Francis Hope, in a sparkling though scathing review of my longer monograph on Durrell (Lawrence Darrell: A Study, 1968), referred to the poems and the travel books as Durrell's most permanent achievements. I shall deal with the poems first because when I first came across them in two important little magazines, Nicholas Moore's Seven and Tambimuttu's Poetry London, in the late 1930S, these were what 'hooked' me on Durrell as a new and unknown writer of wholly individual talent, 'a new voice in a new time'
The poems are still, it seems to me, the part of his writings where Durrell is most his natural self In the 1930S, a period of much polemical political verse, these poems did not harangue. Compared, also, with the prose of The Black Book, of which Nicholas Moore published some samples in Seven they did not strike me as too highly coloured, congested over-spiced. Durrell's poems have from their beginnings been beautifully modulated; by the word 'modulation' I mean the way in which a really skilful poet can move gently from the expression of one mood at the beginning of a poem to that of a contrasting, contrary, or more fully inclusive mood at the end of a poem, without any effect like that of a motor-car abruptly and crashingly changing gears. Modulation in this sense is closely related to what I. A. Richards calls 'tone', a poet's tact in anticipating and handling the responses of his imagined audience.
Durrell's tone in poetry I would call one of quiet amenity of controlled poignancy. (A witty but rather malicious critic once said to me that in his poetry Durrell has taste without genius, in his prose genius without taste.) The poetic personality that came across to me when I read those early poems which appeared so fugitively in the 1930S was one gentle, compassionate, temperamentally sad but quirkily humorous, essentially lonely. I thought these early poems also (as I think the later poems) the work of a religiously-minded man.
This is not to say that Durrell is poetically concerned with religious dogmas or with crisis-states, such as those which may precede conversion. He is concerned with the expression of an interior religious mood that one might call quietism or, in Gabriel Marcel's term, 'recueillement', self recollection, the ingathering of the self with all it reflects upon itself: concerned with an often sad, but always grateful and affectionate cosmic piety. If Durrell is a kind of mystic he is the kind of mystic who is concerned more with the All than the One. The single fierce God of Semitic religion is not invoked in his poems, only the genius loci, the little god of the particular landscape. Yet though he is concerned both in poetry and prose with the plurality, the multifariousness, the plenitude of life, he is concerned with these also as manifestations of some ground or process which is ultimately single.
The early poems, like the later poems, were self communings, but there was nothing excessively or rawly private, like some of the passages, for instance, in Auden or Eliot. The two poets whom Durrell most admired at the beginning of his poetic career were Auden and Eliot. In his preoccupation with landscape and historical sites, and their emblematic human meanings, he still has close affinities with Auden; like Auden he thinks of human roles and characters as largely a function of human ecology. Like Auden, he was much struck in youth both with the psychology of Groddeck, who sees physical illness and neurotic behaviour as an expression of the thwarting of the It (not Freud's Id, but a predetermined and unconscious seed of the life-pattern) and with Kretschmer's close relating of human temperament to physique. He thinks of himself as, in Kretschmer's terminology, a pyknic_round, short, bouncy, muscular, socially extroverted, capable of creating instant social fun.
One can see some of Auden's tricks and devices in Durrell even today. The influence of Eliot is harder to trace. Eliot, for every great new poem, each 'stage on life's way' (Kierkegaard's phrase), created an essentially new style though hoarding and using again and again with frugal prodigality a few obsessional key images: fogs, streets, corners, cats of various kinds, lilacs, hyacinths, eyes, gardens. Eliot's influence on his younger contemporaries is pervasive but, as Auden has said, hard to trace in good poets in the detail of their work. Perhaps Eliot's greatest influence on Durrell was not on Durrell's verse, but on his strange early prose work, his first really original book, The Black Book which could be considered as a kind of expanded prose variation of The Waste Land.
Durrell has never lost his freshness as a poet, but I do not think one can speak of his development, as one speaks of development in Eliot, Yeats, or Auden. As a writer both in prose and verse, I think Durrell acquired what educational psychologists call a 'set', a framework for perceiving the world, probably in mid-adolescence. All his writing from the age of nineteen or twenty onwards has been a feeding of experience into the 'set' rather than a use of experience fundamentally to change it. Clearly, it was a good or useful 'set', but one has always a sense, as it were, of Durrell durrellizing experience rather than of experience un-durrellizing Durrell. I think this makes him a very good minor rather than a major poet. Most major poets have faced at some stage what Scott Fitzgerald called 'the crack-up', and have magnificently stood up, brushed off the broken bits of coloured glass_I am thinking of the Claude-glass, by which landscape painters of the eighteenth century could turn the raw green of real grass and leaves into a 'mellow brown' appropriate to traditional convention _and started doing something quite new.
