‘Love Letter’ – George Barker
I bought a hardback Faber first edition of George Barker’s ‘A Vision of Beasts and Gods’ – couldn’t resist it despite the £25 price tag, and it was well worth it. In my Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, they mention 13 collections but not this one. Born in Loughton, Essex in 1913, he seems to have missed the critical acclaim. According to his second wife Elspeth, “he never did anything to promote himself, never went to literary parties, and was too difficult and argumentative to belong to anything like a literary school”, which is a good reason to like him already! I’m really enjoying getting to know his work. He was apparently “a prodigious drinker, and an habitual user of Methedrine and Benzedrine. He never owned a home – his sole attempt at property purchase ended when a fraudulent estate agent absconded with his entire savings and … fathered 15 children by four different women.” Guardian, April 2008
I write this to you, my dear love, from a valley
Where I have found, again, that ragamuffin
Who wore my boyhood cocked like a masher’s cap
Sprig-stuck and jaunty. I meet continually
This urchin whistling on the traumatic gap
Or skidding, across a cosmic melancholy,
Jokes, poems, stones. Rising early
I glimpse his huge simulacrum on the mist
Groping ahead of me, to whom the mystery
Of crystal gazing daybreak was never so clearly
Shown in a glitter of principles: that, far
At the distant side of of the moon, eventually
The houseproud labours of the zodiacal man
Find rest: find, even, peace: find a wholly
Innocent home and a holy house
Where, to his homer, ramshackle shadows
Open all prizes; where the sacred bird really
Inhabits a derelict roof, and, in silence,
Love governs the personal principality.
The poem starts with some typically evocative Barkerian images and Hopkins-esque sounds, subtly and quite beautfiully finding their resonances mid-line, across enjambement. The first sentence leads us to ‘found’ as the most striking sound in the opening – the first long vowel sound and the ‘f’ picking up on the ‘v’ of valley. The poet has ‘found’ himself as a ‘ragamuffin’ boy. The image is brilliant and starts what will become an important line of thought in the poem, where metaphor and liberal merge: he wears his boyhood (metaphorically) like a (literal) masher’s cap. (A masher was, I’ve discovered, a type of fashionable male: “a fop of affected manners and exaggerated style of dress ….who posed as a lady-killer” – OED). It is the swagger of youth, where youth itself is a badge, full of delusion (thinking himself a lady-killer) but ‘jaunty’: unaware of being so.
But he hasn’t just “found again” his boyhood; he has “found, again, that ragamuffin”. The commas suggest a further meaning – that once again he has found his boyhood. It is not the first time this image has appeared to him. In fact, he says, continuing the ambiguity, “I meet continually / This urchin”. Is this present simple or present continuous? Does he meet him in the valley now – the time he is writing the letter, or does that feeling regularly return? Again, in another brilliant image, his young self is “skidding … jokes, poems, stones”, “across a cosmic melancholy” where this time it is not only the metaphorical and the literal mixing, but also it is time and space that merge and muddle so that the time between the poet now (the poem was published in 1954 when Barker was 39) and the poet as a youth is reimagined as a “gap” – a “cosmic melancholy”. In fact that gap is “cosmic”: perhaps out of space and time altogether: that sadness we feel at loss of youth, the immutability of the past.
Then things get a bit more difficult. That boy – or “his huge simulacrum” (his image or, perhaps, his illusion) is “on the mist, groping ahead of me”. I think here of Frankenstein chasing his creature across the ice, but I’m not sure if Barker intended this. The poem is not a wish to return to boyhood. The feeling of childhood leads him forwards, but this time it is the boy who is only “groping” and, I think if I read this line correctly, the older “me” has realised something with a new, and deeper understanding. The colon followed by “that” suggests what follows is the new revelation: Our everyday, ridiculous “houseproud labours” come to an end, we break the “zodiacal” cycle of time and “find rest; find, even, peace” – those short phrases with their long stressed monosyllables and slowing caesurae, after the long preceding sentence give that sense of relief in the rhythm.
Freed of guilt in our “wholly innocent home” there is a space/time somewhere where “the sacred bird really / Inhabits a derelict roof”. The sacred bird, I think, is the Hamsa of Hindu mythology, whose flight, according to the Wikipedia entry, “symbolizes the escape from the cycle of samsara”. And so this slightly narcissistic love letter – sharing this revelation with someone or written to himself, or to the universe? – takes us to a time of peace, nirvana even, where “ramshackle shadows” (again this lovely Hopkinseque alliteration) bring forth “prizes” and “love governs” in “silence” a “principality” that is personal, not national-political.