The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2019 Jackson Poetry Prize, Joy Harjo.
Daphne du Maurier remains one of the 20th century’s most popular and enigmatic writers, her life captivating readers as much as her works, as the most recent biography, Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay, has shown. Her literary reputation is also finally on the rise and, although her most popular novel Rebecca has often overshadowed her wide-ranging achievements as a writer, the celebration of its 80th anniversary last year reinforced Du Maurier’s place in the canon of English Literature as a serious and influential author.
This will be aided by the recent discovery of unknown poems, written early in her writing career, hidden behind a stunning photograph of the young Du Maurier in a bathing costume on the rocks, poised to take flight into the sea that was such an inspiration to her work.
The poems were discovered by auctioneer Roddy Lloyd of Rowley’s auction house, Ely, as he prepared the archive of Du Maurier materials belonging to the late Maureen Baker-Munton for auction on April 27. Baker-Munton was PA to Daphne’s husband, Lt Gen Sir Frederick “Boy” Browning and she became a close and important friend to the Du Maurier Browning family, as expert Ann Willmore explains on the Du Maurier website.
Du Maurier is still primarily known as a novelist – as well as the bestseller Rebecca she is also rightly revered for the great Cornish novels, Jamaica Inn (1936), Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and My Cousin Rachel (1951). But, as I argue in the book I am writing on Du Maurier, she was a far more versatile, wide-ranging, and experimental writer than is currently recognised. Du Maurier wrote plays, short stories and biographies throughout her career but she was also a poet, as her son Kits Browning explained to me when we spoke over the telephone recently.
Honing her craft
The newly discovered poems were written when Du Maurier was honing her craft as a writer in the late 1920s. At that stage she was primarily writing short stories but, as Browning told me: “My mother wrote poetry throughout her life and career.” Indeed Du Maurier often used poetry as a way of exploring an experience or emotion or testing out a character before then expanding on her ideas in a short story or novel. One of the newly discovered poems focuses on loneliness:
When I was ten, I thought the greatest bliss,
would be to rest all day upon hot sand under a burning sun…
time has slipped by, and finally I’ve known,
The lure of beaches under exotic skies,
and find my dreams to be misguided lies,
For God! How dull it is to rest alone.
Du Maurier’s work is preoccupied by the difference between fantasy and reality – and the dangers of dreaming – and her work repeatedly returns to the tension between the desire for independence and the need for companionship and human contact.
Gender and sexuality
Another poem: Song of the Happy Prostitute, portrays a woman who is frustrated with the way her profession is represented.
Why do they picture me as tired and old…
selling myself with sorrow,
just to gain a few dull pence to shield me from the rain.
What on first sight might seem an unusual, even controversial, topic for the young writer in fact reflects the dominant themes of her early work, as Ann Willmore, of Bookends of Fowey, explained to me recently. Willmore discovered the unpublished Du Maurier short story The Doll in which a young woman, suggestively named Rebecca, protects her personal independence by keeping a sex doll. “The Happy Prostitute poem fits in with Daphne’s interests in gender and sexuality, especially in her early work, and she did seem to want to shock her readers”, Willmore told me.
The poem also, in my view, relates to two early short stories from the same period of Du Maurier’s life in which she created the character of a prostitute called Mazie who boldly claimed that her work enabled her to be independent. “I’m free, I don’t owe anything to no one, I belong to myself”, Mazie declares in the short story Piccadilly. Growing up in the 1920s, when the freedom and autonomy of women was increasingly a topic for public debate, Du Maurier’s choice of subject matter reflects the concerns of her day.
Du Maurier was a very privileged young woman, growing up in the grandeur of Cannon Hall in Hampstead – but her background was theatrical and Bohemian, as the daughter of celebrated actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier and stage actress Muriel Beaumont. And, as her son Kits Browning stressed, she was an avid reader and gained much imaginative experience of the world from the books she devoured as a teenager.
