Tag Archives: Ireland

Review: “A Joy Proposed” by T.H. White

‘A Joy Proposed’ is a nice, somewhat strange, assembly of 57 often derivative poems from across the life of T.H. White. Many of the pieces were written in Ireland where White lived as a Conscientious Objector throughout the Second World War. His love of the countryside and his previous experiences as a schoolmaster (including at Stowe, a boarding school in rural Buckinghamshire with 600 acres of grounds) shine through in the constant juxtaposition of poems about game birds, dogs and landscapes alongside anger and bitterness about innocent lives lost to war.

The style varies from extreme simplicity, as in ‘A Choirboy Singing’:

Know not, but sigh.
Think not, but die.
Hope not, but high
Ache against ill.

to outpourings evocative of Whitman or Hopkins, as in ‘A Dray Horse’:

Meek Hercules – passion of arched power bowed in titanic affection,
Docile though vanquishing, stout-limber in vastness, plunging and spurning thy road –
Tauten thy traces, triumph past me, take thy shattering direction
Through misty Glasgow, dragging in a tremendous beer-waggon thy cobble-thundering load.

His pessimism, or perhaps mere sadness, at the human condition comes through again and again in the sense of the young lives he has been educating that will now be thrown away:

When I look at your comely head
And the long fingers delicately live
And the bright life born to be dead
And the happy blood to be shed
(…)
I die within me. And I curse
The witless fate of man without all cure.
Music I curse, and verse,
And beauty worse,
And every thing that helps us to endure.

… but mitigated always by his love of Nature, both hunting (as in kestrels and dogs he owned) and hunted (as in game birds he shot).

White is primarily known for his ‘Once and Future King‘ retelling of the Arthurian legends, and those novels soon went to stage and screen as the musical ‘Camelot’ and the Disney animation ‘The Sword in the Stone’. If it wasn’t for those novels, his other novels would probably be forgotten today and his poetry would be unknown. It isn’t great poetry, and yet I have read it and reread it. He was a writer and with it he was lonely, alcoholic, bitter, witty, learned, compassionate, and alive to the natural world. All of that comes through in these verses, with his self-awareness of who he was and what he was achieving. As he wrote in ‘Lines Cut on the Cottage Window’:

A bitter heart lay here and yet
It was not bitter to the bone.
It made what Time does not unmake
All hopeful, and alone.

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Poetry of Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice wrote one perfect poem, “The Sunlight on the Garden”. Insightful, wistful, tightly rhymed in a pattern maintained for four stanzas, easy to memorise, it is frequently anthologised and rightly so:

Louis MacNeice, Selected Poems

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot ask for pardon.

Others of his poems are easy to find, “Bagpipe Music”, “The Truisms”, and so on. They and a lot more, including good excerpts from his longer works, are in this excellent selection.

The similarity of much of his work to Auden is clear (for example in “Postscript to Iceland” after their shared journey there), but the thing that intrigued me unexpectedly was the similarity to the poems of T.H. White. The Irish background, English education, writing of cities and countrysides and cultures of both places, the being in Ireland at the outbreak of World War II… the rhyming, the frequently loose structures, the general tone of many of the character sketches… all those aspects of White’s “A Joy Proposed” echoed as I read MacNeice.

MacNeice, however, is without question the superior poet. After all, he wrote one of the most elegant poems in the English language.