Terence's Reviews > New Collected Poems: Sylvia Townsend Warner

New Collected Poems by Sylvia Townsend Warner
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Feb 22, 11

bookshelves: poetry
Read from February 07 to 20, 2011 — I own a copy, read count: 1

I’m not surprised that I didn’t get as much enjoyment from reading this collection of Sylvia’s* poems as I did and do from her prose. I’m just not a “poetry kinda guy.” It takes a remarkable coincidence of interest and talent (on the poet’s part, not mine) for me to want to read poetry (you’ll note the size of my poetry shelf). In the past, I’ve relied upon significant others (Plath, Dickinson) or Fate (Baudelaire, Gardner, Meredith) to guide my poetic adventures.

That said, it goes without saying that I would recommend this woman’s grocery lists if anyone published them so if you have the opportunity, please go out and get this book.

This volume is a compilation of several previous collections and a number of unpublished poems with almost no annotation. In fact, if this book fails at any level it’s in not giving much in the way of context for the poems. Most of the endnotes consist of little more than, e.g., “p. 281 `Black Out!’ [Dorset, 1940].”

While I give the book overall only 3 stars, there are many poems here that I would give 4 or 5 to and I’m going to reproduce a few here to give the interested a taste of Sylvia’s style.

The first poem snared me right out of the gate – “Quiet Neighbors”:

Sitting alone at night
Careless of time,
From the house next door
I hear the clock chime.

Ten, eleven, twelve;
One, two, three –
It is all the same to the clock,
And much the same to me.

But no-night more than sense heard it:
I opened my eyes wide
To look at the wall and wonder
What lay on the other side.

They are quiet people
That live next door;
I never hear them scrape
Their chairs along the floor,

They do not laugh loud, or sing,
Or scratch in the grate,
I have never seen a taxi
Drawn up at their gate;

And though their back-garden
Is always neat and trim
It has a humbled look,
And no one walks therein.

So did not their chiming clock
Imply some hand to wind it,
I might doubt if the wall between us
Had any life behind it.

London neighbours are such
That I may never know more
Than this of the people
Who live next door.

While they for their part
Should they hazard a guess
At me on my side of the wall
Will know as little, or less;

For my life has grown quiet,
As quiet as theirs;
And the clock has been silent on my chimney-piece
For years and years.


Other poems would warm the cockles of a PETA member – “A Song About a Lamb”:

“O, God, the Sure Defence
Of Jacob’s race,
Lover of innocence
And a smooth face,
Accept my sacrifice –
A little lamb, bought at the market price.

“With fleece so soft and clean
And horns not yet
A-bud, the creature’s been
The children’s pet.
And sore they wept to see
Their snub-nosed friend come trotting after me.”

God heard: the lightnings brake
Forth in his honour;
But by some slight mistake
Consumed the donor.
The lamb fell in a muse –
But soon took heart, and leaped among the pews.


There are many poems that deal with the theme of Nature unsullied by human interference. Her “epic pastoral” “Opus 7” is an example of this; and here I’ll quote one stanza from “Peeping Tom”:

There is no beauty like the beauty of the wild,
That blossoms suddenly out of the bare hillside.
It is the barren woman that goes with child,
It is the clenched knot of necessity untied,
Eternity waylaid, and labouring creation
Into forgetfulness and laughter beguiled:
A relenting, a reconciliation, a glimpse of the bride,
Nature, hidden under her dark veils of Time and Space and Causation.


Another poem – “The Patriarchs” – is in the same vein as “A Song About a Lamb.” It’s written from the point of view of the ram sacrificed in Isaac’s place. (It’s a bit long to quote in full here.)

She’s also a cat lover – “Lines to a Cat in a London Suburb”:

Quadruped on a bough,
Cat absolute, Cat behind
All cat-shows of your kind,
I see and salute you now:

Massive, tenacious, bland,
Sardonically surefooted,
Pacing along the sooty
Aspen branch, and fanned

By all the obsequious Spring
To ear fine-furred and strong
Squat nose conveys of song
Or scent wave-offering;

As pace in stealthy hope
Through incense cloud and Tu
Es Petrus
hullabaloo
Cardinals into Pope.

But more compactly wise,
More serpentine in sin
(My more than Mazarin)
Your commerce with the skies;

While vacant and serene
Your eyes look down on me,
In all the wavering tree
The one unshaken green.


And “X” from the Boxwood collection:

The fire; the cushion, and the toy,
The curtained room
And my sweet milk to come –
All mine by right feline –
Is this not joy?

The wind, the dangerous dark, the sway
Of bough to ride,
The midnight world so wide –
All mine by right feline –
Is that not joy?


And she wrote love poetry (or poems about relationships, at any rate) – “I, so wary of traps”:

I, so wary of traps,
So skilful to outwit
Springes and pitfalls set
Am caught now, perhaps.

Though capture, while I am laid
So still in hold, is but
The limb’s long sigh to admit
How heavy freedom weighed.


And “Though you are not so far”:

Though you are not so far
But that I could come to you
By walking a mile or two,
You may stay as you are.
You will not hear me stepping light
To your door tonight, or any other night.

Though we are not so estranged
But, did I like to woo,
I could easily undo
What’s blunted or deranged,
You need not fear I’ll venture this,
Or abjure the sloth which our accomplice is.

For since loves have their date
Why should we seek to renew
Ours for a year or two
That must die soon or late,
When we, my dear, of all the many
Conclusions now choose the best and kindest of any?


* I think our relationship has reached the point where Sylvia wouldn’t mind my familiar use of her Christian name :-)
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