Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley
M. Travis Lane
The Witch of the Inner Wood: Collected Long Poems. Ed. Shane Neilson
Icehouse–Goose Lane, 2016.
The Complete Poems of George Whalley. Ed. Michael John DiSanto
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.
It takes some effort and no lack of talent to become a minor poet. George Whalley (1915–83) is a figure of little interest today, yet his poetry was not written without ambition or design. A conference was held in 2015 at Queen’s University to mark his centenary, but the meeting was perhaps only the exception that proves the rule of his virtual anonymity: I would venture that Whalley is a mystery to all but a small circle of enthusiasts and defenders. His contemporaries included Randall Jarrell and Dylan Thomas, who were born in 1914, and Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Lowell, who were born in 1917; but Whalley achieved neither the celebrity of Thomas nor the eminence of the patrician Lowell; nor could he claim the political and social relevance of Brooks. For Whalley as for Jarrell, the Second World War was formative, but whereas Jarrell is remembered for “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” and the chilling “90 North,” Whalley is remembered for no poem at all.
I exaggerate, but the poetry has never found a wide readership. Whalley is reputed to have been a captivating figure, however, and beloved by those in his circle, who thought him incomparable. Whalley was born in Kingston in 1915—three years before Margaret Avison and Al Purdy. He studied at St. Alban’s, an arch-traditional boarding school in Brockville—his father was chaplain—and at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, where he played organ in the chapel, Jaques on the stage, and rugby on the field. A Rhodes scholar at Oriel College, he took a second B.A. (1939) and in due course received an M.A. (1945), but his time at Oxford was tinged with disappointment: although he assumed a place in the Isis crew, he missed a seat in the Blue Boat.
Whalley left the Thames upon completing his studies; the War dispatched him to the North Atlantic. He served in both the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy, and from the destroyer Tartar he watched the sinking of the Bismarck in 1941, an episode treated in “Battle Pattern” (1948), a long poem in seven parts. He married Elizabeth Watts in London in 1944, and the next year they left England for Canada, Elizabeth preceding George while he discharged his naval duties. He continued to serve in Canada and was demobilized at the end of the War. Whalley taught for two years at Bishop’s before returning to England to pursue a Ph.D. at King’s College in London. He then taught in the Department of English at Queen’s for thirty years; a memorable instructor, he was eccentric in a fashion not sanctioned by today’s academy. (One imagines that he composed no lists of “learning outcomes.”) A Coleridgean, Whalley was the editor of two volumes of Marginalia. In short he was, Michael DiSanto writes in The Complete Poems of George Whalley, “an eminent Canadian man of letters” with “a mind of remarkable critical intelligence sensitively attuned to the tragic in art and life” (xxi).
Yet for all his experience and erudition, Whalley was not an exceedingly successful poet. Out of step with the literary world, enamoured of abstractions and ineffabilities, he struggled to fulfil his aspirations. His early compositions were forgivably banal—“My heart is sad and all my soul would weep” (7), he wrote in “Dog Watch” (1935)—but too much of the ordinary remained in his mature verse. Two collections appeared in the 1940s: Poems: 1939–1944 (1946), a chapbook of eighteen poems, and No Man an Island (1948), a volume of forty-two poems, all but ten of which were new. (DiSanto includes Whalley’s four-line dedication to Elizabeth in his tallies.) John Baxter suggested that Whalley’s conspicuous allusion was apt:
It would be easy to regard the title “No Man an Island” as a cliché,
an old chestnut lifted…from John Donne, but to do so would miss
the drama of the poems, the special fitness of Donne’s famous
meditation on death to Whalley’s personal experience of the war.
The separations of lovers and friends, the absolute cleavages
between ally and enemy, the impersonality of modern warfare,
these all present peculiar challenges to Donne’s truism: “any man’s
death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.” (502)
Whalley published no further books of poetry: his standing rests on No Man an Island and the later poems that editors—first George Johnston and now DiSanto—have brought into print.
