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George Barker

This is a revised and expanded version of an essay first published in PN Review 11, 1979


The poetry of George Barker presents something of a critical challenge at the present time, for it undoubtedly contravenes a number of current allegiances and practices. That it is apparently out of fashion is no cause for concern, however: nothing wears so badly as the fashionable, just as nothing is outdated so speedily as news. Barker remains committed to the taking of risks when many modern poets may be likened to snails who obtrude their perceptual horns only in twilight in the fear they may be blinded by the light of the sun. He is a rhetorician when the values of a plain style and diction are frequently recommended. He is a romantic individualist in a time of increasing collectivism. But, in his refusal to subscribe to the doctrines of any party of clique, he as to my way of thinking become one of the few English poets of his generation whose achievement demands that his fellows measure themselves against him, rather than vice versa.

His work at large offers a reader one of the keenest of pleasures - that of seeing before him the gradual stylistic evolution of the artist which images the ethical development of the man. His poetry comprises his moral autobiography. Even where it wears a mask of impersonality it is instinct with experience of life. That alone, of course, wouldn't make Barker a considerable poet: what does is his possession of the further and crucial capacities - of being capable of reflecting deeply on experience, and of being able to render it in all its richness and paradoxicality. He isn’t afraid of claiming the broadest human significance for his experience, claiming it even when what demands utterance is disturbing, unpalatable, likely to meet with a reader's rejection. This conviction that he must speak out of the authority of personal experience casts the poet in the role of wise man, or magus, and is a function that lies at the heart of Romantic poetic theory and practice. It's a function many contemporary poets question or reject. Yet it's difficult to think of a major English poet since Blake whose verse doesn't arrogate this function to itself - it's there, I think, even in the poetry of the American-born and classicist Eliot. To say this is to testify to the ambitiousness of Barker's undertaking: it's the order of ambitiousness which can't in itself guarantee a major achievement, but without which no major achievement may be won.

The history of Barker's rhetoric is the history of his style. By rhetoric I mean the way a poet employs language in order to affect, delight and produce a response in his reader. Keats believed that poetry should surprise with a fine excess; a willingness to cultivate excess is characteristically Romantic, is part of the Romantic's conception of what being a poet involves. In his early poetry - at large that of the nineteen-thirties and forties - Barker finds that to be a poet is to be committed to rhetoric. Yet (and here, for the Romantic, lies the crucial paradox) his rhetoric, though it's a wilful rhetoric of excess, is not conceived by him as being superfluous. Rather it's integral to his conception of his business. He's a poet who adheres to a creative as opposed to an imitative view of his art. Far from doubting the capabilities of language, far from regarding it as an inferior, makeshift and continually degenerating instrument, he's prepared to stake everything upon it. What he seeks to articulate is the reality that lies behind the appearance, the phenomenon. What else but words should we use in an attempt to capture the thing-in-itself, the noumenon? (How does St John affirm that God created the universe but through the Logos - language, the creative principle?) Barker treats words as objects in their own right which, when made to resonate with being, declare the transcendent nature both of themselves and what they name.

The strengths and weaknesses alike of his early poetry stem from his rhetoric. At this time his parnassian (Hopkins's term for any poet's bread-and-butter writing style) is elaborate and intricate, self-consciously artificial. For Barker, as for his contemporary Dylan Thomas, a poem must be formal, patterned and highly charged, an electrified entity which a reader shouldn't encounter without receiving a few shocks. The price barker pays for his rhetoric is heavy - especially in his long poem Calamiterror which I find, even after perseverance, far too rich to digest. His early poems display two particular weaknesses: a first, a narrowness of tone; second, a tendency through their studied artificiality ("Daedalus", a poem on the artificer, is a good example) to draw attention to themselves as mechanisms. In addition the poet makes it very difficult for himself, since his writing is typically highly wrought, to rise to that further pitch (relative to each practitioner's parnassian) at which poets are likely to achieve their most memorable things.

The finest things in barker's books of the nineteen-thirties and forties are usually said to be shorter poems: "Allegory of the Adolescent and the Adult", "Battersea Park", "Resolution of Dependence", "To my Mother". To these may be added "Triumphal Ode MCMXXXIX", "Epistle II", "Letter to a Friend" and a considerable number of parts of poems. In these a pressure of thinking and feeling finds fluid and unified expression. The closure, for instance, of "Triumphal Ode":

Truth is the mirage after which we labour
Through wastes of pain under destruction's star,
Which, though we cannot reach or in it harbour,
Teaches us that our resting-place is far
Further than New Zealand or a nebula.

