's Flowers and Other Poems (David & Charles, 1986)

  19. Prose:

  20. Henry Moore (Penguin, 1944)
  21. Wild Flowers in Britain (William Collins, 1944)
  22. Samuel Palmer: the Visionary Years (Kegan Paul, 1947)
  23. An English Farmhouse and Its Neighbourhood (Max Parrish, 1948)
  24. Places of the Mind (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949)
  25. The Crest on the Silver: An Autobiography (Cresset Press, 1950)
  26. Flowers of the Meadow (Penguin Books, 1950)
  27. Thornton's Temple of Flora (Collins, 1951)
  28. Essays From the Air: 29 Broadcast Talks (1951)
  29. A Master of Our Time: a Study of Wyndham Lewis (Methuen, 1951)
  30. Gardenage, or the Plants of Ninhursaga (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952)
  31. Freedom of the Parish (Phoenix House, 1954)
  32. The Englishman's Flora (Phoenix House, 1955)
  33. The Shell Guide to Flowers of the Countryside (Phoenix House, 1955)
  34. Painted Caves (Phoenix House, 1957)
  35. The Shell Guide to Trees and Shrubs (Phoenix House, 1958)
  36. English Villages in Colour (Batsford, 1958)
  37. Looking and Finding (Phoenix House, 1958)
  38. The Shell Guide to Wild Life (Phoenix House, 1959)
  39. A Herbal of All Sorts (Macmillan, 1959)
  40. English Excursions (Country Life, 1960)
  41. Samuel Palmer's Valley of Vision (Phoenix House, 1960)
  42. The Shell Country Book (Phoenix House, 1962)
  43. Poets in Their Pride (Dent, 1962)
  44. Gerard Manley Hopkins (Longmans, Green & Co., 1962)
  45. O Rare Mankind! (Phoenix House, 1963)
  46. The Shell Nature Book (Phoenix House, 1964)
  47. [with Jane Grigson] Shapes and Stories (Readers Union, 1965)
  48. The Shell Country Alphabet (Michael Joseph, 1966)
  49. Shapes and People – A Book about Pictures (J. Baker, 1969)
  50. Poems and Poets (Macmillan, 1969)
  51. Notes from an Odd Country (Macmillan, 1970)
  52. The Contrary View: Glimpses of Fudge and Gold (Macmillan, 1974)
  53. A Dictionary of English Plant Names (and some products of plants) (Allen Lane, 1974)
  54. The Goddess of Love: The Birth, Triumph, Death and Return of Aphrodite (Quartet, 1978)
  55. Blessings, Kicks and Curses: A Critical Collection (Allison & Busby, 1982)
  56. The Private Art: A Poetry Notebook (Allison & Busby, 1982)
  57. Geoffrey Grigson's Countryside (Ebury Press, 1982)
  58. Recollections, Mainly of Writers and Artists (Hogarth Press, 1984)
  59. Country Writings (Century, 1984)

  60. Edited:

  61. New Verse (1933-39)
  62. The Arts To-day (John Lane The Bodley Head, 1935)
  63. New Verse: An Anthology. London: Faber, 1939.
  64. Visionary Poems and Passages or The Poet's Eye. Lithographs by John Craxton (Frederick Muller, 1944)
  65. The Mint: a Miscellany of Literature, Art and Criticism (George Routledge & Sons, 1946)
  66. Before the Romantics: An Anthology of the Enlightenment (Routledge & Sons, 1946)
  67. John Craxton. Paintings and Drawings (Horizon, 1948)
  68. Poems of John Clare’s Madness. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949.
  69. Poetry of the Present: An Anthology of the 'Thirties and After (Phoenix House, 1949)
  70. The Victorians: An Anthology (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950)
  71. [General Editor] Festival of Britain "About Britain" Guides (Collins, 1951)
  72. The Three Kings: a Christmas Book of Carols, Poems and Pieces (Gordon Fraser, 1958)
  73. William Allingham's Diary (Centaur Press, 1967)
  74. The Concise Encyclopedia of Modern World Literature (Hawthorn Books, 1970)
  75. The Faber Book of Popular Verse (Faber & Faber, 1971)
  76. The Faber Book of Love Poems (Faber & Faber, 1973)
  77. Charles Cotton. 1974. Poet to Poet (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975)
  78. Britain Observed: the Landscape Through Artists' Eyes (1975)
  79. The Penguin Book of Ballads. 1975. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.
  80. The Faber Book of Epigrams and Epitaphs (Faber & Faber, 1978)
  81. The Faber Book of Nonsense Verse: With a Sprinkling of Nonsense Prose (Faber & Faber, 1979)
  82. The Oxford Book of Satirical Verse (Oxford University Press, 1980)
  83. The Penguin Book of Unrespectable Verse (Penguin, 1980)
  84. The Faber Book of Poems and Places (Faber & Faber, 1980)
  85. The English Year from Diaries and Letters (Oxford Paperbacks, 1984)
  86. The Faber Book of Reflective Verse (Faber & Faber, 1984)


Roger Allen said...