As to why the poems were hidden behind the photograph – either by Du Maurier herself or someone else – we are unlikely ever to find out. Browning told the Daily Telegraph that perhaps she did not want her parents to read them. Perhaps the Happy Prostitute found fuller expression in the Mazie short stories.
These newly discovered poems shed important light on Du Maurier’s early work and writing practice. Still often dogged by the incorrect label of “romantic novelist”, these poems highlight the important themes of independence, gender, and sexuality that were to fascinate Du Maurier throughout her career, in both prose and poetry. They show her boldness, spirit, and strength, just like the photograph behind which they were concealed for all these years.
Just as fiction’s George Smiley made sense of the world – and even made his baffling way about a world at war through knowing the works of minor German poets – our own very real Michael Sharkey (who has an equally resonant and unlikely name) has found that his passion for a certain strain of minor poets also intersects with history, war, intrigue, political resistance and troubling nationalism.
His remarkable new anthology, Many Such as She: Victorian Australian Women Poets of World War One, arose from Sharkey’s interest in civilian poets’ responses to the war that produced those soldier poets still gracing school and university curriculums a century on.
But why civilian poets, and why women? In the spirit of redress, Sharkey has uncovered expressions of how the war felt, how it was imagined, and how it was negotiated as a moral, political and deeply personal though socially shared phenomenon by those who were doubly separated from the conflict — through being so far away in Australia, and by the fact of being women.
Paradoxically, such a project, he suggests, makes a lot more sense and is closer to home for Australians than reading anthologies of poems by British soldier-poets. Like the best writers and researchers, Sharkey went about producing the book that he wanted to read.
We know that difficult times and extreme events can take us to poetry, and perhaps this impulse was embraced in the early 20th century with more grace, confidence and a deeper conviction of what is fitting than could have been the case earlier or later, especially among women.
A natural expression of thought and emotion
As an anthology of largely unrecognised minor poets, the reader’s interest is inevitably drawn to the limitations of the works selected, and to their representative significance. It seems that many women were not only capable of turning to poetry, but that there was something natural, even expected about this avenue to public expressions of thought and emotion. Sharkey notes in his introduction that the 24 women poets included, and the many others whose poetry was not, were consistently eloquent and technically competent, a testimony to the high standards of education early in the 20th century.
Universal education though, brings with it inevitable nudging towards “prevailing tastes” and narrowing of the imagination. These poets, working with readers’ and editors’ expectations, were themselves heirs to 19th century English traditions in poetry. Hence, as Sharkey observes, much of this minor poetry tends to read to us now as “lilting or lolloping”.
Against this observation (and taking a lesson from it), the current vogue for a colloquial, free verse in English language poetry might read in the future as a sign of how far contemporary poetry has drifted from song and lyric.
Some lines that might suffice as an example of the skill and musicality in this poetry come from Nettie Palmer’s 1916 poem, Birds, a love song from a wife to a soldier-husband, written when Nettie lived at Emerald in the Dandenongs.
The rhyming on a falling meter at the moment of each stanza’s inserted couplet, together with the dramatically long line following a two-beat line, work to bring both delicacy and the sense of a faltering, yearning spirit to lines that can’t help but touch our hearts:
At morning, when white clouds like leaves drop down
Filling the hollows,
And make vast, milk-white lakes and silence follows,
There on a stump some laughing jackass clown
Stiller than wood thought all the world his own.
But all the world was ours! The birds were ours,
Because we knew them,
The trees were ours, because our love passed through them,
And every dome of cloud and all the flowers
And mountain mists that built our silent bowers.
Enough, we had been jubilant too long,
The gods have judged us,
Such vital joy their tranquil eyes begrudged us.
You fight in France: here when the thrushes throng
How can I bear alone to hear their song.
The poetry in the anthology ranges, as we would expect, from imperialistic nationalism rife with improving sentiments and sentimentality all the way to poetry of open protest against the war. In the many nuances of reaction between these extremes, Sharkey perceives that the sheer quantity of poetry by women in response to that war “pointed to a catastrophic intellectual and emotional crisis experienced by the poets.”
