Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

George Barker: fragments

Page contents:

An unpublished fragment by George Barker

George Barker by Jessica Dismorr and Mervyn Peake 

George Barker on  poetry and the incantatory

The genesis of Gog and Magog

The exaggerated death of David Gascoyne


An unpublished fragment by George Barker

Recently an eBay seller in Canada has been offering a collection of George Barker papers – letters, drafts of poems, and a couple of robustly obscene drawings. The seventy pages were first offered at $7,000 but are still unsold at $1,000. They are undoubtedly genuine, and must have come originally from a family source, though their provenance is not given. They appear to date mostly from the last decade of Barker’s life. The bulk of his papers, according to his biographer Robert Fraser, are now in the British Library, with smaller deposits in a couple of other academic collections.

Among the scans posted with the auction is one item that is described as unpublished. I believe that it is, but I stand to be corrected. (Another draft, also claimed as unpublished, appeared with revisions under a different title in Street Ballads, Barker’s last collection.) Since the scan has long since been in the public domain on eBay, I see no harm in giving a transcription of it here.

The complete typescript is longer than this, but only the first sheet has been scanned. The given title is “Poem Addressed to Love as a Tardy Fake”, and it’s written in the long, loose, almost conversational, pentameters that Barker often used. The theme is typical of Barker’s work. “The fate of height” is a nice phrase. And “vinous” (like wine) is a word you don’t often meet. This may not be among his greatest, but Barker’s worst is better than the best of many, and even an incomplete version may be of interest.

Barker remains out of favour and out of print, but he should be considered as one of the greatest 20th century British poets.


Are all those violets wasted that once April
so lavished upon you simply because you liked them?
Why does the lilac expend its delicate exuberance
more liberally, and for us alone, when we happen to be
engaged in a love affair others find frivolous? Will
the morning ever again lift the curtain from your bedroom
window with quite as tender a finger as
when you slept with a serpent? Who has not heard the
hedge sparrow twittering fragments of Theocritus
of a summer afternoon and known that this small bird whistled
only in the cage of the ribs? We hear the sparrow
but not hope on its winged horse gallivanting
after a golden echo. We hear even the
fluttering by of the butterfly but not the tremendous
error of Icarus shedding and spreading about us
feathers foret[e]lling fall and the fate of height.
My dear fellow, when the clouds assemble at sunset
who, gazing at them from an arbour with a lover
can forsee his own suicide later in the evening
imposed by the vinous Circe? Who speak coldly of Augusts …

George Barker by Jessica Dismorr and Mervyn Peake 

This ink and wash drawing appeared in the September-October 2009 show of 20th century watercolours and drawings at Abbott & Holder. It is by Jessica Dismorr, the Vorticist and abstract painter (1885-1939), is dated to 1935 and clearly has provenance. It is initialled “GB” and is said to be a portrait of the twenty two year old poet George Barker.

Dismorr was a fine painter, and the style reflects her confident employment of clean lines and curved shapes. The features bear at best a very approximate resemblance to Barker, whose hairline would been receding rather more than this, even in 1935. Interesting, and a nice image, but to be fair, maybe portraiture wasn’t Jessica’s thing … A matching image of Dylan Thomas has surfaced elsewhere. Marked “DT”, it might relate to Barker’s “Epistle to D.T.”, first published in May 1937, the first instalment of a projected exchange of letters in verse. Though the two men were barely acquainted by this date, Thomas had agreed, but never came up with a response, and the project was abandoned. The Dismorr images may be connected with this.

Dylan Thomas by Dismorr

The Dismorr image of Barker makes an interesting comparison to the charcoal drawing of him by Mervyn Peake published in the London Mercury for June 1937. There seems to have been no particular connection between Barker and Peake, though both were in London at the time, and Peake wrote to Barker in the same month, presumably in connection with this. Peake was an inspired illustrator, and this is a pleasing image and a good likeness in its way, though with Peake’s portraits one feels that living people are seen through a lense of authorship, somehow tending towards the condition of characters. In effect, everyone is slightly Gormenghastified. Here, Barker could almost be a benevolent and sensitive elder brother to Steerpike.

George Barker on  poetry and the incantatory

From The Jubjub Bird or Some Remarks on the Prose Poem & A Little Honouring of Lionel Johnson, Greville Press Pamphlets, 1985, printed in an edition of 150. (The Greville Press was founded by Anthony Astbury and Geoffrey Godbert, and supported by Harold Pinter.) Barker’s insistence on the incantatory and magical nature of poetry seems particularly timely today, given the severely prosaic character of much that claims the quality of poetry.

A short extract:

“What has happened, I suggest, is that, in the looser machinery of the prose poem some and even much of the emotion is dissipated. A quality as of incantation, present, even in verse not intended to incant, is partly or largely lost. This incantatory element – I remind myself of the meaning of the verb to incant, which is to cast a spell or bewitch – this incantatory element arises principally from the employment of recurrent or repeated rhythms. And these rhythms are precluded from prose by its very nature. For prose in which the rhythms recur becomes, quite demonstrably, verse. And so it is possible to say that prose is precluded by definition from casting spells, bewitching, or incanting. Then we could define a prose poem as a poem that abstains from incanting or casting a spell, or, if you prefer this kind of language, that refrains from the imposition of formal hypnosis.