' those dropsical infections poetry is drowned." Drowned by infections?'
Well, yes, Denis Donoghue reveals his own ignorance there. Dropsy - oedema - is fluid retention. If people had a dropsical infection of the lungs, they could drown.

Grigson wasn't much as a poet, I'd agree, but he was a very good anthologist. I came across some very good poems and poets in his anthologies as a poem-hunting teenager. He had excellent taste in his heroes, if not in his own poetry: his praise is one reason John Clare is being published in full at last and Henry Vaughan is regarded as more than a mere eccentric hanger-on of Herbert.
He wae also interesting because both his wife and his daughter wrote very good books on food and cooking. As I get older, I get more interested in food and cooking than poetry, i'm afraid.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, some very good points there. I agree about dropsy. I also, however, am forced to agree with Donoghue that Grigson was a bit careless in his own phrasing at times, while being hypercritical of others'.

I too have benefited from Grigson's grounbreaking anthologies. It's true to say that his pioneering Poems of John Clare's Madness has been greatly criticised by some of those subsequent editors you mention for textual unreliability, though. He made some excellent signposts, but his own selections of such poets as Cotton, Vaughan, Clare and others can no longer really be regarded as trustworthy.

His interest in pastoral, however, so seemingly perverse at the time, has now swung back into favour as the genre has become a vital part of the environmental movement.

Richard said...

Interesting. I cant say I have seen any anthologies by Grigson that I can see. I have that note book of enigmatic entries. He wrote a lot for sure.

I think I read his book on or of Clare's mad poems, or was that Holderlin? I've read both as well as Smart's long one.

The one edition of The Penguin Modern Poets I am missing is no 23. That would at lest give me a sample of some of his poems.

'The Cold Spring' is a good poem.

Richard said...

Yes, it almost seems that Grigson was 'hoist with his own petard'. Is is right to dish it out to poor old Edith Sitwell? Of course she had vanity...but. Nevertheless he looks to have had wide interests. I think I read that book of Clare's madness. It seems that it is not clear that either Smart or Clare were actually "mad". I suppose that is de facto unknowable. Clare is good and indeed he can be compared to Shelley as the more 'grounded' poet (as in your lecture) and of course Shelley, while he could be great and just, only just, seems to get away with those long silvery works and there is his Prometheus Unbound and his political approach and so on -- but yes, Clare would possibly be more fashionable nowadays. Grigson's range of interests is wide. Palmer, G M Hopkins, birds in Britain even Wyndham Lewis...and I think he lived in a Cave-House, I had never heard of them; and he had a strong interest in British modern artists.

I have also got his journal or day book 'The Private Art' which starts well, so all of about two pages of it are good! I'll read it and report on it.

A biography might be quite interesting. Especially considering indeed his relationship with Auden.

I was thinking about the use of 'dropsical' as I read Donahue's 'dropsical' comment. Grigson may have been a good poet but not as good as say Christopher Middleton or some of the more radical writers. But he looks interesting.

R.M.Healey said...

If Mr Ross owned or at least had read, Grigson's first three poetry collections, he, and indeed others who have contributed to this Imaginary Museum website, might have a more balanced assessment of Grigson's stature as a poet. And if he had read the verdicts of many of Grigson's fellow poets of a younger generation, as I have done while co-editing My Rebellious and Imperfect Eye, he may have reason to revise his views on the poet he appears to damn with faint praise. Yes, Grigson may not have been the most scrupulous of craftsman, but even some of his enemies ( and he had a few) would admit that the critical standards and significant influence he exerted during a literary career of over fifty years, were noteworthy.
Start with My Rebellious and Imperfect Eye and follow up some of the biographical and critical leads in it and you will be a better position to pronounce on Grigson. Incidentally, I have been researching a critical biography for many years while my short introduction to Grigson's work ( in the Writers and their Work series)will soon appear from Liverpool University Press.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Certainly I take your point about reading more of his poetry before pronouncing on it. I'd certainly be most interested to read your critical biography when it appears. For the most part, though, I think most of the adverse judgements quoted above come from other people rather than me. Grigson did, after all, write a colossal number of books, and only a specialist can hope to have examined them all. I am in that position when it comes to Auden, but not (alas) Grigson himself.

Richard said...

Yes, everyone is guilty of not reading the 'primary texts'. And Grigson wrote a lot. It is like someone said of Bach (I think it was the biologist Lewis Thomas, (who was a kind of philosopher also...especially in his short piece re the humble wart!) who was quoted when they were lauding Bach at a Centenary or something, that he would like all his works...but then on second thoughts it would be intimidating. Where to start? Still Grigson's biography would be interesting. I will look out for it.