There was so much of this poetry that any plan to publish it would be not only grandiose, but uneconomic. Hence, the interestingly narrowed state focus of this anthology: Victorian Australian women poets: presented in alphabetical order, with each poet introduced by several pages of historical context and life history (each one meticulously referenced).
Wit and sympathy
Beatrice Vale Bevan (1876-1945) is one of those whose poetry might lilt and lollop through its paces, but nevertheless what shines through is her wit, her sympathy and her plainly human reaching towards a language that might come somewhere near sensing and expressing how deplorable death had become.
At the end of her poem debating William Locke’s statement, “Human nature is only capable of a certain amount of deploring”, in the poem that offers the book its surtitle (Many Such as She), Bevan reflects upon the flowers on the twin graves of a soldier in France and his young widow at home who, it seems, had suicided: the final stanza goes:
And he and Margaret, now above,
(since heaven’s above?) no loss deplore,
But love each other more and more!
Why say we ‘dead?’ ‘Immortal dead!’
‘Immortal living!’ some have said,
When was this violet in my hand,
When summer scorched and dried the land?
As the wife of a high ranking Congregational minister and school headmaster, Beatrice’s climactic questions, and even her asides, are hard won and bravely spoken, and do go some considerable way towards expressing a vision of widening circles of deplorable grief that a war leaves in its wake.
Among those whose poetry sees death and life as equally noble when offered to the cause of the empire, are Marion Bray (1885-1947) who offers in a short poem a simple pair of knitted socks to a soldier far away, Muriel Beverley Cole, Martha Coxhead, Violet Cramer and others.
War sprung sprightly into tripping verse
Mary Bright, a deeply committed poet and spiritualist with many publications in her lifetime, and like several of the women here, one who had lost her husband and a nephew and cousins to the war, was unafraid of imagining herself into the maddened, bewildered and patriotic minds of soldiers being killed and maimed on the battle fronts:
… we couldn’t find our mates.
They were all scattered far and wide
Through death’s untimely gates.
…. We didn’t want to die—for fame
Nor for glory did we care.
We had to go, our country called—
We did but do our share.
It can be difficult to know what to make of such verse. It can be a chilling experience to find that war sprung so sprightly into tripping verses. But this would be, perhaps, to mistake the tone of public literary activity in these years.
The poetry does not pretend to more than papering over what is beyond the deplorable and nearly beyond meaning. We do read tragedy between the lines here, and there is no reason this would not have been the case in 1916, perhaps especially through the prism of awareness regarding imposed and self-dictated censorship in public utterances.
This situation makes the poetry of Mary Fullerton (1868-1946) remarkable for its outspokenness:
In many a cot the woman,
With the babe on her shelt’ring breast,
Is nursing his limbs for battle
A-crooning her son to rest.
All over the world the women
Give service and love and life;
While over the world the tyrants
Are brewing the brew of strife.
-From The Targets
Among the bereft was Phyllis Lewis (1894-1986), a gifted teacher and briefly fiancée to a certain Robert Menzies.
Her one published poem, 1918, was a eulogy to her brother Owen, killed in a plane accident near Amiens: “Oh lawless howling wind—/Oh darkness none can lift—Oh hopeless night—/Oh gibbering shadows making heavy flight—/Oh soundless gloom of mind!” her long four-part poem goes when she must face what the war took from her and her family.
Recently my father died and I have inherited some boxes of papers that detail a kind of family history. Among these papers is the telegram informing my grandmother that her son, my father’s brother, died in action in New Guinea in the last week of WWII on that island.
This loss hung over my grandmother and over the whole of her family, for that war really could not stop reverberating until they died with this loss still in them. Such reverberations are the true subject matter of this anthology, and giving them our attention might be more important than we could ever suppose.
Sharkey is to be thanked for finding a way to present these 24 poets to Victorians and to Australians, and for giving us another way to understand and hear our own history. Walleah Press have done a fine job of packaging the anthology as a sturdy paperback.
