Richard Warren

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

George Barker: more fragments

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T S Eliot as police inspector

Images of George Barker by Patrick Swift and Geoff Stevens

T S Eliot as police inspector

The death of T S Eliot in January 1965 affected George Barker deeply. Eliot had been his publisher, a father figure, and a fixed standard of moral and poetic rigour – “an old friend, a mentor, and a man of moral example”, the “last gentle tyrant” of the English language. “I had known him since I was twenty,”  Barker said later, “and still … l find it almost beyond me to think of him as dead.”

On the evening of the news of the death he composed a stately but affectionate set of “Elegiacs for T S Eliot” – a reading is included on the cd mentioned on the first page of these “fragments”. In 1968 a less obitual, more intimate “Letter addressed to the Corpse of Eliot” appeared; among the Barker papers in the eBay cache is a letter to Barker from Valerie Eliot thanking him for this.

Lastly, the collective “Elegy” (already discussed above in connection with David Gascoyne), published in 1983 but written over an earlier period, also included a stanza for Eliot. On a visit to the church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, Barker had claimed a resemblance to Eliot in the effigy of Rahere, legendary courtier, jester and convert, founder of the church and its associated hospital. In specific reference to this, the “Elegiacs” had acknowledged what Barker saw as the more tricksterish, light hearted side of Eliot’s personality; in the later “Elegy”, the tone is rather darker:

The sober Eliot, who saw two kinds of men:
those of us who know only too well
that what we are begs to be forgiven,
and those who cannot beg. In its cell
he watched, like a plain clothes police inspector,
the drunken human conscience rant and rave
and ravage Europe like the Marxist spectre
rising headless out of its own grave.

Two sheets of early drafts in the eBay cache reveal something of the development of this. The first three and a half lines were immediately and confidently established:

The sober Eliot, who saw two kinds of men:
those of us who know only too well
that what we are begs to be forgiven,
and those who cannot beg.

“Sober” was tied to “Eliot” immediately. “What we are” was quickly substituted as a Catholic correction to the more Protestant original of “what we do”, and “those who cannot beg” for “those who do not know this” – our problem being pride rather than ignorance.

The second half proved tougher work. The first version read:

                                                He also saw
the human conscience as the headless spectre
haunting a vale of tears looking for
the head it lost at Golgotha until
he found a skull near the bones of Peter.

The rather weak “vale of tears” became “more than Europe”. The last line was problematic: Eliot may have found his head, so to speak, at Rome, but it is meant to be the headless human conscience that is searching for it, with Eliot as observer. The line was removed and the headless spectre bracketed off at “Golgotha hill” to maintain the half rhyme. A rather fine last line was substituted, tied to the opening “Sober Eliot”:

Sober Eliot ( ….) who loved the laws of church and state and metre.

This is an inspired epitaph, but there were perhaps two problems: seven out of eight lines were now, rather top heavily, in parenthesis. And the tripartite “laws of Church and State and metre” was maybe too close to this, already used in “Elegiacs”:

The English language mourns her last gentle tyrant, the English church one of her higher advocates, and the English nation its noblest American.

An alternative direction seems to have suggested itself by a happy association of ideas. In place of “He also saw” Barker sketched in “From his cell / he saw”. This cell from which Eliot observes must be the cell of the Augustinian monk Rahere, and also perhaps the tiny basement office of the bank clerk Eliot, or his room at Faber’s. But then “From his cell” becomes “in his cell” –

                                          In his cell
he smiling sat like a police inspector
watching the human conscience rant & rave
and haunt Europe like a headless spectre
looking for its skull in an empty grave

and finally “in its cell”, the cell in which the drunken prisoner, the human conscience (a prisoner of conscience?), rants and raves:

                                                    In its cell
he watched, like a plain clothes police inspector,
the drunken human conscience rant and rave
and ravage Europe like the Marxist spectre
rising headless out of its own grave.