 For the mind, it seems, is cast into a sort of semi-dream or sleep by the repetition of sounds and rhythms, like that state of seemingly transcendental abstraction that can be induced in the mind by the endless repeating of the same word. And by this repetition of sounds and rhythms the mind can even be brought, as by alcohol, into a condition where the critical faculty begins to suspend its simpler operations. From this partial suspension of the critical faculty we have evolved the idea of poetic licence. The critical faculty, having been momentarily seduced by magical formulae, having been, as it were, bewitched, concedes that these magical formulae are permissible, providing, of course, that they work. And it is precisely this incantatory element in the poem that cannot be satisfactorily analysed by a purely semantic explanation. It was Hugo von Hoffmannsthall who defined incantation as the Romans defined it also: ‘the dark and violent self-enchantment induced by the magic of sound and rhythm.’”

The genesis of Gog and Magog

Said Gog to little Magog.
‘And why me and you?
And what and where and when and how?
And who my god is who?’

 Barker’s 1976 collection Dialogues etc includes a series of eight “Dialogues of Gog and Magog”, conversations between two characters who voice humanity’s bafflement at some of the more intractable questions of existence. (In fact, only a couple of these are actual dialogues; the remainder being more the etcetera.) These talking puppets are given a pair of names, mentioned briefly and obscurely in the Old Testament and by Geoffrey of Monmouth, that have subsequently become attached to the two legendary giants of English folklore whose statues stand in the Guildhall of the City of London, and after whom the Gog Magog Hills, near Cambridge, are named. Barker said that he visualised them not as the Guildhall carvings but “rather like walking Henry Moore statues”.

But there may also have been a more local inspiration. Norwich is not far from the Barker home near Itteringham in Norfolk. A prominent building on Tombland in Norwich, facing the cathedral, has long been known as Samson and Hercules House. For many years a restaurant and ballroom, then a nightclub, it is named after the two carved giants that form the pillars of the front porch, now replicas of the 17th century originals. Not Henry Moore, but equally monumental.

They seem to be appropriately named; Samson at the left carries his jawbone of an ass, and holds what appears to be a small sheep – intended as a lion? – while Hercules is recognisable at the right with club and lionskin. However, local tradition also knows them as Gog and Magog, and a vintage photo of the building appears to show a sign reading “Gog and Magog Teas”. Noticing these figures on a visit to Norwich, and unaware of their identifications, I took them for images of Gog and Magog, and it occurred to me that Barker may well have known them as that.

Tradition also has it that when the cathedral clock strikes midnight, the two statues descend from their plinths and beat each other with their clubs. (Is there in the “Dialogues” a distant echo of Tweedledum and Tweedledee?) Barker’s Gog and Magog are also much exercised by the tyranny of time. In Dialogue III they sing of the clock that ticks continually in front of the continually walking ghost; in VIII they listen to “that old cuckoo clock” that “ticktocks until you’re dead”, but then rejoice that

There in the morning gardens
the children of the clay
have charmed the time out of the clock
and never age a day.

Coincidentally, W H Auden was educated at Gresham’s School in Holt, again not far from Norwich. In “The Witnesses” he wrote:

You are the town, and we are the clock,
We are the guardians of the gate in the rock,
the Two;
On your left, and on your right
In the day and in the night
we are watching you.

And they are still watching us. The upper floors of Samson and Hercules House are now holiday apartments. The ground floor and basement are to be auctioned on 24 June.

The exaggerated death of David Gascoyne

A few of the auction scans from the eBay cache of Barker papers (see “An unpublished fragment”, above) are of pages from a draft, with variants, of one of his most beautiful poems, “Elegy”, published in Anno Domini in 1983. (Barker was recorded reading this, gruffly but masterfully, in January 1983, a recording included on a CD compilation still easily available and well worth having: British Library / BBC, The Spoken Word, George Barker, 2008, NSACD 41. The excellent notes to this are contributed by Robert Fraser.)

“Elegy” is a collective requiem, in which a sequence of beloved ghosts is evoked; in response to their voices, “like an old dancer, the heart arises and takes hands with friends”. The personae include some for whom Barker had already written individual elegies – T S Eliot, Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde, David Archer – but it stands beyond these, as a summation of his own life and friendships, an evocation of an era.