Many such as She: Victorian Australian Women Poets of World War One, is edited by Michael Sharkey and published by Walleah Press.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the winner of the 2019 Ted Hughes Award.
The link below is to an article that provides tips on how to read more poetry.
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The link below is to an article that considers the poetic legacy of W. S. Merwin.
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Poetry has played an important role in the history of Wales. From the medieval courts, to the ongoing National Eisteddfod (the largest music and poetry festival in Europe), writers have used verse to document the land’s culture. But while male writers, such as the 12th century poets of the princes and more recently Dylan Thomas, have presented one perspective of Welsh history and culture, female poets have documented a very different take on Wales through the centuries. Here are four who bring a different perspective.
1. Gwerful Mechain (est.1462-1500)
Gwerful Mechain is one of the few Welsh medieval poets from whom a substantial body of work has survived to this day. One of the loudest voices speaking up for women of the time, Mechain was also one of the first poets in Wales to write about domestic abuse. To Her Husband for Beating Her is a poignant and powerful poem full of enraged language and energetic imagery.
Born into a noble family, Mechain was free to explore her own poetic interests without the pressure of securing patronage, unlike many of her male contemporaries. She became a prolific writer who was not restricted to one style. Her work includes religious, humorous and socially conscious poetry. One of her most well-known works, To the Vagina, chastises her male counterparts for praising a woman’s body from her hair to her feet but ignoring one hidden feature. She was bold and did not shy away from what some may consider crude imagery, as in her poem, To the Maid as she Shits.
Pob rhyw brydydd, dydd dioed,
Mul frwysg, wladiadd rwysg erioed,
Noethi moliant, nis gwarantwyf,
Anfeidrol reiol, yr wyf
Every poet, drunken fool,
Thinks he is just the king of cool,
(Everyone is such a boor,
He makes me so sick, I’m so demure)
2. Katherine Philips (c.1632 – c.1664)
Born in London, Katherine Philips – who later wrote under the moniker “The Matchless Orinda” – moved to Wales when she was around 15 years old. From her home in Cardigan she became a significant female British poet, as well as the first woman to have a commercial play staged, Pompey.
Despite the stigma against women publishing their work, Philips succeeded by circulating handwritten letters and volumes, as her male contemporaries did, while upholding supposedly feminine virtues such as humility and chastity in her works.
Though she was married with two sons, much discussion around Philips’ poetry and life concentrates on whether she was or was not a lesbian. The emotional focus of her poetry was often on women and the passionate relationships she had with them. Regardless of Philips’ own sexual orientation, her work was the first British poetry to express same-sex love between women.
3. Sarah Jane Rees (“Cranogwen”) (1839–1916)
Sarah Jane Rees (also known by the bardic name Cranogwen) is perhaps one of the most pioneering poets in this list. Born in Llangrannog, west Wales, she spurned all attempts to enforce gender stereotypes – her family wanted her to work as a dressmaker – and instead joined her father on board his ship for two years after leaving school. She continued her education, eventually gaining her master mariner certificate. Returning home by the age of 21, Cranogwen fought against opposition to run her old school, and taught children as well as providing navigation and seamanship education to young men.
In 1865 she entered the Eisteddfod festival as Cranogwen with
Y Fodrwy Briodasal (The Wedding Ring), a satirical poem about a married woman’s destiny. When she was announced as the first woman to win the prize, there was disgust from the established and renowned male writers who had been competing. Cranogwen became famous overnight and a collection of her poems was released in 1870.
The following lines are taken from My Friend:
Ah! Annwyl chwaer, ‘r wyt ti i mi,
Fel lloer I’r lli, yn gyson;
Dy ddilyn heb orphwyso wna
Serchiadau pura’m calon
Oh! My dear sister, you to me
As the moon to the sea, constantly,
Following you restlessly are
My heart’s pure affections
4. Lynette Roberts (1909-1995)
Lynette Roberts was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina to parents of Welsh origin. A friend of Dylan Thomas, during World War II Roberts moved to Carmarthenshire with her then husband, journalist and poet Keidrych Rhys, and stayed in Wales for the rest of her life.
