It’s ironic as it is surprising that the founder of The Poetry Bookshop and, in turn, the now venerably established Poetry Review itself, Harold Monro, should have passed into relative obscurity over the last century; that is, in his standing as an actual poet. I certainly find this surprising since having been introduced to his haunting voice via a slightly foxed copy of the 1942 Faber volume The Silent Pool and other poems (beautifully presented with orange cover and red dust-jacket). In a way this book’s title served as an apt introduction, since this seems to have been a poet and a man who had put so much of
his energies into the publishing and promoting of other poets of his generation – most notably in the groundbreaking Twentieth Century Poetry (1933) (an A-Y of the time’s movers and shakers from Lascelles Abercrombie to WB Yeats) and the school-defining Georgian Poety series, chaperoning in the likes of WH Davies, John Masefield, Robert Graves and legion other enduring names – that somehow his own distinct albeit un-pigeon-hole-able voice was fogged along the way, muffled as it were under the pool of his own self-promotional silence. However, having long since acquired a beautiful hardback edition of his Collected Poems, edited by his second wife Alida and published by Gerald Duckworth, I’ve come to discover the full depth and range of Monro’s oeuvre.
Monro’s evident shyness as a person, chaperone (drawing aside the curtains of the back of the shop … with a faint smile and “stiff little soldierly bows and a slight wave of the hand”’, xxvi, Duckworth) as well as a poet, not being one to thrust himself forward in spite of being in a uniquely pivotal position to do so, perhaps betrays a deep-seated self-negation to the man, echoes of which resound throughout his often ghostly oeuvre. Indeed, many of Monro’s poems resemble a strange blur between pseudo-Romantic lyrical poetry, gothic balladry, and ghost narrative – like a cross between Kipling, Poe and MR James. So many of his poems are concerned with absence, emptiness and a sense of being haunted or of even haunting; whether this be through the metaphor of an empty house ('The Empty House'), or even world ('Earth for Sale'),
or through the dissipated encounters and absent moments sketched out in numeral-segmented pieces such as 'Strange Meetings'. And Monro often presents himself as a visitor to this emptiness, almost as a spectre himself, haunting his own poems like a posthumous editor:
Does not my ghost appear?
My eyes feel over intervening space,
And I am leaning forward at the strain
Till, now, my fingers nearly touch your face.
Lean out to me: I’m calling with my brain.
This is of course a metaphorical device, in the poem above no doubt evoking his sense of dislocation and powerlessness in reconciling the platonic nature of a sexless marriage which frustrates his wife (in this case probably his first, though the poem could also equally refer to the similar impasse with his second wife, Alida Klementaski).
This aching sense of absence, even absence of himself (of the ego), throughout his work betrays the troubles of his torn personality: an anomic status as a poet publisher, married homosexual, private-minded communitarian, misanthrope and philanthropist, cynic and idealist, atheist and thanatotic (death-phobic). As related, for instance, by Imagist poet F.S. Flint:
He was a living contradiction in terms, not only (perhaps less) as a poet and shopkeeper, but also in everything else. It is hardly possible to state one of his characteristics without immediately being reminded that in him too was its opposite. He was hard-working and lazy; he was a lover of freedom and a tyrant; unconventional and conventional; a bohemian and a bourgeois…”
(vi, from Preface by Ruth Tomalin, Duckworth)
Since the Georgian tag, with which Monro has since been misleadingly labelled, has seemingly yolked back into fashion in the last two or three decades of the burgeoning ‘mainstream’, through a resurgence in form (most commonly tercets) and light verse, one would think that poets such as Monro would be back in fashion. But the fact that Monro has not been honoured yet with posthumous revamping among modern poets is actually a kind of back-handed compliment, in its way, or absence of a way: it gladly distances him as a poet from the more well-known and fondly remembered ‘Georgians’ such as John Masefield, Rupert Brooke and Walter de la Mare. This is quite apt since Monro evidently was far more than just another Georgian poet: although his sometimes superficially pedestrian style and tendency towards balladry is an obvious feature of his work, his subjects are far from the proverbial stomping ground – or rather, ambling ground – of his average contemporaries. Another reason for his absence among modern nostalgists is that his work provides problems for the finishing schools of today, so preoccupied as they are with technical precision and overly pared down, exacting verbiage: Monro's poems, at times, throb with a beguiling impulsiveness, sometimes curiously mongrel in form, and often with an imperfect finish that may be interpreted as stylistic gaucheness, or, as I perceive them, willfully non-conforming (and in that sense reflective of his own obscure and mercurial personality).