This paradoxical and cautionary insight into the poetic condition is one Barker has never forgotten. What is remarkable about these lines is the way in which, in the very teeth of a trenchant realism, they capture a perversely affirmatory buoyancy.

Good as they are, however, none of the poems I've listed constitutes the young Barker's finest achievement. This I think the ambitious and audacious "Vision of England '38", where his willingness to take risks is stunningly justified. In this piece he casts himself in that Romantic tradition to which Blake's Jerusalem and Shelley's The Triumph of Life belong: indeed Blake and Shelley both appear to him as he journeys through a divided, economically depressed and war-shadowed England. As in Jerusalem anything is possible since all that the creative imagination contains of history, myth and symbol is equally of the present moment; thus, in addition to the two poets, the narrator meets St George (occasion for a characteristically good-natured pun), William Longspée, Alfred the Great, his own shade, and a young woman - a personification of the distressed industrial North. His social and political concerns draw from Barker a clarity and immediacy that much of Collected Poems 1930-1955 lacks. The portrayal of the young woman of the North illustrates the variations in tone this poem accommodates:

"I am the North," she said, "whom the South follows
Like bailiff or police who demand my money.
He caught me in the road and rifled my mind,
Took the gold from my teeth and left me hollow.

"Yes, the South in his bowler and morning jacket,
His leather satchel, and handkerchief in pocket,
He called me a whore, but when he'd had his worth
Not a penny he paid me for the child I bring forth."

She ran her hand through her hair. I saw
Jarrow on her third finger like a lead ring.

This is a bold and undaunted personification in an age unsympathetic to such a device. The wit of founding the woman's tale on popular tradition and the resilient comedy of the music hall ensures that there will be no descent into the over-solemnity of the propagandist. The lead ring of Jarrow weighs the more heavily on her marriage-finger by virtue of the lightness of touch in the preceding lines. Six lines later -

Then the December star sprang over a rock,
Filling the lines of her face with livid silver;
And a filigree of lace flittered over her shoulder,
Making her anger a monument of silver

- we encounter typical early Barker rhetoric, here beautifying without sentimentality and ennobling without affectation. The poetry is beautiful, but not for its own sake - it's beautiful for the sake of the woman, to whom it pays the tribute that the man of the South has denied her. Its affirmatory impulse lies at the heart of this poet's vision: to affirm, to praise, is the act that demands to be made in spite of the most compelling reasons for doing the opposite - for subsiding under a burden of pessimism. Its successful marriage of art-speech and social/political subject matter makes "Vision of England '38" one of the more remarkable poems of the thirties.

The most important individual works of Barker's middle years are, to my mind, The True Confession (Book I of which was first published in 1950, Book II in 1964), "Goodman Jacksin and the Angel" (1954) and Two Plays (1958). In these he confronts steadily, vigorously, wittily and without illusion questions that have preoccupied Christian thinkers. At the heart of his concern lies an agonising dilemma which I will put in the simplest terms: if God exists it must follow that man is guilty of some enormous original sin, since to be condemned to life on earth is to be condemned continually to enact a monstrous, inexpiable penance; yet existence in a world without God (and a society that denies His existence is a society without Gid whether he exists or not) is more unbearable still, for that is to locate oneself in a world devoid of moral shape and existential justification. In these middle-period works a greater directness and a fresh colloquial strength make themselves felt. It's as if his grasping at the nub of experience has come to demand from the poet a language that can articulate the quotidian. The Barker rhetoric, his art-speech, is still there to be invoked at need, but it's now a thing to be worked towards, to be earned. The True Confession of George Barker and "Goodman Jacksin and the Angel" are written in loosely rhyming octosyllabic stanzas that look indebted to Villon. Of the two plays for radio, The Seraphina is written for the most part in a colloquially based prose which, especially in the utterances of Peter, can take on great force and eloquence; this flexible prose is punctuated by songs and by passages of free verse. A high degree of flexibility also characterises the continuous verse of In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree, which often rhymes or off-rhymes.