Although now her work is seeing a resurgence, for a long time Roberts has been overlooked. She was a poet ahead of her time and her use of language is refreshing. Roberts was influenced by the rich colours and landscape of her childhood, which she entwined with the rural landscape and culture of Wales during a time of upheaval – World War II.
Roberts’s poem Swansea Raid is perhaps one of her most powerful and insightful works. It depicts a snapshot of a relationship between herself and fellow villager Rosie and the tension between war and home. The changing technological world of war brought out warm, colourful language in her work, setting the colloquialisms of quiet, rural Wales against the starkness of bombing and constant threat of loss. Her most influential work has to be the heroic poem Gods with Stainless Ears, on the war’s disruption of domestic life.
This verse is from Roberts’ 1944 Poem from Llanybri:
Then I’ll do the lights, fill the lamp with oil,
Get coal from the shed, water from the well;
Pluck and draw pigeon, with crop of green foil
This your good supper from the lime-tree fell.
The link below is to an article that reports on the TS Eliot prize winner, Hannah Sullivan.
In 1996, a graduate student named Mark Robson was creating a digital catalog of the University of Leeds’ Brotherton Library when he discovered a small manuscript on the shelf. The elegantly titled “Poems Breathed Forth by the Noble Hadassas” contained 120 poems and a half-finished prose romance.
As far as Robson could tell, the manuscript hadn’t been read in over 250 years. He hadn’t heard of the “Noble Hadassas” – nor had anyone he asked.
But a riddle scribbled in the manuscript offered a hint about her true name: “Marvel not my name’s concealed / In being hid it is revealed.”
In the Biblical story of Esther, “Hadassah” is Esther’s Jewish name. In early modern England, “Hester” and “Esther” were versions of the same name. They’re also anagrams. That allusion to “Esther” – in addition to a couple of references to an estate named Broadfield – gave scholars just enough evidence to search public records for possible authors.
The mystery manuscript turned out to be a collection of poems by a 17th-century English woman named Hester Pulter.
At first glance, the verses of a self-taught, unpublished poet might not seem remarkable. But Pulter was writing in an era of chaos and change in England. She was eager to explore some of the most exciting scientific ideas of the time. And in a time when women were expected to be silent and chaste, she took risks in her poetry and confidently expressed her ideas.
Now, a collaboration between literary scholars across the globe is bringing Hester Pulter’s poems to the public, in the form of an open-access digital edition called The Pulter Project, which launched on Nov. 15, 2018.
Who was Hester Pulter?
Pulter was born into the aristocratic Ley family in 1605 and married Arthur Pulter when she was relatively young. After marrying, she spent much of her life at the isolated Pulter estate, which was over a day’s journey from London. She wrote most of her poems at home and would occasionally travel to London to visit other family members.
Since Pulter mainly kept to herself and rarely left her home, most of what we know about Hester comes from public records. She gave birth to 15 children, only two of which survived to adulthood, and lived through the English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1651.
Literary scholar Alice Eardley, who produced the first scholarly edition of Pulter’s works in 2014, has suggested that Pulter’s relative isolation inoculated her from pressure by readers or literary society to conform to a certain style or subject matter. It gave her the freedom to write innovative, opinionated, emotionally complex poetry.
Pulter’s poems, which range from the political to the autobiographical, appear to have been written throughout the 1640s and 1650s. In the 1660s, Hester worked with a scribe to create a presentation copy of her draft poems, making notes and annotations on the manuscript.
It’s likely she never intended to publish her poems, however. In 17th-century England, women who published risked being seen as vulgar and sexually suspect. In order to avoid slander, the few women who did publish usually wrote about topics more aligned with proper womanly values: household guides, devotional books and diaries or memoirs of their husbands.