DiSanto’s exemplary new edition supplants The Collected Poems of George Whalley (1986), a posthumous volume edited by Johnston, Whalley’s supportive friend, who claimed that “his war poems are among the finest to have been written during the Second World War” (169–70). Johnston’s compendium was praised by reviewers. A. R. Kizuk proposed that “Whalley’s topical World War II ‘diary’ poems are examples of the Canadian documentary poem, and quite good”; noted the strength of the wartime love poems; and admired the poetry written after the War, when “Whalley’s imagination became theoretical and academic” (152). And Baxter was highly complimentary—“there are a good many extraordinary poems in this volume”—although he suggested that even then, in the 1980s, Whalley’s poetry suffered from neglect (496). But he also expressed reservations about the poems that followed No Man an Island: “If The Collected Poems as a whole is valuable for showing us the early stages of Whalley’s quest for reality, there may be reason to feel ambiguous or doubtful about the forms taken by the later stages” (509). Thus the bind in which Whalley’s advocates have found themselves: seeking to champion his disregarded poetry, they discover a paucity of poems to celebrate.
Misgivings about Whalley’s ultimate contribution to Canadian letters do not lessen the importance of the Complete Poems. The edition provides a wealth of supplementary information; it includes a substantial introduction, a description of editorial procedures, and textual and explanatory notes. DiSanto, appreciative of but not enraptured by Whalley’s verse, observes fairly that the “poetry has not been given a place in Canadian literature alongside the works of his contemporaries” (xxxii) and presents a method for comprehending it: “Readers must become attuned to the elusiveness that grows out of Whalley’s restraint and reticence, even when he appears to be unguarded and disclosing thoughts and feelings that were unspoken in his daily interactions with others” (xlv). (According to Michael Ondaatje, Whalley “was thought of as a snob by many who didn’t know he was painfully shy” . He continued: “I found it impossible to get off the phone with him, neither of us wanting to be so rude as to abruptly terminate a conversation” [121–23].) DiSanto recognizes moreover that Whalley acknowledged his fate: “he knew his poems harmonized with the earlier English modernism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries instead of the later modernism of his Canadian contemporaries” (xxxii). In “A Minor Poet Is Visited by the Muse” (1964), Whalley borrowed lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” to satirize the naïf who is dumbstruck by flowers:
Abroad early among daisies
His ear caught
The surely-some-revelation murmur of
Happily his clipboard was at hand, whereon
(His eyes lifted in reverence towards the sea)
He set down
This set down
Baxter suggested that the poem is one of Whalley’s “introspective and wry reflections on the art of writing” (499), but if Whalley understood the vanities and self-deceptions of the minor artist, he could not always escape, in his own writing, triviality or a doleful monotone.
Whalley made his lack of literary fame the subject of an untitled poem from the late 1950s:
How very odd to miss the bus
And not be known at forty-one
Or passed off as anomalous
A pigeonhole without a pigeon. (193)
A rhyming squib in this vein might have been a charming comment on the fickleness and unpredictability of literary reputations. Instead the poem descends into self-pity:
It’s better perhaps not to have seen
War or loved in war or after
Or ever to have pitied man’s obscene
Brutality deep as the sea and hollow as laughter.
These stand in the light, being real,
These disturb the classic calm
These disclose unmanageable fields
Of thought and feeling a little outside the books. (194)
The speaker believes that his worldliness, his knowledge of horror and passion, sets him apart from callow and narrowly academic poets. But neither experience nor the aesthetic soul that Whalley is said to have had can singly and spontaneously create enduring poetry. Nor was age insurmountable. Whalley need not have been washed up at forty-one—not every poet is a Keats, a Rimbaud—yet his timid language (“deep as the sea,” “hollow as laughter”) supplies scant evidence of poetic excellence.
The self-portrait is not exceptional: dull language besets much of Whalley’s writing. His light verse is witty if conventional—“As I was going up the stair / I met a blonde who was not there” (“Woburn Square” , 222), “As I was going up the lift / I met a redhead in her shift” (“Southampton Row” , 223)—but more earnest depictions of women can be distinctly hackneyed:
I could write till the end of time
and never tell exactly
the colour of your eyes
or the sweet curve of your lips. (“Seeing Ducks Asleep” , 75)
From time to time, however, Whalley’s poems surprise, their expressions of emotion genuinely moving. In “Canadian Spring” (1948), a wife’s lament for her absent husband, he describes the change of seasons with spirit. The poem was written in the voice of Elizabeth Whalley, who, as I noted, moved to Canada before George could join her; the speaker has been prepared for the new country’s sights and sounds:
There it is—the singing of frogs. I knew
I’d recognize at once the warm high chirping,
birdlike, drowsy and urgent. He told me I
should hear them so: on a still night with a touch
of frost tingling the air so that the stars
in a black sky are single, brilliant and lonely,
flashing undimmed down to the blacker horizon.