I am not sure that Durrell, even in his more adventurous excursions in prose, The Black Book, The Alexandria Quartets and Tunc and Nunquam, ever got rid of the Claude-glass
He differs from his friend the American writer, Henry Miller, who has been a great influence on him, in that literature for him is always something done with words, not something that gets beyond words. He differs from Miller, also, in being fundamentally a reticent and reserved writer, about his private life. His correspondence with Miller, edited by George Weekes, is, in what has been printed, essentially a 'literary' correspondence, a technical one: a correspondence about the ideas and problems of the writer as writer. And the 'I' of the three island books, Prospero's Cell, Rejections on a Marine Venus, Bitter Lemons, is_though least in the Vast of these, which is a bitter and direct book_ an edited version of the author, a small human figure put into a large painted landscape to give scale.
Darley and Pursewarden, of course, in The Alexandria Quartet project (and all projection implies a kind of profiled simplification) aspects of Durrell's own experience and character: yet they are frankly fictive, also, in a frankly fictive world. But the poems, in their quiet and urbane modesty combined with confidence, are as near, not to confessional writing, but to what Yeats calls 'heart-revealing intimacy' as, perhaps, Durrell ever gets.
Durrell's poems seem to me to fall into not more than four or five main categories. There are a number of short lyrical poems whose main charm lies in their musicality (as a very young man Durrell tried, not very successfully, to write words and compose tunes for Tin-Pan Alley lyrics). Then there are meditative and descriptive poems, reflections on the spirit of place, history, memories, friendship. There are a number of very pleasant light and comic poems, the equivalent of Robert Graves's 'satires and grotesques'. There are some rather Browningesque poems, appreciations of character, about Horace, La Rochefoucauld, and Byron, for instance, each seen in a different way as examples of the pain and limitation of the artist's life, as well as its achievement. My possible fifth category would be short lyrical poems which are, of course, musical but are more memorable
for a riddling metaphysical content than for their musicality. Though these shorter lyrical, musical or meta-physical poems are shaped with great care, there is in the longer poems sometimes a deliberate 'roughening up' of the texture. What looks like carelessness here is not so. There is a line in a fine poem written in Egypt during the war, 'Alexandria':
Or like a walker in the darkness might . . .
I used to worry very much about what seems, at first, the sub-literate use of 'like' for 'as'. The poet Hilary Corke pointed out to me that the k of 'like' locks in with the ks of 'walker' and 'darkness' and that the diphthong of 'like' chimes with the diphthong of 'might'.
From his earliest to his latest poems, Durrell has this concern with verbal texture, with sound-sense relationships. One way in which he has perhaps technically developed is in making this concern a little less obtrusive than in his earliest work, in achieving an impression of careless ease. Rather similarly, from The Black Book to The Alexandria Quartet, and from The Alexandria Quartet to Tunc and Nunquam, the prose is always rich and ornate, but The Black Book is congested and self-conscious in a way that The Alexandria Quartet is not, and Tunc and Nunquam move with a kind of ease, the style sometimes spoofing itself or 'sending itself up', in a way that is not typical of the great technicolour blocs, the magnificent set pieces, of The Alexandria Quartet. As a prose writer, Durrell has always wanted the reader to say, 'Gosh!' He now says 'Gosh!' himself, in a rather chuckling way.
Let me quote a stanza from the poem 'Alexandria' which I have already mentioned. In this poem, as later in The Alexandria Quartet, the city of Alexandria becomes an emblem of, or symbol for, a civilization already in decay and threatened by war, a place of exile, a place where the artist's very loneliness intensifies his sense of the fused richness and tragedy of life: a place of great sensuality, and yet also of remote and difficult spiritual and artistic aspiration. Concrete and topical, indeed, as the poem is, it is a lasting poem, since for all of us in Western Europe our Alexandria is here and now:
So we, learning to suffer and not condemn
Can only wish you this great pure wind
Condemned by Greece, and turning like a helm,
Inland where it smokes the fires of men,
Spins weathercocks on farms or catches
The lovers at their quarrel in the sheets;
Or like a walker in the darkness might,
Knocks and disturbs the artist at his papers
Up there alone, upon the alps of night.
This stanza might be a better epigraph than various sentences from that prolix sophist de Sade for The Alexandria Quartet. Most of the scenes and topics of the four interlinked novels are sketched here; the inland farms, the lovers at their quarrel in the sheets, the walker in the dark-ness, the artist's effort and loneliness, the progress of the soul through learning to suffer and not condemn, and the pure wind (the wind of the spirit that bloweth where it listeth) reviving and disturbing lives that have become like stagnant water.
The poems about artists have also a very close relationship to the major prose works. The Black Book and The Alexandria Quartet are, almost like 'Trilby' or 'La Vie de Boheme', about artists, about those who fail to become artists, about those who, self-destructively, treat their lives as an art-work, about those, like Pursewarden, who achieve the state of the true artist but begin again, striving for a state of love or truth which lies on the other side of possible artistic expression. Perhaps the finest of these poems is 'On First Looking Into Loeb's Horace'. Durrell adds his own notes to the notes of a friend whose copy he has borrowed:
Here, where your clear hand marked up
'The hated cypress' I added 'Because it grew
On tombs, revealing his fear of autumn and the urns',
Depicting a solitary at an upper window
Revising metaphors for the winter sea: 'O
Dark head of storm-tossed curls'; or silently
Watching the North Star which like a fever burns
Away the envy and neglect of the common,
Shining on this terrace, lifting up in recreation
The sad heart of Horace who must have seen it only
As a metaphor for the self and its perfection_
A burning heart quite constant in its station.