The True Confession wrestles with the greatest and most intransigent themes: sexual love, the nature of sin, the enigma of the Divinity. The three are bound up together in an exploration of the consequences of adultery: the poem concerns one man's movement out of the pastoral meadows of innocence into the stony fields of experience. In youth one may believe that the love of lovers, that sexual acts themselves, are sacramental. The mind of the poet of experience, however, is a split, dualistic entity; Barker's contemplation of love in the body throws up images pregnant with disgust, images conceived in a Hamlet-like mood of repulsion. The truest human love must, by contrast, be a platonic, spiritual thing. So far so good - but love is shot through with paradox. For Barker insists that loving - and he means adulterous loving, love that involves the betrayal of love - is a trap set by God, or nature, to catch man: for it is necessary that men should sin. The consciousness of sin (Barker's mind is inescapably Catholic) brings with it a heavy freight of remorse, an urge to repentance, a need of forgiveness. And since only God can forgive man, the sinning lover is brought to recognise his need of God - who Himself, of course, is Love. The finest of the poem's sections, Book I part 5, includes a memorable expression of the birth of faith from the body of doubt:

But, O my God, the human purpose,
If at all I can perceive,
A purpose in the life I live,
Is to hide in the glass horse
Of our doubt until the pity
Of heaven opens up a city
Of absolute belief to us,
Because our silence is hideous

And our doubt more miserable
Than certainty of the worst would be.

The True Confession refuses to maintain a level temperature. It courts contrast, woos extremes, delights in abrupt and violent transitions of tone and register and, suddenly changing gear, will rise out of vulgar colloquiality to enter upon a flight of rhetoric that is rich in metaphor. It would be wrong to dismiss the first and cleave to the second, for these extremes of register are a means of conveying the poet's conception of double-natured love, of Eros the rose and the sore. The invocation of the spirit of Villon in I.3 is, for example, splendidly energetic and witty. Even so, the poem has its weak points and excesses. The conclusion of Book I strikes me as self-indulgent rather than self-revealing, while as a whole Book II does not possess the unity and coherence of Book I. Here Barker sets out to ask the question: Is there a God to forgive us, a Logos endowed with the power of absolution? Book II can add nothing essential to its predecessor, however, and when even a poet's occasional blasphemies proclaim a fundamentally religious consciousness it is inevitable that his poem will end in a re-assertion of the existence of "the Eternal Tense".

"Goodman Jacksin and the Angel" is a debate between body and soul. Jacksin, who early on asserts that gods are man-created and must in time perish, is the sensual, unreligious man whom the Angel must attempt to awaken into spiritual awareness. Good and evil, the poles of "the great antithesis", are matters that the Angel (like his relation in Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell) finds it easy to explicate: evil is of the flesh, of sexual origin. Jacksin retorts:

You rave like any soapbox gabber.
Evil is simply this, my friend:
A good we do not understand.

The longer their debate continues, the closer together do the disputants draw, until the poem takes on the quality of a duet between a counter-tenor and a bass, the two singing in counterpoint octaves apart. They are compelled to agree that

The laws of act and consequence
Obey a justice none
May follow with a rational sense -
For it is not our own.

Each comes to admit his guilt - guilts similarly born of excessive love: Angels are guilty of idolatry before "That hallelujah they adore" whilst Jacksin is guilty of giving "to all living things" instead of to his Maker the love that is not his to give. In their closing speeches the erstwhile opponents demonstrate the mutual enlargement of their understandings: the Angel accepts that "the first god that ever was" arose out of the embrace of Love and Death, and Jacksin accepts his possession of a soul and his necessary obedience to a master he "Shall never understand". The dialectic of the poem is itself an example of the antitheses that govern human life.

The Seraphina confirms George Barker (if such confirmation were required) as a poet deeply engaged in exploring the interplay between contraries, and our most important contemporary inheritor of Blake. Here the antinomical vision is embodied in an allegory of twin brothers, Josephus and Peter (significant names), who again represent the natural and the spiritual - men compelled to co-exist in mutual love and occasional discord while they voyage on the seas of life. Josephus is content to live from day to day, to pursue pleasure. Peter in contrast is a man in thrall not only to his own but to the whole human past, a man driven to seek out an expiation for the sins that weigh on him, an expiation that he knows, even as he seeks it, he'll never find. He's fully aware of the irony of his predicament, and expresses it in one of the most lucid and penetrating statements about the human condition to be found in Barker's work:

I pursue the spectre of innocence backward through all the crimes and the homicides that have destroyed it. The infant figure of that former innocence we pursue is burned to ashes in the air by the very passion of adoration with which we pursue it. What a man seeks is that catharsis which purifies him of all the arson he must commit in order to ignite this catharsis.
...
everyone is like that man who has knifed his god in order to stuff a hand into the wound and pull out a theology. So that the god who is discovered is always a dead god. And the innocence that is recaptured is always pregnant.