But O it is a hard beauty, incised
with steel in sunlit granite; a cruel beauty
without distance or profundity.
And so he said it would be. So it is. (91)
Whalley’s language becomes overtly erotic—“I have seen the mayflowers, as he told me, / thrusting their spears through ash-grey winter leaves / to blossom delicately white in shady places” (91)—and then plaintive in the final lines, his tendency to be sentimental justified, or nearly so, by the poem’s subject and development:
O take me in your arms
and fashion some stillness
out of my heart’s crying
for remembered daffodils. (93)
Elsewhere poems are undone by their lofty register. In “Battle Pattern,” the elevated tone fails to redeem the tedious details included in an ostensibly exciting narrative:
Two destroyers, homewardbound at low speed, short of fuel,
far from the soberly exultant battle fleet, were found
by a group of avenging German aircraft. The attack started
when breakfast was hot on the galleystoves; but that meal was spoiled
when the cooks ran to action stations. (30)
The final lines are also overwrought, but here at least the high style corresponds to the subject—the watery end of ships and sailors:
In the vast silence of the tideless sea-floor,
fathoms deep, in the birthless womb of ocean,
let the jagged steel, and broken pitiful
beauty born of the smooth loins of women
sleep where the diatom and coral sleep. (35–36)
The echo of Macbeth suitably redoubles the evocation of tragedy.
When Whalley writes more directly, his poems can be effective and affecting. “W. K. E.,” the first poem in No Man an Island, mourns William Keightley Evers, an Oxford friend killed in 1940:
It is his hands that I remember:
scholarly hands with the firm
delicacy of a musician’s.
When he held a book
his fingers savoured the texture
of paper and binding. (56)
The reminiscence is also a reflection of Whalley himself—scholar, musician, and lover of books—and the last lines summon the theme of there but for the grace of God:
You cannot imagine hands
so spiritual and gentle
turned to the uses of war.
It is not to be wondered at
that in the first autumn
before the bitter fighting
startled the desert solitude
a random bomb killed him. (56)
Here as elsewhere, simplicity serves Whalley well. In “English Winter” (1948), one of his most poignant lyrics, plainly rendered images describe a scene of desolation:
This is a winter land,
of rain and glistening streets
and the soft persistent slash
of rain at the window-glass.
The leaves have dropped down
under the rain and the wind’s
and through the bare trees
the rain drifts and slants
in grey wisps from a grey
sky. The leafless branches
are silent athwart the wind,
stripped of their summer warmth
of passionate restlessness,
their feeling ebbed and numb,
motionless with misery. (55)
Representative in theme and temper, “English Winter” illustrates Whalley’s poetic strength—his sensitivity to grey landscapes and grey moods, to a melancholy as unremitting as the wind’s. Northrop Frye once made brief note of an earlier professor at Queen’s, George Herbert Clarke (1873–1953), whose Selected Poems (1954) Whalley edited: “his poetic qualities are the typically scholarly ones, notably a tendency to identify the poetic impulse with melancholy moods and sonorous diction” (128). Is Whalley’s poetry more lasting than Clarke’s? Possibly not, but in the unruly garden of the literary past, humble plants abound; careful pruning can reveal hidden flowers. His apologists and his detractors may disagree about his importance, but it is beyond dispute that Whalley has a role in Canadian literary history. The new edition of his poems, prepared skilfully and diligently by DiSanto, is a laudable scholarly accomplishment, and a fitting work of vindication and commemoration.
