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This report is taken from PN Review 244, Volume 45 Number 2, November - December 2018.

Christopher Middleton’s Cottage

The Customed Thews
John Clegg
Christopher Middleton spent the August of 1958 just outside the small Cambridgeshire village of Bourn, in a cottage rented from friends of his parents. He was thirty­two, and had more or less disowned his first two collections from Fortune Press (the earliest published when he was just sixteen). His ability was finally beginning to match his ambition; of the poems that would feature in the book he would come to see as his genuine debut, Torse 3 (1962), ‘At Porthcothan’, ‘Oystercatchers’, ‘Waterloo Bridge’ and ‘A Bunch of Grapes’ had all been composed around that year. But these poems, although they were certainly his best so far, lacked the invocatory strangeness which had attracted him to poetry in the first place. He was at risk of becoming a Movement poet.

The poem he wrote during that holiday, ‘Male Torso’, turned him onto a different path. Visiting his parents in Cambridge, he’d read a poem in the Times Literary Supplement by Rosamund Stanhope – an incredibly underrated writer, incidentally, who will feature in a subsequent column – entitled ‘Miniature Snowstorm’. Stanhope’s poem would be the major influence on Middleton’s; to her vision of childhood encompassed in a snowglobe, he counterposed a vision of adulthood encompassed in artefacts he’d seen in Munich’s Staatliche Antikensammlungen: the male torso of the title and the black-figure Dionysus Cup. Other motifs he borrowed freely from the limited sources he had to hand: the ‘bleating queen’ and ‘needle oars’ are taken from Tenniel’s illustrations to Alice Through the Looking Glass, which I suspect Middleton was ...

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