In the ‘forties anyone could write poetry, and did. It was a version of democracy, I suppose, appropriate to a People’s War. Which means there’s still an awful lot of it around on the charity shop shelves. This encourages, let’s admit it, the occasional gratuitous purchase. So how best to approach what, on closer examination, starts to look like an unwise buy? Well, at least this person had a book of poetry published, which is more than I’ve done, so I have to respect that. And then, tucked away among so many disappointing pages, there could always be the odd small gem. Let’s honour that hope.
My latest ‘forties punt is Symbols and Speculations, the one book of poetry by Jacquetta Hawkes, much published and popular archaeologist and writer (Oxfam chazzer, £2.50). Jessie Jacquetta Hopkins was born in 1910. Graduating from Newnham, Cambridge, she worked in archaeology, marrying fellow digger Christopher Hawkes in 1933, but during the war fell for prolific poet and marginal Bloomsburyite Walter J Turner, taking to poetry herself in 1942. Turner died in 1946. His work –
When I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land …
– is understandably ignored today, but one suspects that his hand is heavy on Hawkes’ poems, and with it a version of the metaphysical idealism of Yeats, the master by whom Turner was encouraged. (Hawkes’ father, Cambridge biochemist – and discoverer of vitamins – Frederick Gowland Hopkins, was a first cousin, once removed, of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but that doesn’t seem to have counted for much.) Also in the background of Hawkes’ poetry, more interestingly, is the shade of William Blake, though not always with the happiest results.
Walter J Turner
Symbols and Speculations was published in 1949 by the Cresset Press, which had a bit of literary cachet, publishing Denise Levertov (as Levertoff) in 1946, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in 1949, and – year after year – the anti-modernist poetry of Ruth Pitter. Hawkes’ poems were selected by John Howard, a founder of Cresset Press and its perpetual literary adviser. (Her Foreword actually says “Hayward”, but this has to be a slip.)
Howard’s jacket blurb hails Hawkes’ “warmth of sensibility which has resisted the cold, intellectual east wind of Cambridge”, but to my mind “sensibility” (a quality too often demanded of both women and poets) is the problem here, and a bit more cold east wind might have helped. Much of this sensibility is aimed at the natural world, where rooks give their old haunting cries, elegant gazelles race on frail hoofs, twinkling throngs of linnets fly, and so on. These creatures are at the good end of an inverted Chain of Being that descends nastily to brutalised modern humans via some unspecified Fall; for Hawkes archaeology seems to be a form of Golden Age romanticism, in which the painful toil of our more remote forebears is more than redeemed by their admirable authenticity, borrowed (for a while) from the animals.
Oddly, for a body of poems written between 1942 and 1948, the War never makes an appearance. Humans may now be “herded in alien ways” along “the hollow sockets of the street”, but there is no need, thank goodness, to organise a better society; all that’s required is to dig down to the remains of previous, better streets and to commune a while with the spirits of our forebears until we touch again our lost innocence.
Hawkes’ longest and hardest worked poem, “Man in Nature”, recounts an excavation in Palestine in the ‘thirties in which a prehistoric skeleton is uncovered. A promising enough subject, but it all goes terribly exotic and oriental, with the approaching silent feet of camels and somebody playing Mozart on an oboe in the tomb. (Mozart? An oboe?) At the climax Hawkes experiences some sort of epiphany:
Now from my rock I heard the passing bell,
Silence fell back behind the silent feet,
And as towards the moon I bared my face
From those full tears that hung below each lid
There sprang a track, straight-sided, into space
A shining track that through my vision slid
To span all reaches of the universe.
It seemed, as under me the great globe swung,
I knew some answer, unambiguous –
But that was long ago, and I was young.
Yes, things were so much simpler back at the beginning of time. If only we could remember it! This isn’t ‘forties neo-romanticism; in fact it’s not neo-anything. It’s still somewhere in the eighteen nineties, all so time-fluxed, so universalising, so theosophical.
But it’s all too easy for me to sit here mocking this stuff. If Symbols and Speculations is not headed for the recycling bin, what am I going to salvage from it? There are, admittedly, some good opening moments. For instance:
Far to the north, here on the earth’s pale forehead,
Through the green mapwork of the Orcades
The boat leaves land behind it, more land lies before it,
We are lost between shifting sky and shifting seas.
That’s fine; I like that. Unfortunately, stanzas two, three and their successors are already lined up at the cliff edge. Or take the first half of “Intimations” (a too typically dreadful Hawkes title):
What was it that just before the event on Salisbury station
Christopher Wood caught between a muslin cap and the ocean?
What is it that Greco’s Christ greets from the garden?
That’s more like it! Especially the Christopher Wood bit. But then the last three lines deliver the answer:
There was something my beloved knew when, a seabird, he was borne on the silence above me
And which opens its wings across the evening sky when I ride home wearily.
What is this invisible butterfly that lures man even along life’s narrowing alley?
No. Noooooo … However, just as I’m about to give up, throw the book away and ride home wearily myself, following my invisible butterfly along life’s narrowing alley, I come across this, tucked away at the bottom of page 20:
She who must suffer most
Her dress shall be the best,
Neglecting not at all
Slim glove or slender waist.
She who must suffer most
Goes like an eager bride
Being in love’s own dress
Yes. At last. I think she’s nailed it. Something simple, direct but affecting, sparse but graceful, in a lyrical, Blakean mode that is not whipped up into kitsch, but is entirely appropriate to the personal pain in which the poem is founded. And personal pain is, as we know, rarely a wise stimulus for poetry that aims to be anything more than therapeutic, so all credit here. (It is also, in the best sense, if I can say this, a woman’s poem, befitting an archaeologist who proposed that the Minoan civilisation was ruled by a dynasty of benevolent queens.) Thanks to this one, rather anthologisable little gem, Symbols and Speculations is saved, earning its centimetre back on my shelf. Phew.
At about this time, Hawkes met J B Priestley, marrying him in 1953. By all accounts it was a most loving partnership. In 1958 she helped found the CND. She published no more poems.
Do the character and underlying philosophy of her poetry throw any light on the validity of her professional interpretations as an archaeologist? That’s a good question, but one I’m not qualified to answer. We might also wonder if current understandings and reconstructions of our remote past and its remains are still coloured by similar romanticisms.