Innocence and experience are seen to be mutually conditioning, and god a principle men kill to discover they cannot do without it. The inextricability of opposites is shown again and again in The Seraphina. At once point the voyagers observe a pair of sea-monsters locked in mortal combat, only belatedly to realise that they were engaged in an act of love. Peter's statement, "We have seen the terrors of the abyss destroying themselves for love", resonated far beyond its context - as it was meant to do.

There is no final, transcendent revelation of this voyage - nor could there be given the assertion of "Triumphal Ode". It is in art as it is in life: all we are permitted are insights along the way, limited truths that we may well at a later date come to doubt or reject. The islands of the Blest the brothers seek are not to be found, and the Head of Orpheus informs them that, even if they were, these rocks would be discovered to "ache with the same unrest" as human hearts. Ultimately Josephus and Peter are replaced on The Seraphina by a pair of castaways bearing their names, and we are left to wonder at the ambiguity of this ending: do we die or only seem to die, living on in others? Again we are forced to recognise that the great questions that fascinate us are, as they always were, unresolvable.

On the face of it, Barker's poetry of the sixties and seventies undergoes no little change. Breaking further and further away from the formal restrictions he imposed on himself in his earlier work, it gains greatly in rhythmical freedom. Voice and tone increase in importance, and his diction becomes purer in each succeeding volume. His rhetoric, particularly in poems composed in long, supple, on-running lines, acquires a poise and urbanity that tempts one to describe it as neo-classical. Where it survives with least purgation - in, generally speaking, formal lyrics - the poetry is at its weakest. (The Golden Chains [1968], a collection of 104 eight-line lyrics, should, however, be excepted from this judgement: uneven as it is, it's a book which impresses the more it's read, and contains some memorable encapsulations of its author's perennial themes.)

But the alterations in this later work are very much a matter of garb, are of the surface only; they constitute the latest mask of an unrepentant Romantic Modernist. The new style can be seen as a strategy to clothe Barker's Muse in a manner appropriate to the age. In the opening poem of the sequence "Dreams of a Summer Night" (1966) he writes:

I do not know the purpose of this journey, or even
If in the end it reaches a purpose, and have no desire to know,
for the prospects
Are so wholly marvellous in themselves that to contemplate
Them is enough.

- lines that bring very much to mind the discoveries of the youthful traveller in "Allegory of the Adolescent and the Adult". And in poem XXXIV of In Memory of David Archer (1973) he says:

I do not aspire to write the truth about
what I think, because I would not know
when I had written it, whether what I had written
in fact was the truth or not. Words do not deal in the truth
- nor did the Galilean Pilate - they deal in the
more human commodity of what, for the time being,
we would like to believe is the truth.

A comparison of these lines with the closure of "Triumphal Ode" illustrates just how far Barker has gone in stripping down his style, in developing a poetry of tough, clear intellectual statement. Yet, different though the experience of reading later barker is from that of reading early Barker, what his work of the two periods is out to declare remains essentially the same: latterly he has assumed the deceptive mask of reason precisely in order to demonstrate reason's inadequacy as an instrument in the revealing of truth. The line from David Archer are enough to stop any critic dead in his self-satisfied tracks: at least until, that is, he realises that they must stand as severely qualified by what they assert as any other poem in the book.

Barker's essential keeping of faith with his earlier poetic selves has undoubtedly been made possible by the deliberateness with which, from the very first, he courted paradox, inhabited Beulah (that region of the creative imagination where contraries are equally true). In continuing to articulate the tensions that characterise the human predicament he has deepened and clarified his grasp of them. In case I'm taken to imply otherwise I must here state that it would be wrong to hold the later work up as judge of the earlier: what judges the early work is the early work, just as what judges the later is the later. To have it any other way would be like proposing that a man of fifty criticise his twenty years-old self for lacking the depth of experience he now possesses; the man of fifty (it is a wry Barkerish truth) has only become what he is by way of being what at twenty he was. Barker has gone on to explore the contradictions of Eros both at length (in the ambitious, powerful and impressive "Venusberg" sequence (in Poems of Places and People [1971]) and in brief, teasing juxtapositions (as in poems XV and XVI of David Archer). But it's as a poet of an intense intellectual beauty that I believe him to have produced his best work of the sixties and seventies, poems unsurpassed in their kind by those of any other poet working in English during this period. Beginning with "Roman Poem I" in The View from a Blind I (1962, a large a disappointing, transitional collection) these poems have continued to appear in every book excluding The Golden Chains up to and including Dialogues etc. (1976: see "The Oak and the Olive"). They are present with the greatest density in his sequence "Dreams of a Summer Night" in the volume of that title.