An aristocratic woman like Hester would have been expected to behave modestly, keep quiet and focus on her household rather than write about political conflicts and scientific experimentation. Pulter’s small family may have read her work, but it seems that her poems sat untouched after her death until they were rediscovered in 1996.
Poetry that’s observant, personal and political
Although Pulter lived a relatively isolated existence, her poems reveal a deep intellectual engagement with the most pressing issues and ideas of the mid-1600s. From the references she makes in her work, it’s clear that she had read works of natural history, alchemy and descriptions of America like William Wood’s “New England’s Prospect.”
She also appears to have kept up with major scientific discoveries, including Galilean astronomy and the microscope. In “Universal Dissolution,” she acknowledges Galileo’s discoveries, describing the sun as the “front and center of all light,” the star around which all other “orbs perpetually do run.”
Pulter was also a keen observer of nature. In “The Pismire,” she describes watching an ant colony at work for an afternoon. “View But This Tulip” shows off her familiarity with alchemy and early experimental practices, and in it she begins to think about the human body as composed of recyclable atoms. These poems place her within a culture of experimental observation that was part of the rise of modern science.
And she certainly didn’t shy away from expressing her political views.
Hester’s parents were Royalists – supporters of Charles I – and she remained a Royalist even when many of her extended family and neighbors supported Parliament instead. Many of her poems express grief at the havoc the civil war caused in England, and mourn a breakdown of religious and social hierarchy.
In “On that Unparalleled Prince Charles, His Horrid Murder,” she compares a country without a king to the universe without a sun, both of which fall into chaos.
But her political poems avoid outright tribalism. Instead, they’re nuanced and well-informed, and they critique the ruling class for their role in social collapse.
Pulter is equally comfortable writing about personal experiences like her illnesses or a child’s death. She surveys the effects of time on her body in “Made When I Was Sick, 1647,” and in “Upon the Death of My Dear and Lovely Daughter, Jane Pulter,” deals with the grief of losing yet another child. It’s tinged with envy of parents with healthy children:
All you that have indulgent parents been, And have your children in perfection seen Of youth and beauty: lend one tear to me, And trust me, I will do as much for thee, Unless my own grief do exhaust my store; Then will I sigh till I suspire no more.
She also expresses early feminist ideas, and addresses, in complex ways, how society constricts women’s behavior, devalues their work and diminishes their intellectual value.
From “Why Must I Thus Forever Be Confined?”:
Why must I thus forever be confined Against the noble freedom of my mind? Whenas each hoary moth, and gaudy fly Within their spheres enjoy their liberty.
Reaching new readers
Hester Pulter is clearly worth knowing. Her works speak to the major issues of 17th-century England and provide a rare lens on English culture.
In an effort to bring Pulter’s poems to the public, early modern literature professors Wendy Wall and Leah Knight created The Pulter Project. They collaborated with a host of other scholars from the U.S., Canada, Australia and England to create a free, digital edition of Pulter’s works.
The Pulter Project allows readers to toggle between scans of the manuscript, basic and annotated editions of poems, and explanatory notes. Readers can also explore “curations” for each poem, which are images and selections from texts relevant to the content of a given Pulter poem.
Editors draw on their expertise of 17th-century English culture to contextualize the poems and also make connections to modern culture. The curated materials for “Made When I Was Not Well,” for example, discuss “invisible woman syndrome,” the social phenomenon of women disappearing from public view when they reach middle age, or are ridiculed and criticized for attracting public attention.
Curations for “My Love is Fair” explore racialized beauty standards, topics just as relevant for 17th-century readers as they are for today’s intersectional feminists.
The Pulter Project shows what’s possible when the literary canon is expanded to include new writers and more women. Poets like Hester Pulter change our understanding about who could – and did – participate in the scientific, political and intellectual debates of centuries ago.
The links below are to articles reporting on the 2018 Women’s Poets’ Prize, including the shortlist and winners of it.
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