The name Millicent Travis Lane belongs to another era, its diminishing syllables recalling the fussiness of minor Georgian verse, as if Lane were the prim colleague of Lascelles Abercrombie, Gordon Bottomley, or Thomas Sturge Moore. A poem by Carolyn Kizer comes to mind, with its suggestion of the silliness and mystery of names: “Thomas Love Peacock! Thomas Love Peacock! / I used to croon, sitting on the pot, / My sympathetic magic, at age three.” But names can deceive, and Lane’s poetry, decidedly modern, is characterized by clarity and vigour—strength lies at the etymological heart of Millicent. The Witch of the Inner Wood, Lane’s Collected Long Poems, is an imposing volume of nearly four hundred pages, and a testament to a lengthy career—she was born in 1934, the same year as Leonard Cohen. Edgar Allan Poe’s notorious declaration that a long poem is a contradiction in terms is manifestly untrue, but the notion that length and poetic vibrancy are antagonistic, if not mutually exclusive, is not groundless: the virtues of economy and intensity are difficult for any writer to sustain. (One seldom wishes that poems were longer.) Lane’s long poems are graced, however, with the elegance of lyrical expression at its most concise: length in her poetry has less to do with prolixity than with the scope of philosophical and devotional inquiry.
Lane is often described as a feminist writer, and she has been associated—by Jeanette Lynes, for example—with “Canadian feminist ecopoets” (Lynes xii), including Margaret Atwood, Daphne Marlatt, and Phyllis Webb, and with other poets with ecological interests and anxieties, namely Robert Bringhurst (xii), Tim Lilburn (xii–xiii), and Don McKay (xii–xv). In his instructive introduction to The Witch of the Inner Wood, Shane Neilson likewise casts Lane as “a poet who routinely chronicles the plight of the natural world” (19). In the volume’s eponymous poem, “a female creator,” Neilson writes, “shapes and moulds the earth” (19). He suggests that Lane’s ecofeminism (18–19) upends the habits of mind that have led to environmental calamity: “The witch of the inner wood is not a feminine body to be dominated but is responsible for the green and living things; the feminine actor can change and regulate the myths upon which knowing is predicated. Nature no longer needs to be linked to the feminine body. It can be loved by that body, tended by that body, made semi-orderly, and yet not dominated, either” (20). Such synopses are essentially accurate, but The Witch of the Inner Wood demonstrates Lane’s eclecticism as well as her environmentalism. If she is an ecofeminist, she is a poet of other concerns besides (as are Atwood, Bringhurst, Lilburn, Marlatt, McKay, and Webb). Lane is also a religious and regionalist poet, and to note her poetic range is not to detract from the importance of her commitments, political and otherwise.
The conceits of Lane’s long poems indicate her topical breadth. It is unfair to complain of contrivance—what are poets but artificers?—but some of her premises are unusually elaborate. In “Life Insurance” (from Solid Things, 1989), the point of view is that of a “dreamer, a young woman, [who] has been hospitalized after the crash of a small, private airplane on its way to a sales workshop” (269). In “Solar Remission” (from Keeping Afloat, 2001), “The speaker suffers a flare-up of her crippling disease and enters hospital in delirium. As care alleviates her symptoms, her perceptions adjust, as do her attitude and concerns” (327). And in “Red Earth,” Book Two of “Divinations” (from Divinations and Shorter Poems 1973–1978, 1980), the point of departure is novelistic:
The speaker, a nurse, goes in May with her husband, John, an
anthropologist, to an Indian reserve where he intends to spend his
sabbatical leave researching Malecite mythology and excavating
the prehistoric gravesites which have given the reserve its name:
Red Earth. Red Earth Reserve lies on the Separation River in the
northern reaches of New Brunswick’s never-never-lands. What our
speaker is able to perceive there is necessarily and variously
unreal. “Her” truth is not “the” truth. (163)
Other poems are altogether different. “The View from under the Bookcase” (from Touch Earth, 2006) is a satire of Canadian poetry, while “The Pickup Poems” (from The All Nighter’s Radio, 2010) are in the tradition of Han Shan (Cold Mountain) and his hermitic colleagues, and are pleasingly clever: “Each morning the monkeys visit me: / no news” (369). As the editor of The Witch of the Inner Wood, Neilson elected to let the poems stand on their own: “I chose not to footnote this text because I think part of the joy of reading poetry is independent discovery” (377). The agreeable task of elucidating the poems, which are at times opaque even as they compel, awaits Lane’s critics.