But how long before 1983 was “Elegy” actually written? The poem speaks of “times that resound down twenty years”, while the “tartan shirted daubers” and “shrill lickspittle poets” who are remembered, some from Barker’s ‘fifties Soho days, died mostly during the ‘sixties: in order of their verses, John Minton, painter, 1957; Robert Colquhoun, painter, 1962; Robert MacBryde, painter, 1966; Randall Swingler, poet, 1967; Brian Higgins, poet, 1965; Louis MacNeice, poet, 1963; David Archer, publisher, 1971; T S Eliot, poet, 1965; Tom Blackburn, poet, 1977. It is noticeable that the recording of January 1983, otherwise almost word for word the same as the printed version of later that year, does not include the verse in memory of Tom Blackburn, which may have been a very late addition. All this could suggest a period of composition mainly in the mid to late ‘seventies.

The eBay auction material has been rather randomly scanned; while the scans do not appear to cover a full draft of this poem, they do reveal some interesting early versions of certain verses. In particular, a manuscript first version of the verse addressed to David Archer is added below the typescript of the final verse of the poem, suggesting that it may have been an afterthought. In the published version this reads:

And Archer, a David not cut in stone
but in the all too vulnerable flesh
of a man born to love, but to live alone,
seeking the moral vision as the fish
follows its lethal fly. But the bait
always evaded him, and sank down the stream
leaving only a hook’s wound to create
pain that only more pain could redeem.

In the draft, the first version of this verse is addressed not to David Archer alone, but, rather startlingly, to two Davids – Archer and Gascoyne:

Gascoyne and Archer, Davids not cast in stone
                        but in the all too vulnerable flesh
of men born to love but live alone
unfindable love                  one true love
                            seeking the beloved as the fish
            seeks out the fatal hook. But the bait       sank down stream
                        always evaded them and flounced away
                       only the bitter hook
            leaving the fisher-kings wound to create
                        the fisher kings
                        a wound only more suffering can redeem.

The enduring and respectful friendship of poets Barker and Gascoyne is well known, and has been documented and celebrated. The only problem is that Gascoyne was still very much alive at this time, and remained in that state until 2001. Had Barker somehow thought that he was dead? Apparently so. Weirdly, something similar had already happened in relation to Archer. In his wonderful biography of Barker, The Chameleon Poet, Robert Fraser recounts that in 1967, Barker had been mistakenly informed that Archer had died. This false news, in Fraser’s words, “expressed a piquant half-truth. For years now Archer’s existence had been a living death.” Sunk in poverty and degradation, Archer finally killed himself in 1971. His death greatly distressed Barker, who titled his 1973 collection in his memory. But what of Gascoyne’s “living death”?

Gascoyne’s ‘thirties journals were published in 1978 and 1980. In 1979 Barker and Gascoyne shared the platform with William Empson, W S Graham, John Heath-Stubbs and John Wain (what a line-up!) at the launch of Anthony Astbury’s Greville Press, and in 1981 Barker attended Gascoyne’s sixty fifth birthday celebrations. If he had taken Gascoyne for dead, it must have been well before this period, and perhaps before Gascoyne’s 1975 marriage to Judy Lewis, whom Gascoyne had met, under remarkable circumstances, in hospital on the Isle of Wight, after a long period of mental illness during which his public presence had largely faded, when “there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour”, as Gascoyne himself put it, quoting Revelation.  To mistake Gascoyne’s invisibility for an early death must have been a forgiveable error during that sad time. Had there been rumours of his death? Barker must have been unaware that Gascoyne was still in the land of the living and had in fact found his “unfindable love”. All this suggests a date of composition for “Elegy” well before its time of publication.

The “unfindable love” / “one true love” / “beloved” had also eluded Archer, who had been condemned to a series of unsatisfactory homosexual encounters. In the final version, interestingly, Archer is made to seek not love, but the equally elusive “moral vision”. For Barker, love and the moral vision are always intertwined, though not often happily.

It is also worth noting that the two Davids are originally wounded by the hook of an Arthurian (and Eliotesque?) “fisher king”, in a line of association from the fish and bait image. But in the final version the fisher king has been eliminated, presumably because, in the legend, it is he who must endure the unhealing wound, and not the fish that he pursues.

Picking over unpublished variants of poems is so often an unprofitable academic flyspecking. But browsing these drafts, one is struck by the extraordinary skill with which Barker could shape ragged bunches of alternatives into seamless and flowing final versions, the poet’s mind working backwards to uncover an seemingly unworked clarity of form and meaning. In “Elegy” as a whole, this uncovering process of writing gives focus to the cloudy shapes of the re-membered dead, reanimating them. In the Archer/Gascoyne verse, the revision that removes Gascoyne marks, invisibly, an actual resurrection.

Where are they now? How can they be nowhere?
Can you rise from your grave?

asks Barker. In David Gascoyne’s case, apparently, the answer was – yes!

One response to “George Barker: fragments

  1. jams caffery November 18, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    I was given a drawing pen & ink many years ago from Neville Atkinson who was the Dean of Clare college Cambridge. He told me the picture was by the late George Barker. The title of the picture is ” The Thirteen Breasted Ballerina”. It is not signed and is in need of a clean. I cannot get any info on the drawings of George Barker. Can you help.

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