Monro deals in absence, loss, emptiness, other-worldliness, more totems of the early modernists’ imagescapes, such as TS Eliot's The Wasteland (though the latter's supremely compelling 'The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' shows the most marked Monro influence) than of, say, Edward Thomas’ willow-clopping 'Adelstrop's or Rupert Brooke’s green 'in the corner of a foreign field''s. Monro’s often suburban-set scenarios are deceptively placed, focusing more on what is not present in such settings than what is (and what should be banished altogether, as in the blistering 'Aspidistra Street') and on the simmering symbolism in the inanimate, the secret lives of household objects, as exemplified in 'Every Thing':
Since man has been articulate,
Mechanical, improvidently wise
(Servant of Fate),
He has not understood the little cries
And foreign conversations of the small
Delightful creatures that have followed him
Not far behind;
He failed to hear the sympathetic call
Of Crockery and Cutlery, those kind
Of his domestic happiness; the Stool
He sat on, the Door he entered through:
He has not thanked them, overbearing fool!
What is he coming to?
This animism in some way serves as a metaphor, one might consider, of Monro’s own seething creative energies behind a demure mask of mannerly proprietorship. Occasionally detectable tremors of an inner volcano of repressed emotion and political temper bubble to the surface of some of his more socio-polemical poems, in which, for me, Monro’s true idiom flowers in spare expression and subtle metaphor, but always with a sense of cool control. His stabs at suburban drabness are many and always compelling:
Dull and hard the low wind creaks
Among the rustling pampas plumes.
Drearily the year consumes
Its fifty-two insipid weeks.
Most of the grey-green meadowland
Was sold in parsimonious lots;
The dingy houses stand
Pressed by some stout contractor's hand
Tightly together in their plots.
One can’t help thinking of hapless Gordon Comstock from Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, struggling relentlessly to complete his unfinished suburban polemic which never seems to get beyond the first stanza’s description of poplars, while stagnating as a down-at-heel bookshop assistant for the bibliophobic Mr Cheeseman.
More of a Pomagne than champagne socialist, Monro was however in reality perhaps more like Gordon Comstock’s bourgeois altruistic publisher in said novel than Comstock himself (who was more represented by the legions of ‘hard-up poets’ who often rented rooms at Monro’s Devonshire Street bookshop); Monro was indeed a man of ‘private means’, as well as Cambridge-educated, but these aspects again seem to have contributed, along with many others, to his self-checked anomies. Monro’s own socialism was, in-keeping with his personality, another unspoken trait, one only voiced through his more socio-political pieces, or through broader metaphors sometimes carried by historically-rooted left-wing motifs and metphors, as in the follow extract, in which his Diggerish (see Gerard Winstanley’s tracts) anti-property instincts come through ostensibly as a means to a humanistic metaphor on the untapped universal empathies - even telepathies - of humanity, that the caged language of the tongue can never fully articulate:
I am so glad that underneath our talk
Our minds together walk.
We argue all the while,
But down below our argument we smile,
We have our houses, but we understand
That our real property is common land.
‘The Silent Pool’
This is an ingenious metaphor in its juxtaposition of the emotional limitations of verbal communication that forever bar the full communion of human consciousness, with the historical blight of property, that, like thought beyond verbal articulation, perpetually shuts us in our own private worlds, separating us from each other and stunting the growth of our human commonality. In this sense, the metaphor, the entire message of the poem on many levels, is one of romantic socialism, more emotional than cerebral, and tellingly, spiritual as opposed to material. But on a surface level it also taps at the poet's palpable ill-ease at being a proprietor himself, albeit one who opens his own house to an entire species of literary nomads.
But Monro also had more taboo demons: he was a closet homosexual as well as alcoholic; he was tormented throughout his life by ill health, mental and physical, by depression and neurosis, possibly a form of neurasthenia, palliated by tobacco (“‘the study smelt agreeably of tobacco’” as one Dr del Re commented of Monro’s rooms in Florence) and, more ruinously, drink. But ultimately Monro the man hides behind Monro the poet: again, a contradiction, a voice trying to tear out from beneath the good manners of poetic form, and Eliotesque line-restraint and aphorismic prose tendencies (not to mention similar fondness for the feline motif as in his often anthologised 'Milk for the Cat' and in the following poem):
Through the hall, far away,
I just can see
The dingy garden with its wall and tree.