The slightly awkward association between the headlessness of conscience and the crucifixion at Golgotha, the place of the skull, has been sacrificed. The final version flows far better, but as the ranting prisoner can hardly be headless, the headless spectre is similized and pushed one level away by the connecting “like”. In manuscript variations to the second typescript, this spectre is first “searching for consolation in the grave”, then (rather ineffectually) “digging its own ineffectual grave”. Finally, after all this searching and digging of his own, Barker settles on “rising headless out of its own grave”, but to fill the gap left by the shift of “headless” to the last line, the “headless spectre” is now a “Marxist spectre”. Why Marxist? Because Godless, no doubt. But the spectre now seems a little absurd – a cartoon from some anti-bolshevik propaganda poster, a spectre of a spectre that Barker cannot quite take seriously. The conscience is pictured as a drunken prisoner, the prisoner in turn as ravaging Marxism; this second layer seems superfluous.

Barker’s revisions usually disguise themselves in final versions that appear immaculate. Not quite so seamfree here, but no matter, for the arresting image (pun intended) is that of Eliot as police inspector. This is not new; in “Elegiacs” Barker had imagined Rahere-Eliot as “a spy of the gods, disguising himself as publisher, as policeman, verger and bank clerk”. Certainly Eliot had  been publisher, church verger and bank clerk – but policeman? Robert Fraser mentions that one of Barker’s later and largely apocryphal anecdotes of Eliot was that he “had prowled the back streets of London after hours dressed as a policeman”; perhaps Barker honestly believed this? (A half memory of the patrolling midnight narrator in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”? During the Blitz Eliot had been an air raid warden, which would have entitled him to a nice dark blue uniform, but I can find no mention of him serving as a “special”.)

The working title of “The Waste Land” had been, famously, “He Do the Police in Different Voices”, a quote from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend referring to a character’s talent for mimicry when reading the newspaper. Was there some residual association here between Eliot and the impersonation of policemen? And in an early prose piece by Eliot, “Eeldrop and Appleplex” (The Little Review, 1917), the central characters, perhaps on the author’s behalf, are unhealthily obsessed by the goings-on at a neighbouring police station:

Eeldrop and Appleplex commanded from their windows the entrance of a police station across the way. This alone possessed an irresistible appeal in their eyes. From time to time the silence of the street was broken; whenever a malefactor was apprehended, a wave of excitement curled into the street and broke upon the doors of the police station. Then the inhabitants of the street would linger … long after the centre of misery had been engulphed in his cell.

“smiling sat like a police inspector …”: Eliot by Epstein, 1951 (my photo, Garman-Ryan collection, New Art Gallery, Walsall)

But whatever the genesis of Barker’s image, it is a definite fit. A number of images of Eliot – and he was much photographed and portraited – suggest the plain suited figure, seated at a table, observing with a detached intensity, perhaps leaning forward a little in silent interrogation, the line of the mouth lifting slightly at one corner in the beginnings of a wry smile – “he smiling sat …” as Barker first put it. Jacob Epstein’s 1951 bronze certainly suggests this.

The final version of the stanza makes plain “a plain clothes police inspector”; this is not the Eliot who (allegedly) dressed up illegally in uniform, but still the spy of the gods in disguise, the undercover observer. Sober, grave, aloof, quizzical, the poet-detective inspects, considers and deconstructs the criminal mysteries of original human nature, and the nature of the original crime.

Images of George Barker by Patrick Swift and Geoff Stevens

The first page of these “fragments” included a rather unlikely 1935 portrait of George Barker by Jessica Dismorr, abstract painter and ex-Vorticist, with Barker looking unrecognisably like a bit of a Hollywood dreamboat. A very different portrait in oils of 1958 by Barker’s friend Patrick Swift appears here on the excellent website/blog devoted to that painter, which contains numerous images of his work. Barker’s poem to Swift, and Swift’s notebook comments on the portrait, are with it.  The image is clearly taken from a later issue of Swift’s magazine X, in which the portrait was reproduced.  Swift talks of painting the “emanation” of the person rather than the physical likeness, which may account for a faint resemblance to the ageing Noel Coward.

The Dismorr and Swift are interesting, but as a capture of a personality I prefer this much later sketch by poet Geoff Stevens, done not from life but from a forgotten secondary source, probably a photo. It was published on the cover of number 60 of Geoff’s poetry magazine, Purple Patch, in 1991, the year of Barker’s death, though done earlier.

One response to “George Barker: more fragments

  1. gramegrief November 10, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    Valerie Eliot died last night, 9/11/2012, in the flat she shared with TSE, the address of which appears on the letter you reproduce here.

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