An artist (at least in verse) rather like Horace, a very patient reviser of metaphors, Durrell richly conveys here both the splendour and the wretchedness of the artist's vocation. Elsewhere, in the poem, Horace is described as 'fat, lonely, and unloved'. In this passage the phrase 'the envy and neglect of the common' does not, of course, refer to the common people's envy and neglect of a prosperous and great poet, but to the lonely artist's envy of everyday happiness, and his neglect of the common pieties of every-day affection that make happiness possible.
There is great psychological acuteness later on in this poem in the description of Horace's having 'the pose of sufficiency, the landed man'_the artist is usually not quite a gentleman but, if successful, is allowed to pretend that he is one !_and of Horace's disguising a sense of failure in a hatred for the young.
Horace's Sabine farm, and by implication his poetry, are described as this 'forgery/Of completeness'. The word 'forgery' both suggests the craft of the goldsmith or silver-smith and the idea of something counterfeit. Neither art in itself, nor the life of the artist, can for Durrell be genuinely complete. There is something beyond art to which art is only a path.
The unevenness of Durrell's writing, his readiness to turn his hand to many sorts of pot-boiling, the occasional slap-dash or overwritten passages even in his more ambitious prose, can no doubt partly be ascribed to his often having had to write rapidly and copiously, to earn money, and partly to frank and honest failures of taste, or boyishness of taste: in prose, at least, Durrell nearly always prefers tup-pence-coloured to penny-plain. But the unevenness can much more fundamentally be ascribed to a feeling Durrell has that art is generally ranked far too high in the scale of human activities: there are things, as Marianne Moore says, 'beyond all this fiddle'. Durrell often uses words like 'love' or 'feeling' or, more recently, in Tunc and Nunquam, 'freedom' to express what it is that is more important than art, and his sense of the imprisonment of the mere artist in art. Horace is 'held from loving by a sort- of wall'. La Rochefoucauld is made to say, 'I could not get beyond this wall', and also:
Though love is not the word I want
Yet it will have to do. There is no other.
I have been treating the poems, perhaps, too much as clues to Durrell's prose writings and his 'philosophy'. To show simply how beautiful they can be, here is a complete short poem, 'Lesbos', expanded from a hint from Sappho:
The Pleiades are sinking calm as paint,
The earth's huge camber follows out,
Turning in sleep, the oceanic curve.
Defined in concave like a human eye
Or a cheek pressed warm on the dark's cheek,
Like dancers to a music they deserve.
This balcony, a moon-anointed shelf
Above a silent garden holds my bed.
I slept. But the dispiriting autumn moon,
In her slow expurgation of the sky
Needs company: is brooding on the dead,
And so am I now, so am I.
This is about cosmic harmony and human love as reciprocal metaphors for each other (which is vehicle, which tenor ?) It is about the inevitable loneliness of the artist who is part neither of the love nor the harmony, but the wistful and accurate observer of both. That good old stage property, the moon, makes yet another farewell appearance in poetry, but with a slightly new role, purifying the sky, as the poet must purify his heart. This could be called a perfect short poem_a little too conscious of its perfection, perhaps?_ but it moves us because of the yearning, because of the piety towards the dead, and the reminder that perfection, like patriotism, is 'not enough'. Durrell's poems are a series of quiet but insistent reminders that the mixed richness of life, for which he has such a relish, and the possible limited perfection of small works of art, a perfection which in verse though not in prose he can sometimes achieve, are both signposts to something beyond themselves. Taken as the destination both richness of content and finality of form become congested, claustrophobic, indigestible, a wall.
Yet, paradoxically, though Durrell feels this very deeply (and though this is the main thing his poems are, so to say, 'talking about'), the poems themselves remain exceedingly 'enclosed' poems. Durrell does not wrestle violently to 'break out' of his poems, to peck through the shell from within, in the manner, say, of Robert Lowell in Lye Studies or Sylvia Plath. He is a poet of ordered distance rather than violent immediacy. The poems are not, of course, any more than anybody else's poems, all equally good. Sometimes Durrell relaxes into a kind of stylish doodling. But the graph of achievement is a fairly even wave pattern rather than a jagged series of peaks and valleys. The sustained coherence and consistency of mood, tone, and craftsmanlike care over a poetic career of forty years or so is honourable and impressive. Some critics have seen Durrell in his prose works as a kind of first-rate con-man, a brilliant charlatan. In verse, he never bluffs or cheats.
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