A yellow cat is sitting on the wall
Blinking toward the leaves that fall.
And now I hear a woman call
Some child from play.
Then all is still. Time must go
Ticking slow, glooming slow.
I would in many ways describe Monro as a ‘polite Eliot’. I have no doubt whether consciously or not Monro’s works went on to inspire voices such as Betjeman, and Larkin (or, the 'impolite Betjeman'), and indeed The Group poets as a whole: acidic dissection of suburban habits bursting with misanthropy within clipped stylistic precision.
For me Monro’s only real Achilles’ Heel is in his occasional sloppiness, random lapses into whimsy and seemingly almost nursery-rhyme repetitions – as in the otherwise brilliant 'Aspidistra Street'’s puzzling verbal play, ‘Drips and drops and dripples, drops and dribbles’, and the slightly embarrassing tweeness of ‘Every Thing’’s ‘The kettle puffed a tentacle of breath:--/ "Pooh! I have boiled his water, I don't know/ Why; and he always says I boil too slow'. But in a way these whimsical lapses add to his works’ imperfect charm and quirkiness. Oh for modern poetry to embrace occasional lapses of control for more spontaneity and character and distinctiveness of voice. But sadly style has long since been streamlined.
I regard Monro as a very good poet; not a great poet, but certainly a poet all his own who occasionally produced great poems (in particular 'Bitter Sanctuary', 'Aspidistra Street', 'Earth for Sale', 'The Silent Pool'), throwing in some real oddities into the bargain (‘Overheard on a Saltmarsh’, 'Milk for the Cat' et al), which would in turn throw any pale assertion of his 'Georgianness' straight out of the window at any close examination of his oeuvre. Monro is a poet not easily placed or even assessed, and for me that entirely justifies his – belated – inauguration into the long hallway of inimitable poetic voices – or rather, true poets.
For me personally, his work proved to be a true stepping stone for my own attempts in the genre, somewhat later in my development and courtesy initially of that elegant little foxed Faber paperback. Monro’s voice has shown how it is possible to write directly and clearly while also imparting powerful messages and appropriate metaphors, though this isn’t always an easy balance to strike. I also identify strongly with his themes – isolation, absence, ghosts, metaphysical poverties, misanthropy, anti-materialism, death and so forth – and with his own personal thanatophobia (fear of death and anything related to it), the perennial ague of most poets, which Monro, struggling with his own loss of faith and unhappy surrender to atheism (in particular, his struggling in coming to terms with ‘no individual immortality’), powerfully confronts in the compelling ‘Living’ (a poem which in many aspects foreshadows Larkin’s stunning ‘Aubade’):
Slow bleak awakening from the morning dream
Brings me in contact with the sudden day.
I am alive--this I.
I let my fingers move along my body.
Realization warns them, and my nerves
Prepare their rapid messages and signals.
While Memory begins recording, coding,
Repeating; all the time Imagination
Mutters: You'll only die.
Here's a new day. O pendulum move slowly!
My usual clothes are waiting on their peg.
I am alive--this I.
And in a moment Habit, like a crane,
Will bow its neck and dip its pulleyed cable,
Gathering me, my body, and our garment,
And swing me forth, oblivious of my question,
Into the daylight--why?
Most of all, I admire Monro’s knack of nailing the metaphor straight onto the page in an enviable clarity and conciseness that resonates beautifully, as in one of his greatest pieces, the deeply emotive ‘The Silent Pool’.
I have discovered finally to-day
This home that I have called my own
Is built of straw and clay,
Not, as I thought, of stone.
I wonder who the architect could be,
What builder made it of that stuff;
When it was left to me
The house seemed good enough.
Yet, slowly, as its roof began to sink,
And as its walls began to split,
And I began to think,
Then I suspected it;
But did not clearly know until today
That it was only built of straw and clay.
Any poet capable of composing such a simple yet powerful verse as this is worthy of enduring admiration.
Alan Morrison © 2008
Alan Morrison on
The Silent Poet
Edited by Alida Monro & Prefaced by Ruth Tomalin
(Gerald Duckworth, 1953; 1970)
The Silent Pool and other poems (Faber, 1942)