Poem II of this sequence (which incidentally furnishes the contrary of the poem from David Archer quoted above) provides the justification of Barker's entire poetic endeavour:

...all words, and all objects, particularly the most commonplace, carry
Invisible robes of theology on their shoulders (and often
Not so invisible) as when the ordinary terracotta flowerpot
Wears its domestic humility as though it conveyed down the ages
Some property as sacred as the vessel of Joseph conveyed
Like a rose perpetually recurring.

It is what in this poem he calls "the liturgy / Within appearances" that his poetry sought from the first to declare. Here is his later method in its essence: translucent intellectual statement draws effortlessly in its train the fulfilling luminous image. The words exist as if drenched in light, light emanating from the objects they at once evoke and are. In this poetry of a paradoxically platonic sensuousness Barker comes as near to embodying the transcendent as one imagines he ever could. The seventh poem of the sequence brings him near to realising the possibility of an expiation that he and his personae have continually pursued. It's a poem that utterly resists being extracted from and is too long to quote in full, but in it Barker succeeds in evoking an atmosphere of mysteriously pregnant brilliance that renders wholly convincing his momentary belief that he stands on the verge of a miraculous exculpation.

With Villa Stellar (1978), he inaugurated a work in four parts with two purposes: "to record biographical instances and … to record the frames of mind in which these incidents and instances were recollected". Here is an avowed poetry of recovery, whose dominant colours are the pastels of memory. Barker recollects his "instances" in a tranquillity which, whether it dons declarative, meditative or interrogative garments, is typically luminous - opalescent, glassy, hyaline. A small number of wry and beautifully-judged anecdotal poems are scattered amongst the more deliberated pieces.

Despite the programme that Villa Stellar promised, it was not followed by a second volume of recollectived verse. Instead, 1983 saw the publication of the long poem Anno Domini. It is of that order of inspiration which shoulders aside lesser work, making a space for itself in the imagination of a writer by sheer force majeure. Formally, on the page, it looks different from anything else its author has done, yet one only has to begin reading it to find that it is characteristic. Whilst in the 1960s and 1970s Barker continued to produce lyrics, the main thrust of his work was towards a long-breathed poetry of measured cadences and self-perpetuating rhythms, poetry which has almost emancipated itself from the verse-line and dispensed with enjambement. Anno Domini recognises, as no previous Barker poem had recognised, the need of a voice naturally and eloquently speaking, to free itself from as many conventional and visual constraints as possible while at the same time cultivating a rhetorical inevitability. Anno Domini is a circular prayer, a verbal prayer-wheel. Interceding on behalf of both the poet and humankind with the Eternal tense, it asks for forgiveness and benediction. It is the utterance of a man making peace at once with "the cloudy deity" and with himself. And yet, never before has Barker got so much of the multifarious and intransigent quotidian into his verse. Celebrating even as he gently and humorously chides, he invokes, in the shape of particularities which articulate them, those neglected creative antinomies that in our time are dominated by their antitheses, calling upon them to make felt their presence in order that the affairs of men may attain balance and sanity. Against a cramping and masculine rationality he invokes the spirit of the feminine and intuitive; against the inflexible authoritarianism of the collective he sets the eccentric and individual; spontaneity opposes law, the private the public, innocence experience, illumination darkness. He confronts the relentless and rebarbative faces of reality with wit, sympathy and a rhythm of opposition and persuasion:

- at a time of bankers
to exercise a little charity;
at a time of soldiers
to cultivate small gardens;
at a time of categorical imperatives
to guess about clouds;
at a time of politicians
to trust only to children and demigods.

One may indeed say that in this poem rhythm and form are one, that rhythm is form, for sentences and whole paragraphs enact repeated syntactic shapes - as does a prayer. Anno Domini possesses a form ideal for Barker's purified and translucent rhetoric, a rhetoric that can accommodate a wide vocabulary (including that of science) without falling into rodomontade or banality. There is no hint of the self-indulgence that betrays the poet in The True Confession. Anno Domini is haunted by islands, those Shakespearean localities where potentiality is magically brought into being, where discord dissolves into forgiveness:

I will retreat to archipelagoes where
responses to these cloudy questions stalk
up and down like red stockinged
flamingoes, and in the air such a plucking
of stringed instruments that the shipwrecked
philosopher thinks that he hears
the psalteries of spiritual vision.

The Tempest is in the poet's mind, and appropriately, for Anno Domini is a summation. Into it Barker has put everything he knows and much that he does not. Without underestimating the truculence and intractability of the world it confronts, the poem breathes wisdom. Recent though it is, I believe it to be its author's masterpiece.

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