Lane’s disparate works are linked by mood and mode as much as by theme or political view; her poetry reveals a tremendous curiosity and intellectual yearning. Her language is formal and correct, although she is rarely at a loss for words, and the poems often engage in droll wordplay: “‘What ho, a Watteau!’” (319) says the rococo Poet in “Anachronic Gnat Music” (from Night Physics, 1994), a punning masque that transforms the title of Mozart’s serenade into “Analectic Nook Music” (309), “Agon Clinic Nut Music” (311), “Aching Back Knot Music” (313), “Minor Kleenex Sniff Music” (319), and so on. Readers impatient of such games will find much of Lane’s poetry daunting, but even plainer passages are enlivened by her enviable technique. Some of her finest writing occurs in “The Seasons” (from Reckonings, 1988), as in this section of “Summer”:
Last month squid flung their rubber lives
like gloves along the stony beach
and died for love. At Chimney Head,
storm-straddled, burst with fallen trees,
the dark bay glimmers toward the dusk;
and in the chilly water lolls
a seal that watches us, as curious,
as safe, in what it knows of summer, as
my neighbour’s brindled kitten, couched
below my mildewed phlox heads while I work,
as if my hoeing, weeding were for it. (218)
A subtle musicality is created by the careful rhymes and echoes, whether simple (lives, gloves, love) or elaborate (that watches us, as curious).
Glimmering water, streaked fur, and even mildew are forms of pied beauty; Lane’s writing on more than one occasion evokes Gerard Manley Hopkins’ verse. After “Summer” comes “Fall”:
The sombre, flame-tipped clouds have fled
from under the pines, where the russet fern
blazed, and was ash.
The aspens in the new-burned fields
have shaken themselves to tatters,
and the larch, nude of its citron fur,
is one bare branch.
The glory of the season has gone by. (221)
The denuded landscape is a reminder of both divine beauty and “the passion of our passing” (221). Fiery clouds, ferns, and yellow larches are, like Hopkins’ kingfishers and dragonflies, reflections of God’s light, but the stripped trees suggest the brevity of mortal life. (Lane’s aspens may point to Hopkins’ “Binsey Poplars.”) In “The Witch of the Inner Wood,” Lane mimics “The Windhover” in describing another stirring bird. The speaker is the witch herself, a godlike personage but also an authorial figure:
Oh when I made the osprey then I knew
I was the poet of the world.
It hovered like the heaven’s eye
above my sinking river till it found
one that it knew,
I heard it drop like cannon,
and I saw
the silver fish electric in its claws
strike through the forest’s shaggy tops. (246)
Lane’s world is charged with the presence of the divine—with, as Hopkins wrote, the grandeur of God—and her vocation is to find words sufficiently ardent to reflect that immanence. She has proposed that “poetry is a pleasure with the sound of meaning” (“Afterword” 77), and in “The Seasons,” as throughout The Witch of the Inner Wood, her affinity for the sensual and the significant alike is apparent: her poems bristle with pleasure and meaning. I give the last word to Carolyn Kizer: “I hail the three-in-one, the one-in-three."
Baxter, John. “Fugitive Reality: The Poetry of George Whalley.” Rev. of The Collected Poems of George Whalley, ed. George Johnston. Dalhousie Review 68.4 (Winter 1988–89): 496–510. Print.
Frye, Northrop. Northrop Frye on Canada. Ed. Jean O’Grady and David Staines. Vol. 12 of Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003. Print.
Johnston, George. Untitled contribution. Moore 167–72. Print.
Kizer, Carolyn. “What Was in a Name.” Cool, Calm & Collected: Poems 1960–2000. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2001. 20. Print.
Kizuk, A. R. “Counterpoint.” Rev. of The Collected Poems of George Whalley, ed. George Johnston; Zembla’s Rocks, by Louis Dudek; and The Night the Dog Smiled, by John Newlove. Canadian Literature 118 (Autumn 1988): 152–54. Print.
Lane, M. Travis. “Afterword: Those Mysteries of Which We Cannot Plainly Speak.” Lane, Crisp 77–80. Print.
—. The Crisp Day Closing on My Hand: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane. Sel. Jeanette Lynes. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2007. Print.
Lynes, Jeanette. Introduction. Lane, Crisp ix–xvi. Print.
Moore, Michael D., ed. George Whalley: Remembrances. Kingston, ON: Quarry, 1989. Print.
Ondaatje, Michael. Untitled contribution. Moore 120–24. Print.