Thursday 22 March 2012

Opus 7 - Sylvia Townsend Warner

I'm reading around my next DPhil chapter, on Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, and thus there might well be a little spate of Warner related posts coming up here over the next few weeks.  I have an inkling that this might be one of those reviews which is very specialist, and might not attract much interest (1930s narrative poem, anyone?) but I shall plough ahead and see what happens!

I read Opus 7 (1931) by Warner mostly as a counterpoint to Lolly Willowes, but it is also interesting on its own account.  It's a narrative poem, about fifty pages long, about Rebecca Random - an unsociable woman who lives in an idyllic cottage, 'lives on bread and lives for gin', and has an almost uncanny ability to grow flowers:

Some skill she had, and, more than skill, a touch
that prospered all she set, as though there were
a chemical affinity ‘twixt her
stuff and the stuff of plants.
Indeed, the most obvious connections between Opus 7 and Lolly Willowes are the countryside, and this almost witchlike ability that Rebecca has.  Flowers spring up almost overnight, and make Rebecca and her garden something of a spectacle for the villagers.

But the topic is really just a way of exploring the dynamics of village life, especially the darker side.  Rebecca starts to sell her flowers - but only because she needs money for drink.  The villagers buy her flowers for their mantelpieces, parties, and funerals - but do not accept her; she engages in these exchanges, but does not talk to the people next to her in the pub, nor buy them the drinks they anticipate.  In a really interesting aside, Warner leaves the stance of anecdote-reteller and dips into the author's voice - comparing her addiction to writing and rewriting with Rebecca's reliance on alcohol:
And down what leagues of darkness must I yet
trudge, stumble, reel, in the wrought mind's retreat ;
then wake, remember, doubt, and with the day
that work which in the darkness shone survey,
and find it neither better nor much worse
than any other twentieth-century verse.
Oh, must I needs be disillusioned, there's
no need to wait for spring!  Each day declares
yesterday's currency a few dead leaves ;
and through all the sly nets poor technique weaves
the wind blows on, whilst I - new nets design,
a sister-soul to my slut heroine,
she to her dram enslaved, and I to mine.
I rarely read poetry, as you know, so perhaps I am not the best judge of quality.  I recently wrote a little bit about Warner's collection Time Importuned, which I didn't really like or dislike.  I felt I got a lot more out of Opus 7 - perhaps because it had a sustained narrative, and everything which comes along with that, particularly the foregrounding of character.  Once I had that all set in my mind, I could sit back and enjoy Warner's writing.  It was occasionally a little forced, and I didn't approve of all her attempts to create end-rhymes.  This was rather inexcusable:

But now Rebecca, wont to chatter ding-
dong with the merriest, and when drunk to sing

But in general I found it rather beautiful - her use of metaphor is quite striking, for instance.  This excerpt isn't to do with Rebecca, but concerns the aftermath of village life after the first world war - looking back to the war with quite a chilling, effective image.  Even with all the writing about the trenches which I have read (which we have all read, I imagine) this made an impact on me:
I knew a time when Europe feasted well :
bodies were munched in thousands, vintage blood
so blithely flowed that even the dull mud
grew greedy, and ate men ; and lest the gust
should flag, quick flesh no daintier taste than dust,
spirit was ransacked for whatever might
sharpen a sauce to drive on appetite.
I can't imagine any publisher willing to publish Opus 7 now, simply because of its form and length.  It's not long enough to be considered a novel in verse, but it is obviously too long to be merely a poem.  However I am glad that Chatto and Windus decided it was worth issuing back in 1931, in their lovely Dolphin Books series (which I collect when I stumble across them) - it's not my favourite book by Warner, but it is rather powerful and striking.  And, for a poetry ignoramus, rather an accessible way to enjoy the form, without forfeiting the qualities which make me primarily a lover of prose.


  1. I remember Warner and Maxwell discussing Opus 7 in several of their letters but I'm not sure I ever knew anything about it, not even the form it was written in. I was reading through your review and thinking 'yes, I'm one of those people who will never read this for myself' until I got to that last excerpt you quoted. That alone might push me to try this one day; it's certainly caused me to reconsider it, whereas before I was perfectly happy to put it on the 'no way I will ever read this' list (which is where I quite happily dispose of other narrative poems).

    1. It really is quite a wonderful bit, isn't it? I was very struck by it. And if anybody is going to be left nonplussed by narrative verse, it is I, so my reaction is a positive sign for everyone else!

  2. How strange - I drove down to Dorchester yesterday and wondered, as I went through Maiden Newton, exactly where STW lived - if not the place we found together. I thought 'Must pin this down with Simon, or it will drive me crazy every time I pass by.' And then you wrote about her. Creepy!

  3. I am not familiar with this but once you mentioned, "an unsociable woman who lives in an idyllic cottage, 'lives on bread and lives for gin', and has an almost uncanny ability to grow flowers:" she sounds like such a interesting character I think I could easily get interested in 50 pages of this. Will look forward to more. Pam

    1. She is a very interesting character - just the sort I am interested in.

  4. The New Yorker book blog had a post about her yesterday, with a podcast of Colm Toibin reading one of her stories and talking about her:

    (sorry - that's a really long link and I don't know how to do the small ones)

  5. Thanks for the link, Lisa, I will check that out!


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